LANSING — Motorcycle helmets are no longer mandatory for all riders and passengers in Michigan, though there was confusion Friday about who could legally ride without one and how a more permissive law would be enforced.
Many hailed the change in state law — which advocates had sought for decades — as a victory for freedom and personal responsibility.
“I’ll still wear my helmet most of the time, but if I’m just going to go up to the 7-Eleven, I’ll be able to just put on my sunglasses and go,” said Kurt Wilhelm of Canton. “There’s nothing better on a nice summer day.”
Others predicted more highway carnage and higher insurance costs.
“It’s a terrible law,” said Steven Gursten, a Farmington Hills attorney who specializes in auto accident cases. “More people are going to die, more people are going to be catastrophically injured, it’s going to cost taxpayers a lot more, and there’s absolutely no reason for it.”
Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm twice vetoed similar legislation.
Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill, which received bipartisan support, on Thursday and announced the change Friday.
The law has immediate effect but sets conditions to legally ride without a helmet.
Motorcyclists must be at least 21 and carry $20,000 in medical insurance. Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, who sponsored the legislation, said the insurance is optional on motorcycle policies and sold in $5,000 increments.
Motorcycle owners said they were having a hard time Friday finding out what insurance they need and how to buy it. Officials at two companies that sell motorcycle insurance — AAA and Progressive — were unable to estimate how much $20,000 worth of medical insurance would cost.
Motorcycle riders who choose to ride without helmets also must pass a safety course or have their motorcycle endorsement for at least two years.
The requirements could be difficult to enforce.
Shannon Banner, a spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police, said the law does not require motorcycle operators to carry proof of the medical coverage, proof they have had their motorcycle endorsement for two years or proof they have completed a safety course.
“Officers may not stop a motorcycle operator for not wearing a helmet based on the mere possibility the operator or passenger may not be exempt from the requirement to wear a helmet,” the state police said in a an update sent to local police agencies Friday.
Just under 236,000 motorcycles are registered in Michigan and just over 560,000 residents are licensed to ride them. There were 125 motorcycle fatalities in 2010, up from 103 in 2009.
Michigan, which had required motorcycle helmets for more than 40 years, is the 31st state to make helmets optional. Snyder’s office said Michigan joins the Great Lakes states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
The Michigan chapter of American Bikers Aiming Toward Education (ABATE), which pushed for the change, said millions of tourism dollars left the state each year because of a law “which was a holdover from bygone days.”
Jim Rhoades, the group’s legislative director, said the key to motorcycle safety and accident prevention “lies in rider education, car driver awareness and license endorsement.”
But the Insurance Institute of Michigan, AAA Michigan and the Brain Injury Association of Michigan were among the organizations that said the new law is a mistake.
Based on experience in other states, Michigan can expect more catastrophic claims and higher vehicle insurance premiums, said Lori Conarton, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute.
Motorcyclists are at far greater risk of serious injury and death in accidents because they have little to protect them — unlike passengers in cars or trucks surrounded by tons of steel, seat and lap belts and air bags.
The $20,000 medical coverage will only apply when motorcycles are in single-vehicle accidents, she said. Under no-fault, claims from collisions between motorcycles and cars will draw from the comprehensive insurance car owners are required to purchase.
And $20,000 will be spent by many accident victims “before they leave the emergency room,” said Gursten, who believes Medicaid will have to pick up much of the difference.
Dr. Rich Reidy, an emergency room doctor at McLaren Macomb, a trauma center in Mt. Clemens, said there is a “silver lining” in the law.
“People on dialysis and end stage heart failure will have more organ donors,” he said, adding he wished another provision was written into the bill to require motorcycle riders to sign donor cards.
Even some Michigan residents who oppose the new law pointed to an inconsistency between allowing helmet freedom while requiring those in motor vehicles — even in backseats — to wear seat belts.
“If they’re going to make it our choice, then it should be in all aspects of safety,” said Jacki Burke, a Mayville manufacturing worker.