Missouri lawmakers came close to repealing a law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets last year, and some hope this is the year they finally get it done after decades of trying.
The House Transportation Committee heard two bills Wednesday that would allow riders older than 18 to choose not to wear a helmet as long as they have health insurance that would cover a motorcycle head injury. The bills are sponsored by Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, and Rep. Shane Roden, R-Cedar Hill.
Proponents of the bill said it was about the freedom to choose whether to wear a helmet, and the law caused out-of-state riders to avoid Missouri. Opponents cited studies that repealing helmet laws leads to fewer people using helmets and more people being seriously hurt or killed in traffic crashes.
Roden also argued the law is ineffective. The helmet law has a $25 infraction ticket, and courts can't issue a failure to appear if they don't come to court, he said. Lawmakers need to decide if they're willing to put people in jail for not wearing a motorcycle helmet, he said.
"If we have a law that we can't really enforce, let's get rid of that law," he said.
Helmets are meant to reduce injuries, not save lives, said Tony Shepherd, of the motorcycle advocate group ABATE for Missouri. The helmets can give riders a false sense of security, causing them to drive less carefully than they would without one, he said.
Opponents of the bill testified that helmets do save lives. George Tart, program coordinator for the Missouri Motorcycle Safety Program, said a helmet has saved his life and his friends' lives when riding.
"I took a rock coming over the windshield, hit me in my left eye. Full-face helmet, no damage, I ride on," Tart said. "I was riding with a friend of mine who told me about his experience hitting a deer at 60 mph, knocking him out. He slid down the road for a good 500-600 feet, face down. The helmet saved his life."
A federal survey shows a stark difference in helmet use in states that require it for all riders compared to states that don't. In states like Missouri that require helmets, 83 percent of riders used a helmet that complies with federal safety standards in 2018, according to the National Occupant Protection Use Survey. In all other states combined, only 57 percent used a compliant helmet.
Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna testified repealing the helmet law would undo the state's progress in limiting traffic deaths. Last year, 877 people died on the road in Missouri, the first year since 2015 that number was below 900, he said. The state saw 120 motorcyclists die last year, and 94 percent were older than 21, McKenna said. More than 500 others were seriously injured, he said, adding having fewer people wearing helmets would cause more deaths.
"Passage of this legislation would wipe out these gains in one, fell swoop," he said.
Both House bills, and one being considered in the Senate, require riders to have health insurance that would cover an injury from a motorcycle crash. The insurance requirement is meant to address concerns that riders would have catastrophic injuries and ask the state to pay for their medical bills. The insurance requirement would be enforced the same way vehicle insurance is: The law enforcement officer would check it after pulling the driver over, Roden said.
Serious motorcycle injuries can have medical costs from a few thousand dollars to more than $1 million, Tart said. Richard Bromley, a lobbyist representing the Missouri Insurance Coalition and State Farm Insurance, said having health insurance isn't going to protect anyone from a catastrophic head injury, and claims would cost insurance providers a "huge amount of money."
Joe Widmer, legislative coordinator with Freedom of Road Riders, which has long advocated for repealing the helmet law, said the state loses out on tourism dollars because riders will avoid the state rather than buy and wear a helmet.
Repealing the law would lead to more motorcycle gatherings and better attendance at the existing ones, he said. Shepherd agreed and said even individual riders can spend $100-$200 in a trip across Missouri.
"Down Lake Ozark, we've got a couple hog rallies. The states around us blow us out of the water," Shephard said. "There's millions of dollars the state of Missouri is blowing out the door by not having other states participate."
Joe Karr, vice chairman for Freedom of Road Riders Missouri, said his platoon sergeant in the Marines taught him something he thinks about to this day: "When it's your time, it's your time," he said.
He fought for the freedoms he holds dear, and he's asking for the freedom to not wear a helmet if he chooses, he said.
"I understand the numbers; I understand the statistics," Karr said. "But it all boils down to freedom of choice."
Missouri is among 19 states that require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, and its only neighbors that do the same are Nebraska and Tennessee. Iowa and Illinois are among the three states that have no requirement at all, while 28 states require helmets for younger riders — younger than 17, 18 or 21 years old, depending on the state — according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The motorcycle helmet law has been debated in Jefferson City for decades, and lawmakers file bills to repeal it every year.
Missouri's helmet law, and similar laws across the country, came into effect in 1967, when the federal government threatened to withhold highway funds from states that didn't. When the Department of Transportation moved to penalize the three states that hadn't by 1976, Congress took away it's authority to.
A Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, got close last year, passing both chambers and being sent to Gov. Mike Parson as part of an omnibus transportation bill. Parson was an advocate for repealing the helmet law when he was a legislator, but he vetoed the omnibus bill over other provisions, including one that overturned a 2015 law that exempted drivers from having their license suspended over failing to appear in court or paying the fine for a minor traffic violation.
In his veto message, Parson wrote the provision undid a "beneficial component" of the municipal court reforms passed after protests over police and courts in Ferguson in 2014, following the shooting death of Michael Brown. He also argued singling out St. Louis city and county was likely unconstitutional. His veto message did not mention the helmet law.
That provision Parson objected to was added as amendment in the house by Rep. Steve Helms, R-Springfield. Taylor said Helms would not be adding that as an amendment to the helmet bill this year.
"I'm hoping that we can put this into law this year," Taylor said.
Burlison also filed his bill again this year. It passed the Senate transportation committee in late January and has not yet been brought up for debate on the Senate floor.