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Will Repeal of Michigan's Motorcycle Helmet Law Pave The Way For Gay Marriage? Don't Hold Your Breath!

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Congratulations Michigan. Seriously. Congrats all around for being the 31st state in the union to not require motorcyclists to wear a helmet.

Freedom reigns! We are taking our country back! Government just got a little smaller! Hooray! Get government out of our lives! Gov. Snyder rocks it!

My favorite response to the repeal of the helmet law is from Len Noe, 37, of Superior Township, who told the Detroit News: "This is a great day -- I've had a sticker on my helmet for years saying 'Let those who ride decide...People who don't ride don't get it...For me it's the closest thing to freedom that I've ever felt."

Really? The closest thing to freedom you have EVER felt? That's impressive for one piece of legislation. But okay, if that's how you feel.

The repeal of the helmet law really was a perfect example of a special interest political battle: the political party in office caved in to a tiny vocal minority out of some sense of scoring political points with its base. Why do I say that? National and Michigan-specific surveys of the public consistently place support of all-rider helmet laws near or above 70 percent. And a recent Michigan survey found 81-percent of likely voters supported the law as it stood.

There are 555,000 registered motorcyclists in Michigan, a not-insignificant number in a state of about 7.5 million registered voters. Since 2007, the number of endorsed riders has jumped almost 50,000, to 553,000, according to the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning.

What is remarkable is that it's not as if 100 percent of motorcycle riders were even in favor of repeal. I personally know about 10 registered riders in Michigan, five of whom said they were against repeal.

It is worth noting that the repeal of the law had support from both Democrats and Republicans in the State House. Stupidity, it seems, can be bipartisan when it wants to be. And there are Michigan Democrats who are looking for symbolic causes like this one to curry favor with libertarian-minded independent voters.

Yet there has been, and continues to be, an undeniable public shared interest in requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

According to statistics compiled in 2009, the last year we could find where the numbers were reliably added up, the frequency of motorcycle accidents increased for the 11th straight year, with a 2.2 percent rise in fatalities above 2007 to 2008. Head injuries are the leading cause of motorcycle fatalities. And the accidents are so bad that even a helmet is far from a guarantee of safety. About half the fatalities in Pennsylvania in 2008, for example, involved riders wearing helmets.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates for every 100 motorcycle riders killed in crashes while not wearing a helmet, 37 of them could have been saved had they worn helmets. Want more? A rider without a helmet is 40 percent more likely to suffer a fatal head injury and 15 percent more likely to incur a nonfatal head injury than a helmeted motorcyclist, according to NHTSA.

Oh wait, NHTSA can't be trusted because it is a government entity. Um ... just like Medicaid, which will be picking up the tab for some of these cyclists who wreck their bikes and themselves without adequate insurance to care for their vegetating bodies.

I've seen stickers on helmets and motorcycles that read "Let Those Who Ride Decide." The trouble with that idea is that riders are not in the equation alone.

The repeal of the helmet law doesn't just affect riders too stupid to take care of themselves. Drivers of automotive vehicles who may be involved in a car-against-motorcycle accident have rights in this debate -- rights to which Gov. Snyder was blind and deaf. The difference between injuring a motorcycle rider and killing one is a life-changing tragedy for all -- the rider, his or her family and the person in the car involved.

Besides the trauma to the driver who accidentally creams and kills a motorcyclist, those who don't have adequate insurance to handle traumatic brain injury care become a burden on the rest of the taxpayers. (In case you wondering, traumatic brain injuries are the most common injury suffered by victims of motorcycle accidents.)

The new law requires riders to carry $20,000 worth of additional insurance in the event of injury and hospitalization. There are many problems with this. The first is that it's not nearly enough. My knee replacement, with a three-day hospital stay and no complications, cost $36,000. Many, if not most, motorcycle riders still aren't adequately insured to deal with an extended stay in the hospital with a brain injury.

Second, I cannot see police pulling motorcyclists over to see that they are properly insured. That means a lot of riders will take off the helmet without getting even the increased level of insurance required by the new law.

Now, back to the politics and what this really is about.

In 2004, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage and civil unions. But the tide of public opinion has clearly changed. A poll in 2009 showed that 64 percent of Michigan residents approved of same-sex unions and almost half had approved full marriage rights. That means that some 4.9 million Michigan residents are generally in favor of gay residents having same-sex unions and marriage recognized.

Why do I bring up this seemingly unrelated issue? If you generously estimate that 65 percent of all Michigan motorcycle riders wanted the helmet law repealed, then the legislature and governor just got government out of the lives of 65 percent of motorcyclists -- possibly as few as tens of thousands of riders -- who will actually choose to ride without a helmet against the wishes of 81 percent of Michigan residents.

Stay with me. Now, how many people think that this same Republican legislature and governor should move to get government out of the lives and freedoms of gay Michiganders who wish to choose their own domestic partners and form their own legally recognized families? The desire for marriage rights certainly seems consistent with the desire to have the helmet law repealed; residents want government to recognize they should have the freedom to choose their lot.

I would argue, though, that while helmetless motorcycle riders pose a public nuisance and likely drain on Medicaid funds in future, I'm hard pressed to come up with anyone who is adversely affected by having same-sex unions recognized by the state.

Don't hold your breath about a repeal of the same-sex union ban, though. The repeal of the helmet law had nothing to do with public good. It is a symbolic victory for Republicans. How else can it be explained in the face of overwhelming public opposition?

It's part of a canvas of policies and legislation that includes unrestricted gun and ammunition laws, including the sale of large clips for semi-automatic and automatic guns; voter suppression laws; anti-abortion laws that nibble away at Roe vs. Wade; and so on.

Freedom, indeed.