As a group of humans who operate in a society we have compassion even for those who have made decisions we disagree with. We do not effectively end their lives by refusing them medical care because we are not savages. It is our social contract. As a result we each shoulder the burden, mainly through increases in health care prices.
Requiring by law that people follow what the public deem to be prudent guidelines, either in the form of mandatory protective gear or sufficient insurance for their recovery care, while operating on public roads is in effect a use tax. As such it more fairly distributes the economic impacts those who put themselves at greatest risk.
The argument that helmet or insurance laws violate our freedom could also be seen either as a socialist view in the sense that society must share the cost of individual healthcare for all (as is the current state of affairs) or unfettered capitalism in that we should repeal the aforementioned social contract so that only those who can afford health care should receive it – effectively leaving the injured to die in the street. Neither view is particularly American in nature.
The question government(s) should honestly ask themselves is ‘who should be responsible for the medical costs?’ Should it fall on all people equally through higher health care costs (effectively a regressive tax) or should it fall on the riders themselves?
Seen this way I am comfortable with either mandatory helmet laws or a mandatory minimum insurance concept (see Michigan) as each requires me as a rider to be accountable for my decisions, either by taking precautionary measures or by ensuring that I am not a burden on society.
Put into practice, it would seem that the helmet law is more easily enforced as it is plainly visible to police. However the mandatory insurance is likely more politically viable — we Americans love to have a choice. Two keys to the insurance concept are 1) establishing the value of the dollar figure so that it fairly reflects actual costs and 2) increasing the visibility of a rider’s insurance status perhaps through unique tabs or some other solution to improve enforcement. Here’s a thought: a ticket for lack of both helmet and insurance is $200. Of that, $100 goes to the government and $100 goes to an insurance trust for the rider.
In short, freedom, like power, requires great responsibility. If you are responsible enough to provide for your own healthcare costs as a result of your decision to ride without a helmet, ride on.