Tracy Benton has spent 22 years riding motorcycles, the past five in Missouri. Much has changed in that time — bikes are faster, more powerful and more popular. But in Missouri, one thing has remained constant for Benton: Helmet-wearing is required by law.
Benton, who leads the mid-Missouri chapter of the Freedom of the Road Riders, said he should be entitled to make up his own mind about helmet-wearing.
“I am 38 years old, and I feel I have the right to make my own decisions,” he said. “I think we should have the right to choose if we are going to wear a helmet.”
Although Missouri’s mandatory helmet law has existed since the late 1960s, the law has come under fire in recent years from proponents of motorcyclists’ rights. This marks the seventh consecutive year that state legislators are considering a bill to repeal the helmet law.
In 1999, similar legislation passed through both the state House of Representatives and Senate, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Mel Carnahan. But the new proposal, which would exempt motorcyclists older than 21 from wearing helmets, has the support of Gov. Matt Blunt.
“I believe the decision of adult motorcyclists to wear a helmet should be left with the motorcyclists, not state government. I will support legislation modifying the helmet law in Missouri so that motorcyclists would not be required to wear a helmet,” Blunt said in a written statement.
State Sen. John Cauthorn, R-Mexico, has actively tried to repeal the mandatory helmet law since taking office in 2001. Cauthorn think that the current law restricts motorcyclists’ freedom of choice.
“I don’t think we can tell every adult what to do with their life; they have to make their own decisions,” said Cauthorn, a co-sponsor of the proposal.
Opponents of the legislation argue that repealing the mandatory helmet law puts personal freedom ahead of personal safety.
“We understand the argument that is being made on behalf of the proponents of this bill, but we think that there is a serious risk and cost to not wearing a helmet,” said Dave Dillon, a spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association.
Dillon cited a 2003 study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration that found fatalities were fewer by as much as 40 percent in states with mandatory helmet laws. Missouri is one of 20 states with such a law.
Columbia resident and motorcycle rider Robert Wells supports the mandatory helmet law.
“I think a helmet is a good idea.If you don’t wear one, you put yourself at risk,” said Wells while browsing at the Columbia Harley-Davidson dealership.
Benton doesn’t feel that motorcyclists ride any safer if they are wearing a helmet.
“It is like driving a car. You are supposed to have control of your vehicle at all times. Taking off your helmet does not change how you handle your vehicle. It has nothing to do with it,” Benton said.
Under current law, Missouri cyclists who ride without a helmet are issued a citation and can be fined up to $25. However, those found to have violated the mandatory helmet law do not receive points against their drivers’ licenses.
Cauthorn said the state deals with motorcycle safety issues adequately through the state-supervised Missouri Motorcycle Safety Program. For $200, motorcyclists can hone their skills with a professional instructor. The classes, which are not required, are held at 20 sites around the state.
Last year, more than 4,000 riders participated in the program, according to MMSP, which operates under the supervision of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
“The motorcycle safety course provides knowledge and skills that the untrained rider typically doesn’t have,” said Terry Butler, the program’s project coordinator. “Riders who don’t take advantage of formal training don’t get an opportunity to have a professional safety instructor to evaluate and critique the sport. We can do this on the basic riding course in the couple of days students are with us.”
Still, Butler said he supports requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets approved by the Department of Transportation.
Randy Nelson, a Columbia biker, supports repealing the helmet law. For him, it’s all about choice.
“At times I will choose to ride with a helmet, and at times I will choose not to wear a helmet,” Nelson said.
Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, opposes a repeal. He fears such a move will wind up costing the state.
“The helmet law saves lives, it keeps people from the devastation of head injury and saves the state money,” said Graham. “A lot of times when people do suffer a head injury, they end up being cared for by the state. This is an incredible financial and personal expense.”
The Freedom of the Road Riders and other motorcycle organizations cite a University of North Carolina study that they say refutes the claim that repealing helmet laws have social costs. The UNC study found that motorcyclists who are treated for a crash-related injury were just as likely as other road trauma cases to have medical insurance.
Cauthorn concurs, saying that most motorcyclists have adequate insurance in the case of a serious accident. “The cyclists have insurance, and they want take care of themselves,” he said.
The Senate Transportation Committee has already approved the helmet-repeal proposal. The Senators will debate and vote on the bill once a calendar date has been set. If it passes through the Senate, the bill will go to through the same process in the House.