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The Social Cost

December 27, 2010 5 comments

In my memory, he was a reed-thin, almost delicate man, with curly hair and a slightly exasperated demeanor. He was obviously intelligent, and his lectures in my philosophy of law class were always rich in detail and balance. He tackled the big subjects — the death penalty, for instance — with the same even-handedness as others, always probing, always neutral. I was a little surprised when he revealed his love for motorcycle riding, and even more surprised when he expressed such disdain for California’s mandatory motorcycle helmet legislation, which was then on the books but not yet in effect. His opinion still sticks with me today: “I would rather not ride,” he said, “than ride with a helmet.” I’m a little sorry that I didn’t keep up with him after I left school; I don’t know whether he quit riding the following year or two when motorcycle helmets became obligatory for everyone. What I do still find interesting, though, is that the same arguments we tackled then in class over motorcycle helmets are now, nearly twenty years later, being broached yet again, this time in a huge war of words over bicycle helmets.

Elly Blue’s recent Grist article on bicycle helmets sets out the major combatants, with some particular focus on Copenhagenize.com‘s Mikael Colville-Andersen, calling him “the face of the anti-helmet movement.” I’m not sure that this designation is entirely accurate, for it ignores his many antecedents and philosophical compatriots. It also puts him in the uncomfortable position of being an “expert” on bicycle helmets, a moniker that he probably doesn’t want or deserve. Imagine the decision matrix of alien, asked to make a choice about helmet wearing, with the only inputs being these two TEDx videos about helmets, posted only a few days apart:

If I were that alien, presumably a bit risk averse and self-preservationist, I’d probably err on the side of caution, and go with Dr. Gergens’ advice to wear a helmet, even if she seems a bit smarmy and overbearing. She’s an expert on the brain; he’s a photographer who takes many photos of well-dressed women riding bicycles. Her qualifications go far beyond Colville-Andersen’s I-read-a-few-papers “research” résumé.

Any discussion over helmets really comes down to two questions, both related but with different arguments underpinning them:

► Should I, as an individual, wear a helmet?

► Should we, as a public policy matter, make helmet wearing mandatory?

These are yes-no questions, and their possible answers are straightforward:

Personal Choice Public Policy
I wear a helmet I want mandatory legislation
I don’t wear a helmet I don’t want mandatory legislation

The American cyclists I’ve met and read tend to have the ideological viewpoint represented in red: they (mostly) wear helmets while riding but think mandatory legislation isn’t necessary. I share the same viewpoint. I wear a helmet because I feel safer. This is my choice. But the broader issue of whether we ought to require everyone to wear them requires a far different calculus. Public policy is not about personal decisions writ large, but about the (too often negative) impact of collective decisions writ small.

Part of the problem may be that it’s difficult to tease apart motorcycle helmet arguments from bicycle helmet arguments. It’s tempting, of course, to equate the two, given that they both involve two-wheeled machines and both involve helmets, but there are real and substantial differences in their application. For those who haven’t seen them, the best anti-and-pro mandatory motorcycle helmet arguments can perhaps be summarized in two lines:

► Anti: The state has no compelling interest in making helmets mandatory because the decision to wear them or not affects no one else.

versus

► Pro: The state has a compelling interest in mandating helmets because the “collective social costs” (direct medical, reduced productivity, emotional distress) to the society are higher when unhelmeted motorcyclists get into crashes.

Given the U.S. Constitutional principle of substantive due process of law, which requires (among other goals) that legislation be “narrowly targeted” at a “compelling” state interest, the cost argument has done all or most of the work of finding a state interest. Without that, it becomes more difficult to show why the state has any interest in interfering in the private choices of individuals (the anti argument), even if you happen to think helmet-wearing is generally a good idea. It’s probably a good idea to wear shoes while walking on concrete, too, but passing a law to mandate shoe-wearing probably doesn’t make sense.

Whatever its shortcomings, the cost argument probably applies to the bicycle helmet debate exactly opposite to the way it is generally applied to motorcycle helmets; that is, requiring bicycle helmets has a higher social cost than not requiring them. If we accept that there are large societal benefits to cycling — which seems to be universally acknowledged even by people temperamentally skeptical of cycling — this conclusion depends almost entirely on the large question of whether mandatory helmet legislation tends to reduce ridership. The studies on this point are inconclusive, but generally tilt towards answering yes.

Studies aside, helmets must have a negative impact on cycling for the simple reason that they complicate the decision to ride. Helmets have to be purchased, carried, and worn. They are non-integral to the act of cycling, unlike, say, the way an arrow is integral to the act of archery. If they’re lost, they have to be replaced. I could go on…

In the motorcycle domain, there was a collective shrug over the (possible) departure of helmet-hating riders. The government didn’t really care whether we had fewer motorcycles on the road. The public good wasn’t enhanced or diminished by their absence. Motorcycles may reduce congestion, but by some metrics, they can increase (!) pollution, and they do nothing for public health. By contrast, the benefits of cycling mean that reduced ridership would have a negative cost.

Fortunately, at the moment I don’t know of any serious proposals to make helmets mandatory, at least not in California. Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa found himself booed when he mentioned such a proposal earlier this year. Maybe that reaction, and more like it, will keep it off the agenda for now … and for good.

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