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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Biker Allies in Congress Want to Slam Brakes on Helmet Enforcement

Motorcycle enthusiasts and members of Congress are pushing to ban federal funding of local efforts to check helmet use or establish checkpoints that single out bikers.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., reintroduced his Stop Motorcycle Checkpoint Funding Act on Thursday, following the quiet introduction of a bill with the same name by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., in January.
The Senate bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. The House bill has seven initial co-sponsors; an identical version last year had 52 co-sponsors, 10 of them Democrats.
Only 19 states require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Most others require young riders – either under 21 or 18 – to do so. Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire don’t require helmet use.

This map created by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows state motorcycle helmet laws. Click through to the institute’s website for specific information on state laws.
The American Motorcyclist Association, which claims more than 200,000 members, is a leading force pushing for the legislation.
The association has fought against motorcycle-specific checkpoints for years, dating their origin to 2007, and has succeeded in helping ban the law enforcement tactic in five states. It also generally opposes state helmet laws.
“We don’t like the idea of discriminating against motorcyclists and stopping only them,” says former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., the group’s vice president for government relations.
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“There’s a history of more and more police departments stopping only motorcycles on the highway,” Allard says. He says New York received a two-year grant for $490,000 that’s been used to do so.
Allard says the association’s membership isn’t timid about dialing members of Congress, and the political power of bikers has previously been seen at the state level. In 2000, Florida repealed its requirement that all motorcycle riders wear helmets. Michigan did so in 2012.
An analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found in the three years before 2000, 515 motorcyclists died in Florida, 9 percent of whom were not wearing helmets. In the three years following repeal of the helmet law, 933 bikers died, 61 percent of whom were not wearing helmets.
Allard says the motorcyclist association’s membership generally feels that “if you’re an adult you can make your own decisions” about wearing a helmet, and prefers that federal funds go to training programs that aim to reduce accidents, rather than initiatives forcing bikers to wear helmets.
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Sensenbrenner echoed that sentiment in a statement, saying his legislation “protects motorcyclists’ rights and promotes crash prevention” and would prevent local cops from “using federal taxpayer money to corral them along the highway and check for infractions that do not cause crashes.”
Safety advocates, unsurprisingly, aren’t enthused about the bills.
“It will tie the hands of law enforcement,” says Catherine Chase, vice president of governmental affairs at the organization Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
“There are checkpoints to check on sobriety, there are ‘click it or ticket’ checkpoints to make sure people are wearing seat belts – why not ensure that motorcyclists are wearing legal helmets to protect them?” she says.
Chase says helmet laws “are constantly under attack in the state legislatures,” often from state-level organizations that call themselves ABATE (which stands for A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments).
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“If the groups are not successful on the state level, this is another way to approach it,” she says. “There is a very vocal group who are very motivated and do not want to be told to wear helmets. Their mantra is, ‘Let those who ride decide,’ but we say, ‘Let those who pay have a say.’”
Chase says the costs to taxpayers and society at large from accident cleanup and long-term health care for injured bikers justify mandatory helmet laws.
Allard says the bills, which are slightly different, are unlikely to see votes on the floor of Congress. He says there’s more likely to be a push to incorporate them into a large highway spending bill later this year.
“It is an issue that’s appealed to both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, because they don’t like the idea of discriminatory action,” he says.