- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 1, 2011

LANSING, Mich. The classic 1969 rebel flick “Easy Rider” featured motorcyclists Captain America and sidekick Billy storming the Southwest, their open-road, hog-riding journey producing an iconic vision of generational freedom.

Now, thanks to a concerted lobbying effort, state lawmakers in Michigan may hand over the same free-bird feeling to avid bikers as they are poised to repeal the law mandating that riders wear helmets while cruising state roads on their Harleys and Yamahas.

Repeal of the mandatory helmet law was vetoed twice by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat. Her successor, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has said he will consider signing the latest effort almost through the GOP-dominated state Legislature if it is tied to greater insurance-reform measures. Those reforms, which encompass the state’s no-fault insurance law, are also up for discussion among lawmakers.

“We’re hopeful it’s headed for final passage, but it’s a question of timing, I think,” said Andy Solon, legislative director for state Sen. Phil Pavlov, a Republican who sponsored the original bill. The measure is back in the state Senate for consideration after the House approved its version in early November.

The move would make Michigan the fourth state in the country without any mandatory helmet laws, joining Iowa, Illinois and New Hampshire.

Not everyone is happy.

Polls show 80 percent of state residents support some kind of helmet rule, but “a small but vocal minority of misguided motorists has worked with single-minded zeal to repeal the helmet law and reward politicians who side with them,” the Detroit Free Press said in an editorial late last month. “[Gov.] Snyder should tell them to hit the road.”

The Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning has said that repeal likely would lead to a drop in helmet use from nearly 100 percent now to 58 percent. Deaths and serious injuries from motorcycle accidents would increase by 60 percent, officials said.

But officials at the Michigan chapter of American Bikers Aiming Toward Education (ABATE) say liberalizing helmet laws will provide a $1 billion boost in tourism for the state, and it questioned studies suggesting that mandatory helmet laws improve overall road safety.

“Although ABATE questions the mandatory nature of a law that forces the usage of self-protection equipment with questionable benefits, it is the use of doctored statistics, the misrepresentation of facts, and outright lies used by the safety-crats to support their position which is especially bothersome,” the group says on its website.

The House bill allows bikers older than 21 with a minimum of two years of riding experience to ditch their helmets if they buy a minimum $20,000 personal injury medical insurance policy and take a safety class. A similar Senate bill capped medical benefits at $100,000 for bikers.

“The biggest concerns have come from the insurance industry,” Mr. Solon said. “They have been working against this legislation for a number of years, but we’ve gotten some indication that the insurance industry might ease their opposition if some of the change to our no-fault system is reformed.”

Nationwide, 20 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory motorcycle helmet laws for all riders, while 27 require at least some riders 21 and younger to don helmets. Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire have no motorcycle helmet use law, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The federal government in 1967 set requirements for states to create helmet laws tied to funding for federal safety programs and highway construction.

Helmet advocates, however, decry efforts by lawmakers and advocacy groups to repeal state safety laws.

“Every time a state repeals it, it’s very predictable - deaths go up,” said Jackie Gillan, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Motorcycle helmets are the best protection for a motorcyclist. When you don’t have a law, you have very low usage, but with a law, it’s about 90 percent.”

Motorcycle groups have been successful at lobbying for freedom to choose when it comes to wearing a safety helmet, she said.

“Their mantra is, ‘Let those who ride decide,’ but safety groups say, ‘Let those who pay have a say,’ ” she said. “Studies show that something like half [of all motorcyclists] don’t have adequate insurance, so when they sustain a significant head injury, all of us in society are paying the costs of these injured motorcyclists.”

Mr. Solon, the legislative director, said two weeks remain in the session for senators to review the revised draft of the House bill. He anticipates that any vote on the repeal could occur early in January, when lawmakers return from the holiday break.

“The current betting is [that] the House and Senate will send a bill to the governor,” said Jack McHugh, a senior legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Will he sign it? Those who are talking don’t know, and those who know aren’t talking.

“There is a fairly large and passionate group that has mounted a sustained effort for more than a decade to get this done,” he said. “They have made a good case that this is indeed a matter of individual liberty versus government overreach.”

Mr. McHugh argued, however, that tying such a law to the state’s ongoing no-fault insurance conundrum is unnecessary.

“I would hate to see this issue get sandbagged by the inability of the legislature to resolve real substantive differences on the no-fault bill,” he said. “Linking the two, I would find it very unfortunate if on that basis that a passionate group that has worked so hard for this had the rug pulled out at the last minute.”

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