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Maine Bikers and Health Advocates Clash over Bill to Extend Helmet Law
02/12/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The long-running fight in Maine over whether all motorcyclists should be required to wear helmets resumed this afternoon in front of the Legislature's Transportation Committee in Augusta. Current law says only riders or passengers under the age of 18 have to wear them. But a new bill would extend the requirement to everyone operating, or riding on, a motorcycle. As Jay Field reports, the measure is provoking sharp debate between public health advocates and cyclists.

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Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, a Biddeford Democrat, is sponsoring the bill, known as LD 66. Besides requiring all motorcyclists and passengers to wear helmets, the bill would hit riders with a fine of up to $500 if they're caught on a bike without one.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have universal helmet laws. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, Beaudoin noted, recommends that all states take this step.

"Head injury is the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes," she said. "The administration estimates that motorcycle helmets reduce the likelihood of a crash fatality by 37 percent."

Beaudoin says the law is also needed to cut down on all the non-fatal accidents that result in traumatic brain injuries.

"I have heard the slogan, 'We ride, we decide!'" Beaudoin said. "The problem is the decision not to wear a helmet goes beyond choosing to feel the wind in your hair. Who pays for the medical expenses for brain injuries because someone wasn't wearing a helmet?"

According to the Brain Injury Information Network of Maine, studies show that just over half of all motorcyclists have private health insurance. Marcia Cooper is a coordinator with the group. "For those without private insurance, most of those costs of their medical care are paid by us, the government," Cooper said.

These arguments, though, didn't sit well at all with the many motorcycle enthusiasts who showed up in Augusta to testify. Joshua Herndon drove down from Dexter.

"First, I would like to say that I am not against wearing a helmet or any other safety equipment. However, I am against my government mandating that I wear such equipment," he said.

But Herndon says riders are objecting to more than a potential violation of their personal freedom by the goverment. He says riders can also point to data to back up their belief that helmets don't make the kind of difference that advocates say they do.

A federal survery, for example, showed that a little over 4,000 died in motorcycle accidents in 2010. Herndon says 58 percent of those killed were wearing helmets, while 42 percent were not. And late last year, he notes, the National Transportation Safety Board removed motorcycles from its list of most-watched transportation problems.

"I believe that a comprehensive approach to rider training and motorcycle safety and awareness programs are largely responsible for the NTSB's actions, not mandatory helmet laws," Herndon said.

If Maine really wants to make the road safer for cyclists, Herndon says it could start by adding motorcycle safety curricula to the state's defensive driving course.


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