On or Off? Inside Michigan’s Motorcycle Helmet Law

By Aaron Bowron

On April 12, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation into law conditionally abolishing mandatory helmet use for motorcyclists and their passengers who are 21 years and older. A radical departure from past legal and policy considerations, the new law allows motorcyclists to indulge in the freedom – or folly – of riding helmet-free in Michigan.

Michigan has required mandatory use of helmets for motorcyclists and their passengers for more than 35 years. The law has been glowingly praised by some as a vital component to combat death and injury, and blasted by others claiming mandatory helmet use is an affront to personal choice and freedom, contrary to the free-spirited nature of motorcycling. Despite such opposition, the law has withstood legal challenge to its constitutionality and, until now, survived repeated legislative assault. During her tenure, Gov. Jennifer Granholm twice vetoed legislation aimed at relaxing mandatory helmet use.

The present law traces its origins to Senate Bill No. 291, sponsored by Sen. Phil Pavlov and introduced on March 24, 2011. As initially introduced, Senate Bill No. 291 exempted motorcyclists 21 years of age and older from mandatory helmet use, provided they had a motorcycle endorsement for at least two years or passed a motorcycle safety course.

Various amendments to the bill were proposed as it coursed its way through the Senate. One amendment sought to empower law enforcement with the authority to enforce compliance with the helmet-free exemption if the motorcyclist was stopped for another suspected violation of Michigan's Motor Vehicle Code. Another amendment proposed that the Secretary of State issue a sticker for placement on motorcyclists' license plates indicating that such motorcyclists satisfied the legal conditions for exemption of helmet use, providing law enforcement with a visual indicator of motorcyclists' legality to ride helmet-free. Each of these amendments failed.

The amended version of Senate Bill No. 291, ultimately passed by the Senate on June 28, 2011, retained the bill's original requirements, but required as an additional condition of exemption from helmet use that motorcyclists have a first-party medical insurance policy of $100,000. Furthermore, the amended bill placed a four-year sunset provision on the helmet use exemption during which time the Secretary of State was charged with conducting a study of motorcycle accidents resulting in injuries or fatalities, and reporting its findings to the legislature.

Ultimately, the bill passed by both houses and signed into law by Governor Snyder dispensed with the amendments requiring greater medical insurance amounts, a sunset provision and Secretary of State safety study and reporting obligation.

Under the new helmet law, a motorcyclist and passenger can ride helmet- free if a) each is over the age of 21 b) the motorcyclist has had a motorcycle endorsement for at least two years or passes a motorcycle safety course and c) the motorcyclist has a first-party medical insurance policy in an amount of at least $20,000. The law imposes no duty on a motorcyclist riding helmet-free to carry any proof that he or she has satisfied the legal conditions to do so, casting in doubt law enforcement's ability to enforce the new law.

Michigan's mandatory motorcycle helmet law firmly withstood legislative and judicial challenge throughout the years. The mounting wave of opposition fueled by those who perceived the law as an infringement on personal choice, however, ultimately proved too powerful a force to repel. For better or worse, that wave of opposition finally crested and cascaded, crushing the mandatory helmet law under its weight.

Aaron K. Bowron is a motorcycle enthusiast and an attorney at Traverse City-based Zirnhelt, Bowron & Wiggins, PLC. He can be reached at (231) 946-8630 or at abowron@zbwlaw.com.