Arizonans go head to head on motorcycle safety laws

Motorcyclists who roll down Arizona highways agree that riding in the open air is one of life’s exhilarations. The disagreements become sharp when the subject of whether to wear a helmet – or whether the state should mandate helmet use – is on the table.

In an attempt to appease both groups, Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, has introduced House Bill 2052, that would require all motorcycle riders to wear a helmet, unless they pay a fee when registering the motorcycle. The fee would be determined by the Arizona Department of Transportation. Current Arizona law only requires motorcycle riders under 18 to wear a helmet.

Under this legislation, an officer could not pull over a rider if they weren’t wearing a helmet; it would be a secondary offense. A rider who is cited would be fined $500, with $200 going to the Highway User Revenue Fund and $300 going to the Spinal and Head Injuries Trust Fund.

Friese, a trauma surgeon who frequently takes care of head-injured patients, said the bill is a step in the right direction for improving public safety and reducing costs.

“Certainly any program that promotes safety on the road I would be supporting,” Friese said. “But I believe firmly that if we can persuade, or if we can increase the amount of riders wearing helmets, we would recognize, realize some decrease in healthcare costs.”

The legislation is a middle ground between achieving the freedoms riders want, and reducing the risks of head injury, Friese said.

Motorcycle helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 69 percent and reduce the risk of death by 42 percent, according to a report by the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a pro-helmet safety organization.

“I believe, and I listen to the motorcycle riders saying ‘we want to choose,’ ” Friese said. “I don’t believe it is a right to not wear your helmet. I believe it is a privilege, just as driving is a privilege.”

Cathy Chase, vice president of governmental affairs for the Advocates group, said that a compromise is a disappointment and a weakening of an already weak law.

In 2014, states lacking an all-rider helmet law saw 10 times more unhelmeted fatalities than states with an all-rider helmet law, according to information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Advocates report.

“All of our positions are based on research, and research has clearly demonstrated that all-rider motorcycle helmet laws are the most effective way to get motorcyclists to wear their helmets,” Chase said. “So our position, which is based on safety and research, is that all riders should be required to wear helmets.”

Head injuries are debilitating and sometimes have the effect of limiting the ability of members of society to function, Chase said, which then leads to a “ripple effect” of changing more than one life.

“Some of the motorcyclists who don’t want to be required to wear a helmet argue that they should be given a choice,” Chase said. “Their mantra is kind of, ‘let those who ride decide.’ The problem with that is that all taxpayers wind up footing the bill, so our response is, let those who pay have a say.”

The economic cost of motorcycle crashes in 2010 totaled $12.9 billion, and helmets save $2.7 billion in costs, according to information provided by the NHTSA in the Advocates report.

John Dreyfus, the designated lobbyist for the Arizona Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs, said helmets do not protect riders; helmets interfere with the ability to be alert and that is why he chooses not to wear one.

“When I’m riding I feel like I’m part of the outside world,” Dreyfus said. “I can feel the air, I can hear the sounds around me.”

Helmets also have blind spots that can lead to life-threatening mistakes, Dreyfus said.

In contrast, Mick Degn, the motorcycle task manager for the Arizona Strategic Highway Safety Plan, chooses to wear a helmet, and believes it is a minor part of larger efforts to being safe.

“The issue is, there needs to be more on safety gear when you’re riding a motorcycle because you’re in the open, you’re riding down a concrete blacktop road and you should have the proper gear,” said Degn, who is also the chairman of the Arizona Motorcycle Safety and Awareness Foundation. “The proper gear, to me, is a helmet, long-sleeved shirt, long pants, good boots, and gloves.”

Although Degn and Dreyfus differ in the personal choice of wearing a helmet, they both agree that wearing a helmet should not be a requirement for all and that House Bill 2052, is leaving out a major initiative in motorcycle safety promotion.

Dreyfus said that helmets are a “placebo” and that prevention is the most important aspect of motorcycle safety.

“What our position is, is that the best way to survive a motorcycle crash is to not get in it in the first place,” Dreyfus said.

Some of the most effective forms of prevention are taught in motorcycle training courses, Degn said. “You have to look at the whole package of motorcycle safety and awareness.”

During these classes riders learn the dangers of drinking and driving, how to react when facing obstacles, how to turn properly and how to choose the best safety gear, for example.

Degn said safety in the motorcycle community should be encouraged more. He said helmets should not be mandatory, but the effects of helmets should be learned through first-hand experience in a training course.

“A choice is the right way to go,” he said. ” We shouldn’t demand or create a bill that says we have to wear a helmet.”

According to the Advocates report, 19 states and Washington D.C. have all-rider helmet laws, 28 states have age-specific helmet laws and three states do not have any helmet laws.

The motorcycle riders who feel strongly about the ability to choose are the reason this bill will most likely not go very far, Friese said.

“There’s a minority of people who don’t want this to move forward and they’re very vocal,” Friese said.

But, Chase said safety is unlikely to be achieved until the most strict helmet laws, all-rider motorcycle helmet laws, are put into effect.

The current Arizona highway and auto safety status was given a “danger” rating in the Advocates report, suggesting Arizona strengthen its laws.

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