LANSING, MICH. — Rusty Bongard keeps a 1976 photo of motorcycle lobbyist Jim Rhoades sitting on the steps of the Michigan statehouse in Lansing, holding a sign that reads "Helmet Laws Suck."
Now 35 years after that picture was snapped, Mr. Bongard, a spokesman for the biker advocacy and safety group ABATE, thinks the time is right for Michigan's governor to sign a law repealing the state's mandatory motorcycle helmet law, giving bikers the freedom to decide what safety measures are right for them.
"We've been meeting and greeting governors and legislators for 30-some years and it's been a huge commitment," he says of the groups passion to keep the legislation alive. "All indications that we have now is that he is going to sign it."
The "he" Mr. Bongard refers to is Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who has had the legislation on his desk since April 2. Although he has said little about his plans for the bill, passed by the state Senate on March 28 by a 24-14 vote, advocates for freedom are ever more hopeful. Former Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, vetoed similar legislation twice during her two terms in office.
"Aside from all of the media hype that you hear, that it is because we want to feel the wind in our hair, that is not the case," Mr. Bongard said.
"Most of us who have been involved in this for a long time have studied and have experienced the value of the helmet in terms of safety," he said. "You always got the guy wholl say a motorcycle helmet helped save my life, but if the dead could speak there would be 10 for every one of those who'd say a helmet didnt do anything for them. We think training awareness policies by the state government to make motorcycle awareness and safety a bigger strategy is better than putting a Chinese-made plastic hat on your head."
Opponents of the bill cite public safety concerns and rising insurance and health care costs as reason enough for the governor not to repeal the current law.
Dr. Steven E. Newman, president of the Michigan State Medical Society, appealed to the group's membership to fight against the repeal, noting the impact of injuries incurred in motorcycle accidents.
"As a practicing neurologist seeing traumatic brain injuries daily, I am concerned that the legislature hasn't taken action to prevent this expensive, long-term, disabling, and highly preventable condition," Dr. Newman, said in a statement.
"Not only will it put thousands of lives at risk, but it will likely drive up health care costs and drive many victims into the Medicaid program at a time when our state can least afford it," he said. "After examining the metrics about motorcycle accidents and traumatic head injuries that could have been prevented by the use of crash helmets, I hope Governor Snyder agrees that vetoing this bill is a no-brainer."
Mr. Snyder's spokesman, Terry Stanton, said Wednesday afternoon that the governor was continuing to review the legislation and had not yet made a decision. "There is no indication of a time frame," he said, noting the governor had 14 days to consider the measure by law.
Helmet proponents, citing statistics that show there are more than 3,200 motorcycle accidents a year in Michigan, say safety is no joking matter.
Laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear a helmet are in place in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
Supporters of the Michigan helmet law argue a repeal would impact automobile drivers as well - in the pocketbook.
"As more and more costly insurance claims increase as a result of motorcycle accidents, especially since the occurrence and severity of injuries sustained in motorcycle accidents are often greater than those in automobile accidents, we can expect rates to go up for motorists across the state," Dr. Newman wrote in an editorial published in the Holland (Mich.) Sentinel.
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