More States Dropping Motorcyle Helmet Laws

Nearly every state once required motorcycle riders to wear helmets. But today, fewer than half do — and many are considering weakening their laws. Advocates for riding without a helmet have successfully lobbied for legislative change. Safety advocates say that's one reason deaths from motorcycle crashes have more than doubled in the past decade.

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Lawmakers in Maryland today began debating a bill to exempt most motorcycle riders from having to wear a helmet. Fewer than half the states now have mandatory helmet laws. That's the result of strong lobbying by motorcyclists and their advocates. But safety groups say weaker helmet laws are one reason that deaths from motorcycle crashes have more than doubled.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Every week when Maryland lawmakers convene in the state capital, they are greeted by at least a dozen guys in leather motorcycle jackets with long hair and even longer beards.

Mr. GARY PARKINSON (A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments): I've been here not missing a Monday night for over eight years.

SCHALCH: Gary Parkinson is a member of ABATE. That stands for A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments. Parkinson and Steve Sanner, aka Rigger, say they don't like being forced to wear a helmet.

Mr. GARY PARKINSON (Member, A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments): I left home a long time ago. I don't need my mommy tell me what I need to do, you know. And I don't need the state to be my mommy.

SCHALCH: ABATE members packed today's hearing. That's typical. And lobbying isn't the only thing ABATE does well, according to Pro-Helmet delegate Bill Bronrott.

State Representative BILL BRONROTT (Democrat, District 16, Montgomery County, Maryland): They go to the bull roasts and the fundraisers, and they help going door-to-door for people running for office, or running for reelection. They have, each year, gotten, you know, an inch closer to actually being successful.

SCHALCH: Motorcycle rights groups have been effective across the country. At one time, all but three states had universal helmet laws. Now, only 20 do.

(Soundbite of motorcycle engine)

Secretary MARY PETERS (Department of Transportation, Maryland): This is my Softail; it's a Fatboy model, 2000 year, Harley-Davidson.

SCHALCH: Transportation secretary Mary Peters is an avid motorcyclist, and a safety advocate.

Secretary PETERS: I will never ride without my helmet. I will never ride with anyone who doesn't wear a helmet - and not just while I'm riding with them, they have to wear helmet all the time, or I won't ride with them.

SCHALCH: She keeps a helmet in her office too, the one she crashed in. It's all dented in on one side.

Secretary PETERS: This could have been my head.

SCHALCH: And Peters says riders wearing helmets are 37 percent more likely to survive crashes.

Secretary PETERS: It defies logic, to go out and lobby and favor of removing helmet laws, when the data tells us very clearly that states that had removed helmet laws have a higher incidence of head related injuries, a higher incidence of fatality crashes after the helmet law has been repealed.

SCHALCH: For instance, in 2000, when Florida began allowing bikers, 21 and over to ride without helmets, fatalities and head injuries jumped more than 80 percent. Safety advocates say this hurts everyone, because nearly half of motorcycle crash victims are uninsured, and the average cost of treating a motorcycle-related head injury is $43,000.

State Senator JOHN CULLERTON (Democrat; Chicago, Illinois): It's clear that government pays for people's head injuries. They even have private insurance, they go through it immediately and become illegible for Medicaid, and we have enormous cost.

SCHALCH: John Cullerton is a state legislator in Illinois, which has no helmet law. ABATE doesn't want one. And Cullerton now's given up trying to get one.

State Senator CULLERTON: These guys are just too good.

SCHALCH: The federal government has been forced to retreat too. Back in the late 1960s, they told states to pass tough helmet laws or risk losing some of their federal highway funds. Motorcycle rights groups got that policy overturned. In the '90s, they stopped the federal incentive program as well. federal motorcycle rights lobbyist, Jeff Hennie.

Mr. JEFF HENNIE (Chief Lobbyist and Vice President, Motorcycle Riders Foundation): My organization went to the federal government and say that's wrong, you can't blackmail states to enact legislation just because you people here in Washington think that they need it.

SCHALCH: Hennie says weaker laws may mean more fatalities. But he says that's partly because people are more likely to ride motorcycles if they don't have to wear a helmet. Ridership has climbed as helmet use has fallen. Four years ago, more than 70 percent of riders wore helmets. Now, only 58 percent do. And that percentage will continue to shrink if Maryland and other states that have universal helmet laws repeal them.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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