Motorcyclists criticize helmet safety proposals

Posted March 12, 2009, at 10:21 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Motorcyclists’ groups took a stand Thursday against legislation to restore a universal helmet law in Maine, saying lawmakers should focus on preventing accidents instead of mandating protective headgear.

“Indeed we are looking in the wrong direction,” Eric Fuller of the Maine Motorcycle Political Action Committee told the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which took up three motorcycle-safety bills.

Only motorcycle permit holders, those who have had their licenses less than a year and passengers under age 15 now are required to wear helmets in Maine.

In the most sweeping bill, sponsored by Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, anyone on a motorcycle must wear a helmet, restoring a law that was repealed in the late 1970s. Violators would be fined $500.

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The second bill would require motorcycle operators and passengers up to age 18 to wear helmets. The third, which motorcyclists supported, would require warning signs where rumble strips are located. Motorcyclists say rumble strips — rough spots along some highways designed to warn motorists when they are veering out of their lane — can cause them to lose control of their bikes.

The two helmet bills generated most of the testimony Thursday. Supporters — including doctors, advocates for the disabled, and motorcycle-accident survivors — said research shows helmet use saves thousand of lives by preventing head injuries.

“It’s not a sign of weakness to wear a helmet on the road,” said Sen. Peter Bowman, D-Kittery, a co-sponsor of Beaudoin’s bill. Other supporters said the bill would address an inconsistency in Maine law, which requires motorists to wear seat belts in cars and trucks but has no universal helmet law. Twenty states and the District of Columbia require all motorcyclists to wear helmets, and 27 states have laws requiring only some to wear them, they said.

Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, sponsor of the bill that would apply to motorcyclists up to age 18, said her bill would help young drivers develop a habit of wearing helmets while allowing older drivers to exercise their choice on helmets.

“I believe this is a logical compromise,” the Orono Democrat said.

Fuller, from the motorcyclists PAC, opposed both bills. He said state laws should crack down on distracted drivers who cause motorcycle accidents rather than require helmets. The Legislature is considering ways to discourage drivers from using cell phones and other devices that can be a distraction.

Michael Hodnett, president of the 3,000-member United Bikers of Maine, agreed, saying the bills “are looking at the wrong end of the crash.”

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