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State may ease helmet law

By Sara McManamy-Johnson sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Mar 24, 2014 at 10:05 PM

State lawmakers are eyeing a bill that would allow certain motorcyclists to ride without helmets.

House Bill 0044, introduced by Crossville Republican Cameron Sexton, would allow motorcycle riders ages 25 and older to obtain a special sticker waiving the state’s requirement to wear a crash helmet while riding.

To obtain the sticker, a motorcyclist would have to carry liability insurance coverage of at least $25,000 for one person, at least $50,000 for bodily injury to or death of two or more persons in any one accident and at least $15,000 for damage to property in any one accident. The motorcyclist would also have to have at least $25,000 of medical payment coverage.

Additionally, the motorcyclist would have to complete a motorcycle safety education course approved by the department of safety and must have been legally operating a motorcycle for at least two years prior to applying for the sticker.

The sticker would cost the motorcyclist an additional $50 each year, with $15 of that fee going to the issuing clerk’s office, $5 going to the state general fund and the remainder going to the impaired drivers trust fund.

Currently, Tennessee is one of 19 states that have a so-called “universal” helmet law, which requires all motorcyclists to wear crash helmets. The law dates back to 1967, when the federal government required states to enact the laws to qualify for certain highway safety funds.

By 1976, though, Congress revoked federal authority to penalize states for noncompliance, so states began to weaken the laws, applying them only to young or novice riders.

Today, 28 states require helmets only for specific riders, and three states do not require helmets.

“Tennessee’s universal motorcycle helmet law, enacted in 1967, has saved tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Dr. Richard Miller, professor of surgery and chief of Vanderbilt’s division of trauma and surgical critical care. “At a time when our state and our nation are attempting to reduce health care costs, this legislation, if enacted, will result in increased deaths and substantial financial consequences not only for the crash victims but for all Tennessee taxpayers.” 

Historically, states that relaxed their helmet laws saw a sizeable increase in injuries and deaths. In states that repealed or weakened their universal helmet laws, helmet use declined sharply and deaths and injury rose.

According to a peer-reviewed study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Pennsylvania had a 66-percent increase in deaths caused by head injuries and a 78-percent spike in head injury hospitalizations following motorcycle crashes. 

Fatalities in Kentucky increased by 58 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Florida the number of hospital admissions of motorcyclists with head, brain and skull injuries increased by 82 percent after its helmet law was relaxed.

Wilson County Sheriff Robert Bryan said he opposes relaxing the state’s helmet law.

“The numbers show it,” said Bryan. “You see more cases where it saves the lives.” 

According to AAA, voters seem to agree.

In November, AAA surveyed Tennessee voters, and 92 percent of respondents favored keeping the state’s motorcycle helmet law in its current form. 

“It’s clear that the majority of Tennessee voters don’t think the helmet law should change,” said Tim Wright, AAA Tennessee regional president. “Multiple studies of states that have weakened their motorcycle helmet laws show marked increases in both human tragedy—to the crash victims and their family—and financial costs.”

The 2013 Tennessee Public Affairs Survey was conducted online among registered voters in Tennessee from Nov. 19-27. A total of 607 residents completed the survey. The survey has a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 4.0 percentage points. Overall survey responses are weighted by gender and age to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the adult population in Tennessee.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates Tennessee’s existing helmet law saves 46 lives a year and $94 million. The CDC ranks Tennessee sixth in the nation for lives and economic costs saved due to helmet use. 

Wilson County’s Rep. Mark Pody said he has no doubt crash helmets save lives, but he believes adults should be able to make the decision themselves whether to wear them.

“I think anybody that rides without a helmet is not making the wisest decision that they should, but it is their right to make these decisions as adults,” said Pody. “However, I think that if they’re 18 or younger, it still should be required.”

He also said he would favor a stricter financial responsibility requirement for it.

If the bill makes it through to the House floor, Pody said he would support it.

“I don’t mind standing up for people’s rights,” said Pody.

Wilson County’s Sen. Mae Beavers, who proposed a similar bill several years ago while serving in the House, also said she would support the Senate’s companion bill.

The House’s Finance, Ways and Means subcommittee is due to consider the bill Wednesday, and the Senate Finance, Ways and Means committee is due to consider the bill Tuesday.

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