Higgins: ‘We respect the right of riders to make a choice’

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Freedom of choice and highway safety were on a collision course Wednesday.

The Senate Transportation Committee considered Senate Bill 1067, known as the helmet bill. It would modify universal helmet motorcycle laws in Missouri, allowing riders at least 21 years old to ride sans helmet, excluding interstate riding. Currently 30 states have no form of helmet law, including Illinois and Iowa.

Helmet legislation has been an issue for at least 30 years, pitting freedom of choice issues against public policy and driver safety.

“If you do want to focus of safety the autos are the number-one cause of head injuries but you wouldn’t dream of requiring a helmet in an auto,” said bill sponsor Sen. Luann Ridgeway (R-Smithville).

Members of A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education (ABATE) like chairman Tony Shepherd believe a forced helmet law infringes on riders freedom of choice and that driver education, for both cyclists and car drivers should be a greater priority.

“Many accidents are caused by cars hitting us, education for everyone on the road is the key,” he said.

The absence of legislation on other activities perceived as dangerous caused discontent in witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing, who feel cyclists are being singled out.

“I’ve been thrown more times from a horse than I ever did riding a motorcycle, but a guarantee if you were to mandate that we take off our cowboy hats and put on a helmet they’d march on the Capitol,” said Steve Carol, registered lobbyist and Harley owner. “I take a chance when I get in my car and come to Jefferson City, I take a chance climbing up and down these marble steps that I could hit a slick spot, hit my head and get a brain injury, but you don’t see us walking around in helmets.”

Other than the personal damage a motorcycle rider can sustain, damage to the families of those riding without helmets was a major argument for those opposing the bill.

“I’m here because I was wearing a helmet,” said Patrick Pool. “My friend Jan wasn’t. It wasn’t her fault, a lot of the time it’s not, she went over the handle bars and hit the curb. . . My kids still have their dad, but now her kids don’t have a mom.”

The National Transportation Safety Boards Kathryn Higgins testified that head injury is the number one cause of death in motorcycle accidents and that helmet use is the “single critical factor in prevention” of head injury and that states that have a universal helmet law and then repeal it see a spike in not only cyclist deaths, but injuries and post accident hospitalization. Statistically, Arkansas, Texas, Kentucky and Louisiana saw significant drops in helmet usage after the states altered their universal helmet laws, with all states seeing an increase in accident related fatalities.

“Every time we get on a motorcycle we can die, and we know that,” Shepard said.

Higgins also said that the decision to repeal helmet laws is poor public safety policy and that the ‘life saving value’ is a strong enough argument for helmet laws.

“For 40 years Missouri has had a helmet law, and it has saved lives,” she said, “We respect the right of riders to make a choice, but to say there is not cost is inaccurate.”

Though last years version of the bill allowed for riders 21 and older total choice about wearing helmets, SB 1067 would only require a helmet on major interstates, thought the issue of interstates that are also state highways has caused concern about the bill’s practicality.

Other issues surrounding the bill included tourism dollars lost when riders who choose not to wear a helmet in the surrounding states avoid Missouri on cross-country trips.

“I spend over $25,000 a year on a motorcycle, and I had a blast, but I don’t like to ride here anymore,” said cyclist Michael Yoshida.”I bet you could have used that $25,000.”