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Senate votes to repeal motorcycle helmet law; bill moves to House

Rendell vows to sign measure

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

By Laura Michalski

Motorcyclists are a step closer to being able to ride without head protection after the Senate voted last night to repeal the state's 35-year-old helmet law.

The bill, which passed in the Senate 29-20, now moves to the House for a vote. Gov. Ed Rendell has indicated that he will sign the bill if it passes in both bodies.

Motorcyclists from across the state were full of smiles and hearty hugs after the vote.

"It's about time," said Aliquippa resident Kerry Hawk, who was among the dozens of cyclists who stayed until 7 p.m. to hear the vote, which crossed party lines.

"This is the hardest of the three hurdles that we have to confront," said Charles Flack of Plum, former communications officer for Pennsylvania's Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE). "We've been working toward it for 30 years. When we pass the hurdle in the House, we've already been guaranteed by Gov. Rendell that he will sign our legislation."

The bill requires riders over the age of 21 to wear helmets if they have been licensed to operate motorcycles less than two years. But the two-year requirement would be waived if riders took a state-run motorcycle safety course. Motorcyclists with more than two years experience would simply be allowed to ride without a helmet if they so choose.

The vote came hours after demonstrations from people on each side of the debate.

Many ABATE members said they were aware of the dangers of riding without a helmet but simply wanted to be able to make the decision for themselves.

"We all know what we're getting into ... and that's our decision," Flack said. "We're willing to accept that risk. If you don't want to be that risk, wear your helmet."

Hawk, who suffered knee injuries when he was pinned between his cycle and a car's bumper, said his helmet didn't stop him from having a chunk of bone removed from his knee.

"I could fill that room full of motorcyclists who have been hit in the legs," he said, gesturing to the Senate chamber.

On the other side of the debate, Sen. Jack Wagner, D-Beechview, was joined by medical professionals and accident survivors at a news conference early in the day to discuss the effects of going without a helmet.

"The cost of care will go up. There will be more injuries, and the injuries will be more severe," said Marc Finder, medical director of emergency services at UPMC-Bedford.

The helmet mandate has been a point of debate since Pennsylvania enacted it in 1967.

The current bill comes nearly five years after a similar measure was passed in the House and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Tom Ridge because the law would have repealed a protective eyewear requirement.

Laura Michalski is an intern for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.

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