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Motorcyclists ask Missouri senators to scrap helmet law

A group of motorcyclists asked state senators Wednesday to repeal Missouri’s helmet law, saying they believe helmets may actually increase the dangers riders face by muffling the sounds of traffic.

Nearly two dozen riders testified to the Senate Transportation Committee in favor of a bill would repeal a law requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. The bill would limit that requirement only to riders under the age of 21.

Terry McNutt, a member of the motorcycle-rights group Freedom of Road Riders, told the committee that he has nearly collided with emergency vehicles on the highway because he was unable to hear the approaching sirens due to his helmet.

“Helmets can cause all kinds of damage to a rider,” he told The Associated Press after he testified. “Most helmets are full-face helmets, meaning they cover most of your face and your ears. When they do that, it makes it really hard to hear.”

He said full-face helmets contain padding under their plastic shell that can make riders so warm in the summertime that they have trouble controlling their motorcycle.

“Some of the helmets are so hot that they can even make you puke,” he said.

McNutt said even helmets that cover only the top of the head and ears — called “shorties” — can pull a rider’s head back when he or she is riding at a high speed, causing pain.

Gregory Dewitt Folkert, a clinical instructor of emergency medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, urged senators not to repeal the law. He said a helmet repeal would increase the number of riders who suffer serious and fatal head injuries.

Folkert said his father died at age 42 from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident, which he said had a devastating effect on his family.

“If you’re older than 42, I want you to think about where you were at 42 and if you’d have been happy leaving it there,” he said. “If you’re not yet 42, I want you to think about all the things you would leave unfulfilled, all the things you haven’t done yet.”

Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a similar helmet-law repeal in 2009, saying it would make riders less safe and would increase the state’s medical care costs.

In September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that motorcycle fatalities were down 16 percent in 2009 from an all-time high of 5,312 the previous year. Missouri saw a roughly 21 percent decline, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Katherine Cashell, a legislative coordinator for Freedom of Road Riders, said her group feels that training programs that teach techniques such as defensive riding are much more effective in preventing accident deaths than mandatory helmet laws.

“What we need to be focused on are the preventive measures, such as awareness and education,” she said. “Helmets do not save lives.”

Sponsoring Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, told the senators that repealing the law could positively affect the state’s tourism prospects. He said the current law discourages out-of-state groups from coming to Missouri, because seven of the eight states surrounding Missouri do not require helmets for all riders.

“If you have a group that wants to go on a ride, they’re going to avoid Missouri,” he said. “Those folks do spend a lot of tourism dollars.”

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