Missouri is the latest state to consider relaxing mandatory helmet laws for adult motorcycle riders. In this photo — taken from a video — motorcyclists head past the Lincoln Memorial during the 2016 Rolling Thunder motorcycle run in Washington. (Fredrick Kunkle/The Washington Post)
Reporter

Missouri lawmakers are debating repeal of the state’s mandatory helmet law.

It’s tempting to say that the bill’s supporters must not have anything to protect inside their skulls, especially since this isn’t the first time the General Assembly has gone down the repeal road. Last year’s effort failed.

The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Dan Brown (R), would allow motorcycle riders over the age of 18 to decide for themselves whether to wear a helmet. The bill attempts to address the potential public cost by requiring those riders to carry at least $1 million worth of insurance.

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, characterized such increasingly common repeal efforts as “irresponsible at best and deadly at worst.” She dismissed the argument that eliminating helmet requirements is a victory for personal freedom.

“Their mantra is, ‘Let those who ride decide,'” Chase said in an interview. “But our response to that is, ‘Let those who pay have a say.’ And when we say ‘pay,’ we’re not talking about financially.”

Motorcycles are already dangerous. In 2016, nearly 5,300 deaths proved that you’re 30 times as likely to die in a crash than a person in a car. But riding a motorcycle without a helmet seems particularly foolish, and not just because everyone’s texting and driving these days. Motorcycle riders sometimes die or suffer traumatic brain injuries in low-speed crashes that they might have walked away from if they had been wearing helmets.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says helmets saved an estimated 1,630 lives in 2013. The organization, citing a 2009 report by the University of Wisconsin Medical School, also says several studies have proved the obvious, that medical costs from motorcycle crashes are higher for riders without helmets.

Yet Missouri is only the latest state to go backward on helmet laws. Only 19 states and the District of Columbia require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, down from 47 in 1975, according to a legislative history compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

One reason for the change, as you might suspect, is Congress. A 1966 transportation safety bill tied mandatory helmet laws to federal dollars. But when the Transportation Department tried to make good on its threat of withholding funds from California and three other states that refused to pass such laws in 1975, Congress reversed. By 1978, 25 states had repealed universal helmet laws or modified them, usually by requiring that only minors wear them.

In recent years, several other states besides Missouri — including Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia — have considered relaxing or repealing their helmet laws, Chase said.

Some are helmet laws in name only. Delaware’s, for example, requires only that motorcyclists  “carry” helmets, not wear them. This would be like a law requiring you to fasten your seat belt in the event of a crash.

Chase said the repeal movement moves state by state, driven by small bands of bikers with one issue on their minds who sometimes get the ear of lawmakers, while the rest of the population that’s too sensible to ever consider riding a motorcycle gives a shrug. But there are countless stories of people whose decision to go without a helmet also had a devastating impact on family members who now care for them, she said.

“It’s more than just the one motorcyclist and his or her decision. That one decision — there is a tremendous ripple effect because of that one decision,” Chase said.

Brown didn’t respond to an email seeking comment or a call to his office.

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