Motorcycle helmet bill discussed, no vote

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The annual bill (it always dies) to allow motorcyclists and their passengers age 21 and up to ride without helmets generated an hour’s worth of questions and testimony Monday afternoon, but no vote.

The Committee on Technology & Infrastructure – formerly Roads & Transportation – took up the bill but ran out of time.

The bill’s sponsor is Del. Jim Butler, R-Mason, who spoke in favor of the legislation during an appearance on MetroNews “Talkline.”

Jim Butler

“I don’t have a study to show this but I know from personal experience when you’re not wearing one you just tend to be more aware of what’s going on,” Butler said. “You don’t feel that a little bit of level of safety of invincibility when you have a helmet on.”

The only additional condition the bill sets is that – as it’s drafted – the driver and passenger must be licensed bikers for at least two years. Under consideration when the meeting ended was an amendment to apply that only to the driver.

Bruce Martin, of Fairmont, a member of the board of the state Board of Risk & Insurance Management and the MoutainFest motorcycle rally board, testified for the bill, citing data from various sources.

Helmets may spare some form traumatic brain injury (TBI), he said, but the weight of them often causes whiplash. NASCAR mandated helmets be fastened to the cars after a neck injury killed Dale Earnhardt. “You trade one injury for another injury,” he said.

Fatalities do rise in terms of raw numbers, he said, but it’s a matter of proportion. For instance, Florida changed its helmet law in 2000. Motorcycle registrations doubled but fatalities rose by only 20 percent.

From 2005 through 2010, Florida saw 8,611 more injuries with a helmet than without, and 501 more deaths. The average fatality and injury rates dropped during the 10 years after the requirement was dropped.

About 53 percent of Florida riders ride without helmets, he said.

West Virginia has 45,000 licensed bikers, he said, and ending the helmet law could add another 29,000, with all the accompanying economic benefits of tourism, fuel sales and tax revenue. Right now, he believes many bikers who want to ride helmet-free are avoiding the state, and MountainFest has seen steady drop in numbers the past four years.

Testifying for the helmet law, Jill Rice, president of the West Virginia Insurance Federation, said insurance premiums are based on claims, and Michigan saw claims rise by 22 percent after it lifted its helmet requirement.

She referred members to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. NHTSA say, “If you’re ever in a serious motorcycle crash, the best hope you have for protecting your brain is a motorcycle helmet.”

NHTSA says helmets saved the lives of 1,859 motorcyclists in 2016. If all motorcyclists had worn helmets, an additional 802 lives could have been saved. Helmets are estimated to be 37 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle riders, and 41 percent for motorcycle passengers. “In other words, for every 100 motorcycle riders killed in crashes while not wearing helmets, 37 of them could have been saved had all 100 worn helmets.”

Del. Evan Hansen

NHTSA reports that in 2016, only 19 States (including West Virginia) required helmet use for all motorcyclists. The known helmet use percentages in fatal crashes ranged from 66 percent in West Virginia to 96 percent in Washington.

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, posed to Martin a question about safety training and Martin agreed that while training isn’t mandatory, it helps bikers ride safer.

When the committee resumes work on the bill later this week, it will take up an Hansen amendment to require no one may legally operate a bike helmet-free without completing a state-approved motorcycle safety course.

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