By Kyle Cheney
State House, November 30, 2011…Advocates for motorcyclists, long stymied in their bid to make helmets optional for riders, invoked the Legislature’s change of heart on casino gambling – and the economic arguments that led to its recent passage – in a renewed push for a so-called helmet choice law.
“Four years ago we weren’t going to pass gambling in Massachusetts. Now we have. I think adults should have that choice,” said Paul Cote, an advocate for the rights of motorcyclists, testifying before the Committee on Transportation in favor of policies to allow motorcycle riders 18 and over to choose whether to wear a helmet.
Noting that pro-gambling lawmakers often pointed to the revenue Massachusetts has been losing to states like Connecticut, where casino gambling has long been legal, Cote argued that tens of thousands of Massachusetts motorcyclists leave the state every weekend to ride in any of the 30 states where they can opt against wearing helmets.
Of the 185,000 registered bikes in Massachusetts, he said, 30,000 cross the border each weekend, with bikers taking their rides – and millions of dollars in commerce – to neighboring New England states. In addition, riders in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island won’t come to Massachusetts because of the restrictions.
“It’s not a death wish. It’s a life choice,” Cote said.
Optional helmet proposals have been filed for more than a decade in the Legislature and have intermittently gained traction, even passing the Senate in 2006. But the bill has failed, in part because of arguments from brain injury experts who warn that motorcycle accidents are partly responsible for soaring health care costs and debilitating injuries.
“We don’t want to see more people with head injuries or brain injuries,” said B.J. Williams, manager of the prevention department at the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, in a phone interview.
Williams estimated that $12 billion was spent on head injuries around the country last year. “It’s proven that [wearing a helmet] reduces head injury by 69 almost 70 percent. At worst, we can prevent the brain injury. At best we can prevent death.”
Robert Edwards, a Framingham resident, urged lawmakers to reject the optional helmet proposal. Edwards said he has battled symptoms of a brain injury for decades, including epilepsy, short-term memory loss, attention deficit disorder, depression and anxiety. Edwards suffered a brain injury as a child after a fall, according to the Metrowest Daily News.
“Motorcycle riders only think about choice, not the consequences. The motorcycle helmet laws save lives,” he said. “We need to have a motorcycle helmet law nationally.”
Among the bills up for consideration by the Transportation Committee is a proposal filed by Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) to permit riders over age 21 to opt against wearing helmets. A bill filed by Rep. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer) would permit riders over 18 to ride without a helmet, as long as they have taken a safety course.
At the hearing, motorcyclist advocates also called for the repeal of a law that permits police to issue noise violations to motorcyclists based on a subjective assessment. Rick Gleason, legislative director of the motorcycle association, said those violations are “frequently abused” and often fail in court.
Rep. Chris Walsh (D-Framingham) said a group of motorcyclists in his neighborhood drive up his block and are so loud they often set off all the car alarms on the block.
“It pretty much drives me crazy,” he said.
Gleason said the motorcycle association doesn’t support excessively loud motorcyclists and has pushed a campaign in some communities dubbed “When in Town, Throttle Down” to encourage riders not to “rev it up so much.”