AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine motorcyclists can continue to decide whether to wear helmets when they ride, with the Senate defeating a measure on Thursday to require helmets.
The vote was 25-9 and the House defeated the bill earlier in the week.
“We take our freedoms too much for granted in this country,” Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, told the Senate in opposing the bill. “It’s picking away at those fundamental freedoms we too often take for granted. I think this should be considered one of those freedoms.”
She said motorcyclists should wear helmets when they ride, but it should be an individual decision. Schneider also denounced the mandatory seat belt law as an infringement on individual liberty.
Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, said the seat belt law has saved lives and reduced injuries and is a good reason to support a helmet law.
“We hear this refrain of let those who ride decide,” he said. “We heard it at the hearing, but at what cost?”
As at the public hearing in April, there were several leather-clad members of motorcycle clubs in the halls of the State House lobbying lawmakers to defeat the bill.
Damon said the testimony at the public hearing overwhelmingly showed that using a helmet would reduce deaths and injuries. He said the cost to society was demonstrated at the hearing with testimony about one accident in which a Mainer that had not been wearing a helmet died after a long hospitalization.
“His total costs, born by the state of Maine, by you and me, was in excess of $10 million,” Damon said.
Sen. Lisa Marrache, D-Waterville, a family practice doctor, also supported the bill. She said all the medical studies she has read indicate wearing safety gear saves lives and reduces the severity of accidents when they do occur.
“Not wearing a helmet puts you at an incredible risk of head injury,” she said. “You may survive it, but you will not be normal afterwards.”
Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, a motorcycle enthusiast, argued there are risks in walking across the main street of many towns in Maine, and that individuals decide what risks they will take all the time.
“Remember, we all get to choose,” he said. “Whether it is an inalienable right or a privilege, how we conduct our lives. That’s what this bill is all about.”
Several senators said the medical expenses are only one of the costs to society with loss of economic activity from individuals killed or badly injured also a serious consideration.
Sen. Deborah Simpson, D-Auburn, said she was surprised to find the military urging passage of helmet laws. She was surprised at the losses the military is experiencing as the result of motorcycle accidents.
“More Marines died in motorcycle accidents last year than died in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said.
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring use of helmets by adults; 17 states, including Maine, have laws requiring some younger motorcyclists to wear helmets, and three states have no helmet laws at all.
Gov. John Baldacci has signed into law a measure sponsored by Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, that requires motorcycle operators or their passengers under age 18 to wear a helmet.
The law already requires helmets for those under 15 years old. A law requiring helmet use by all was repealed in 1977. The age 15 and under provision was added in 1983.
While the issue is dead for this legislative session, both sides expect another helmet bill will be before lawmakers in the future.