Imagine a casino where patrons are required to pitch in and pay the losses of the most reckless gamblers.

This is the position in which auto makers, vehicle buyers and taxpayers are being placed as states shrug off public safety concerns to repeal motorcycle helmet laws.

Auto makers must keep a close eye on the helmet issue because they have picked most of the low-hanging fruit when it comes to automotive safety. Higher seatbelt use, restrictions on teenage drivers’ licenses and technologies such as airbags and electronic stability control have caused traffic fatalities to drop to their lowest level since 1949.

Now that drivers are strapped into safety cages with a wide array of electronic warning devices, reducing fatalities further will be difficult. Therefore, in their quest for continuous safety improvement, federal regulators are ratcheting up pressure on auto makers to address so-called behavioral issues such as driver distraction, which is responsible for one in six of all traffic deaths.

As carnage has decreased in other areas, motorcycle fatalities have risen as state helmet use laws have weakened over the past 10 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

In 1997, only one in 20 traffic fatalities was motorcycle related, but in 2010 the ratio now is one in seven, not far behind driver distraction, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. data. 

If motorcycle fatalities and catastrophic injuries continue to rise while other traffic casualties plummet, government regulators soon may tell auto makers they have to add helmetless motorcyclists to the list of humans they are required to protect from their own stupidity. And, like all new safety items, the technology will have a cost that will be passed on to consumers. 

People who text while driving, jaywalking pedestrians, drunk drivers and absent-minded parents who lock their children in hot cars or allow them to play in the driveway already are on the NHTSA’s to-do list for auto makers or are likely to be in the future.

Michigan is the latest state to repeal its motorcycle helmet law and the trend is spreading like wildfire. Only 19 states and the District of Columbia now have strict universal helmet laws.

At least four other states have repeal efforts in the works. No states currently are working to introduce more stringent laws, even though they are proven to be the most effective means of preventing fatalities and serious injuries. The CDC says helmets prevent 37% of fatalities nationally and 41% of deaths for motorcycle passengers.

Ignoring the facts and pleas from medical and safety groups, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder repealed Michigan’s 40-year-old helmet law in April, saying his decision was based on individual liberty.

Under the new Michigan law, motorcyclists who want to ride without a helmet must be 21 and have passed a motorcycle safety course within the past two years.

It is an ironic requirement. The first lesson taught in motorcycle safety classes is to always wear a helmet, as well as other protective gear, such as gloves, ankle-high boots and jacket and pants made of thick leather or strong textiles. I know because I have taken three such classes.

The new law also requires helmetless motorcyclists to carry at least an additional $20,000 in medical insurance, an amount safety advocates say is woefully low considering the cost of a head injury and subsequent long-term care can run into the millions.

A Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning analysis estimates the law's repeal will result in 30 additional fatalities, 127 more incapacitating injuries and $129 million in additional economic costs annually.

Anti-helmet law advocates wrap themselves in the American flag and say it’s all about “freedom.”

It is really about politics and money: Republican governors want to show their base they can spit in the eye of Big Government, plus they want to cater to local businesses hoping to benefit from increased tourism. The Michigan Licensed Beverage Assn., a trade group representing bars, restaurants and other liquor vendors in the state, was among the supporters of the repeal of Michigan’s helmet law.

By the way, the second thing taught in motorcycle safety classes is never to drink alcohol while riding. Alcohol is a factor in 29% of motorcycle fatalities, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

So in 2020, when you are driving your $50,000 radar-guided Ford Fiesta equipped with standard automatic braking, back-up camera, blood-level alcohol-sensing ignition, multiple child and pet heartbeat monitors and eight exterior-mounted airbags, be sure to give a big thumbs up to the guy on his Harley-Davidson Fat Boy when he zooms past you wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and flip flops.

Applaud his flag-waving patriotism and remember that when some say “Freedom isn’t free” it means they expect responsible people to pay for their freedom to act like children.

dwinter@wardauto.com