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House repeals motorcycle helmet law

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

By Martha Raffaele, The Associated Press

HARRISBURG -- Gov. Ed Rendell is poised to make helmets optional for most Pennsylvania motorcyclists after the state House passed a bill yesterday to allow motorcyclists 21 and older to go bareheaded.

The measure passed 118-79 and now goes to Rendell, who has promised to sign the change to the state's 35-year-old mandatory motorcycle helmet law. The Senate passed the bill 29-20 on June 16.

The bill mandates helmets for those at least 21 years old with less than two years of riding experience, but the waiting period would be waived for anyone who takes a rider education course. Those under 21 must wear helmets.

Motorcycling groups and other supporters have argued that motorcyclists should have the option of going without helmets if they choose. Medical and insurance groups have countered that relaxing the law would increase not only injury and death rates, but also the cost of caring for trauma victims.

In an interview with reporters following a news conference on his education plan, Rendell said he questioned opponents' arguments about the effectiveness of helmets.

"I've spoken to engineers who have told me that helmets have only helped in accidents at [speeds of] 15 mph or slower," he said.

It was not immediately clear how soon Rendell would sign the bill; he has 10 days to do so once he receives it. The helmet exemption would take effect in 60 days.

Prior to the vote, the House unanimously passed a resolution directing the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study motorcycle accidents and helmet use every two years. Some lawmakers questioned the wisdom of changing the law without the benefit of an accident study.

"I've got to get something straight here. We just passed a resolution to study the statistics on this, but we're going to move forward to pass legislation before we get a study back that was going to justify whether we should do this or not," said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill.

Among those in favor of repealing the law was Minority Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver Falls, a motorcycle enthusiast who said he often stops after crossing into Ohio, where helmets are not mandatory, to take his helmet off.

"It should be every rider's choice whether or not to wear a helmet in Pennsylvania," Veon said. "The state should not impose a decision upon thousands of free-thinking individuals."

The vote and Rendell's expected signing of the bill won the praise of the 7,000-member Pennsylvania Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education, which has sought to repeal the law since the 1970s.

"We're happy we won, but we're disappointed more legislators didn't vote for it," said Charles Umbenhauer, the group's lobbyist.

Motorcyclist Bobby George, 55, said he is looking forward to having the option of riding without a helmet legally.

"If it's a nice day like this and you want to go downtown and buy a pack of cigarettes, you'd just like to be able to leave it off," said George, of Mount Holly Springs, Cumberland County. "There are still going to be people that do wear them, and that's cool, because it's our choice."

Only 20 states still require all riders to wear helmets, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Three states have no helmet law at all, and the other 27 permit adults to ride bareheaded, although some require additional insurance.

Pennsylvania lawmakers came close to changing the state's law in 1998, but then-Gov. Tom Ridge vetoed that measure because it also made eyewear optional, a provision not in the current bill.

As state laws on the issue have fallen, helmet-wearing rates have dropped and motorcycle fatality rates have grown, according to NHTSA.

Motorcyclists without helmets are 29 percent less likely to survive a crash, and 40 percent more likely to die from a head injury, the NHTSA says.

Joe Carey, an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association, contributed to this report.

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