Here in Thailand, people do something really stupid. Despite having a motorcycle helmet law requiring riders to wear helmets, most folks don't, and an estimated 93 percent of children riding with parents are helmetless. According to the World Health Organization, Thailand has the world's highest number of deaths from motorcycle accidents.

The WHO suggests that wearing a helmet correctly can reduce the risk of death by 40 percent and the risk of severe injury by more than 70 percent.

We have an expression for Thai recklessness of that sort: ngo mun khway -- stupid like water buffalo.

Anyone who has lived in Thailand for an appreciable length of time will have his own anecdotal horror stories regarding the motorcycle death scourge, but it seems that even those whose lives have been touched personally by such a tragedy adopt a "que sera sera" attitude when it comes to fixing the problem.

People who have lost family members still, unbelievably, ride motorcycles without taking the basic safety precaution of wearing a helmet. Women don't want to muss their hair and guys, well, guys will be guys.

So the problem in Thailand is not with the laws per se but with shoddy enforcement and a culture that has never bought into the truism that helmets save lives.

America has a different problem altogether -- legislation abrogating helmet laws.


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Recently, I was doing some background research about the use of motorcycle helmets and came across the odd case of the United States in which many states have retreated to the Dark Ages.

Currently, 19 states (including California) and the District of Columbia have laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear a helmet, known as universal helmet laws.

Laws requiring only some motorcyclists to wear a helmet are in place in 28 states. There is no motorcycle helmet use law in three states (Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire).

But a half century ago, nearly all states mandated helmets for all motorcyclists. In 1967, the federal government required states to enact helmet laws to qualify for federal highway funding. Crash injuries and deaths subsequently declined until Congress lifted the rule in 1976.

States have been gradually repealing or weakening mandatory helmet laws for over three decades. Fatalities from motorcycle crashes have more than doubled since the mid-1990s.

According to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, "laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets are the only strategy proved to be effective in reducing motorcyclist fatalities."

Yet some states just don't get it.

For many years, Michigan required all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. State legislators changed the law in 2012 so that only riders younger than 21 had to wear helmets.

A University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study found that reduced helmet use has accounted for approximately 24 more deaths and 71 more serious injuries a year in Michigan.

The study looked at 15,000 crashes from 2009 through 2013 and calculated that the risk of fatality is 2.8 times higher for riders not wearing a helmet, while the risk of serious injury is 1.4 times higher, largely reproducing studies in other states.

In a 2012 report, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that when a state repeals its helmet law or opts for less restrictive requirements, helmet use decreases and motorcycle-related deaths, injuries and costs increase.

The CDC reported that California saved $394 million in 2010 as the result of helmet use.

When California passed its helmet law in 1992, helmet use jumped from 50 percent to 99 percent. During that same period, motorcycle accident fatalities in California decreased 37 percent.

So while Californians can feel good that the state's legislators have not succumbed to pressures from the anti-helmet lobbyists that have infected other states, they should be wary so as not to become ngo mun Michigan.

Patrick Mattimore lives in Thailand and taught psychology for many years in the Bay Area.