In recent months the time and effort to make transportation safer for the American public has been dramatic, new legislation has been introduced and even celebrated in bringing the U.S. closer to that end. Recent amendments to Illinois law for children riding in automobiles reflects this trend. But, when it comes to motorcycles, the state lags far behind the rest of the country.
In August of 2005 President George W. Bush made a visit to Aurora, Illinois to sign a new transportation bill. SAFETEA-LU or Safe Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users is a $286.2 billion transportation project designed to, among other things; improve the safety of our nation’s roads.1 You may remember the President coming to the Caterpillar-Aurora plant in Dennis Hastert’s neck of the woods. In his remarks before the signing, the President said:
"[T]his bill upgrades our transportation infrastructure, and it will help save lives. The bill establishes a safety belt incentive grant program, which will provide incentives for states to adopt laws that increase seat belt usage….In other words, this is more than just a highway bill; it’s a safety bill. The American people expect us to provide them with the safest possible transportation system, and this bill helps fulfill that obligation." 2
In 2004, Illinois furthered its own commitment to safety on public roadways; on January 1 the amendment to the Illinois Child Passenger Protection Act took effect.3 As it stands, all children from the age of eight to sixteen must be secured in a safety belt no matter their riding position in the vehicle. To the dismay of many six and seven year olds, the use of a child safety seat is now required for children until the age of eight.4 Many parents found themselves scrambling to purchase booster seats for children who had long forgotten them before the new regulation went into effect. While some parents may have complained and some may not even have complied, the new law was met with seemingly little resistance. As a result, accidents may not have been prevented, but according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the use of a belt positioning booster seat reduces the chance of a child fatality by 54 percent.5
In creating safer transportation, one area that seems to have been ignored by legislators in Illinois is the issue of children riding on motorcycles. Currently the Illinois vehicle code remains silent regarding children as passengers on motorcycles. The code provides that all drivers and passengers must wear protective eyewear,6 the passenger must ride behind the driver,7 and the motorcycle must be equipped and designed to carry a passenger.8 However, Illinois remains one of only three states with no motorcycle helmet law in any form. 9 Currently the driver of a car with a six year old child wearing only a seat belt (without a safety seat) may be ticketed for this violation.10 However, there is no fine to deter a parent from putting the same child on the back of a motorcycle, without a helmet, and driving down any highway.
A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education (A.B.A.T.E.) of Illinois, one of many State Motorcycle Rights Organizations (SMRO’s), is an organization supporting "the education of all motorcyclists and the general motoring public as the most effective method to reducing motorcycle accidents, injuries and fatalities." Dan Harper, the newly appointed State Legislative Coordinator for A.B.A.T.E. Illinois who also held the position as Assistant Legislative Coordinator for the last year, agreed to answer questions regarding the organizations positions. According to Mr. Harper, A.B.A.T.E. lobbies for issues regarding on and off road motorcycles, motor cross vehicles, and ATV’s. Mr. Harper says the motorcycle demographic has changed, increasing the age of the average rider and seeing a rise in the number of professionals taking up the hobby in recent years. There is a common misnomer regarding riders and their organizations, many of which are involved in numerous charitable causes. The "easy rider" stereo-type has been, for the most part, replaced. Harper attributes this, in part, to the cost of owning a motorcycle and the aging ‘baby boom’ population. A.B.A.T.E advocates education as the "single most important factor in significantly reducing motorcycle injuries and fatalities" by providing instruction to driver education classes on good safety measures and the State Rider Training Program.11
When asked about A.B.A.T.E.’s position regarding children and motorcycles in general, including helmets, Mr. Harper states that "A.B.A.T.E. is not ‘anti-helmet’, merely ‘anti-helmet law’." A.B.A.T.E. sees children riding on motorcycles as a "parental responsibility issue and believes the decision is best left to the individual." He then compared the decision to the time when a parent chooses to remove training wheels, "it should be individual to when the parent feels his/her child is mature enough to take that step." When asked about the apparent discrepancy between the child safety seat laws and the lack of comparable restrictions regarding a child’s safety on a motorcycle, Mr. Harper said the he felt that "the comparison should not be made" adding that "most parents make responsible decisions regarding their child’s safety…you cannot make a comparison between cars and motorcycles. They are apples and oranges." Citing A.B.A.T.E.’s position on educating drivers rather than imposing mandatory helmet laws he stated that "helmets are not accident prevention devices, they are injury reduction devices."
According to the NHTSA, "[p]er mile traveled in 2003, a motorcyclist is approximately 32 times more likely to die in a crash than someone riding in an automobile. [H]elmets reduce the likelihood of a crash fatality by 37 percent. [H]elmets are 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries and unhelmeted motorcyclists involved in crashes were three times more likely to suffer brain injuries than those wearing helmets. 12 ****In addition, contrary to what helmet law opponents may believe, there are no significant effects on a rider’s field of vision and no effect on a rider’s ability to hear while wearing a helmet, according to a NHTSA study.13
Given the statistics, it is no wonder that in 1967 the federal government passed legislation designed to limit or reduce federal funds for transportation safety and capital improvement projects for states that did not have universal helmet laws. Under the pressure, almost all states had universal helmet laws in place by the early 1970’s. By the 1980’s the states successfully lobbied Congress to remove the "blackmail language".14 Most states repealed entirely or amended helmet laws to include only minors, new drivers, those who can show proof of insurance, or some combination thereof. Twenty states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico currently have "universal" helmet laws (helmets are required of all riders), twenty-seven states have some sort of "partial" law, usually requiring helmets for those under 18.15 Illinois repealed its mandatory helmet law in 1970 and remains one of the few state "hold-outs" including Iowa and Colorado.16
In 1969, the Illinois Supreme court found that Illinois law requiring protective head gear of all riders to be in violation of the Constitution of the state of Illinois and Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.17 In People v Fries the court found that while the Illinois legislature had the authority to separate motorcycle riders into a separate class for the purpose of regulatory legislation, the matter of helmet use constituted an issue of personal safety only and was therefore beyond the police power of the state and in violation of the fourteenth amendment. The Court stating that the "laudable purpose…cannot justify the regulation of what is essentially a matter of personal safety."18
Failing to recognize the distinction between helmet and seat belt laws, Fries was eventually overturned in 1986 when Illinois’ mandatory seat belt law came under fire.19 People v Kohrig involved four defendants who were issued citations for failing to wear a seatbelt. There the court found that the state’s regulation of seat belt use was within the power of the legislature in the interest of the "general welfare…to protect citizens and their businesses in financial and economic matters, [and] it may be exercised to protect the government itself against financial loss. (citations omitted)" 20 In reference to a motorcycle helmet law, the Court further cited Simon v Sargent:
"From the moment of injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his job, and if the injury causes permanent disability, may assume the responsibility for his and his family’s continued subsistence. We do not understand a state of mind that permits plaintiff to think that only he himself is concerned"21
Recently, various organizations, including the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, lobbied and received $25 million of SAFETEA-LU’s over $286 billion earmarked for motorcycle education and awareness campaigns, including the organization of a motorcycle advisory council to advise the Federal Highway Administrator on road design.22 While the focus of a majority of these organizations seems to be on the admirable task of promoting safety through education, helmet laws have been historically met with major resistance by the motorcycle community.
1 PL 109-59, 119 Stat 1144, August 10, 2005
2 President Signs Transportation Act, Caterpillar-Aurora Facility, Montgomery, Illinois, August 10, 2005, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/05/20050810-1.html.
3 625 ILCS 25/4 et seq, Illinois Department of Transportation , Illinois Child Protection Act, 2003 Updates, http://www.dot.state.il.us/trafficsafety/childact2003.html.
4 625 ILCS 25/4(a)
5 US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Traffic Safety Facts, Motorcycle Helmet Use Laws. March 2005.
6625 ILCS 5/11-1404 (a)
7 625 ILCS 5/11-1403(b)
8 625 ILCS 5/11-1403(a)
9 Motorcycle Safety Foundation, State On-Highway Motorcycle Equipment Requirements, June 2004.
10 625 ILCS 25/4
11 "About Motorcycle Safety and Awareness", http://www.abate-il.org/pr/Motorcycle and Awareness.doc.
12 US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Traffic Safety Facts, Motorcycle Helmet Use Laws. March 2005.
13 Traffic Tech, NHTSA Technology Transfer Series, Number 147, June 1996, US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
14 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Helmet Use Laws as of July 2005, http://www.hwysafety.org/laws/state_laws/helmet-use.html
15 US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Traffic Safety Facts, Motorcycle Helmet Use Laws. March 2005.
16 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Helmet Use Laws as of July 2005, http://www.hwysafety.org/laws/state_laws/helmet-use.htm.
17 People v. Fries, 42 Ill. 2d 446, 450, 250 N.E. 2d 149, 151 (1969)
19 People v. Kohrig, 113 Ill 2d 384, 404, 498 N.E 2d 1158, (1986)
20 Id at 1166
21 Id at 1166 citing Simon v. Sargent, 346 F.Supp. 277, 279 aff’d (1972), 409 U.S. 1020, (D.Mass. 1972)
22 MotorCycles Riders Foundation, Press Release, August 10, 2005, http://www.mrf.org/articles/2005/05NR2005nr20presidentbushsignshighwaybill.htm
Melissa Piwowar is the President of Legal Support Solutions, Inc., a company providing paralegal support to law firms in the western suburbs of Chicago, in legal research, case file management, litigation support and corporate maintenance. She attended Judson College and is an AAS graduate (paralegal studies) from Elgin Community College, where she was awarded a Judge Ernest B. Akemann Scholarship and ECC Trustee Leadership Scholarship in Paralegal Studies.