AUGUSTA, Maine — Another attempt to require motorcyclists to wear helmets in Maine met more stiff resistance Tuesday afternoon in the State House, though experts on head and brain injuries made compelling cases in favor of a mandatory helmet law.
This year marks the second time Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, has proposed making motorcycle helmets mandatory. In unveiling her bill, An Act to Require Motorcyclists to Wear Helmets, on Tuesday afternoon for the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, Beaudoin argued that motorcycle crash statistics from the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration are too troubling to ignore. Topping that list is the fact that head injuries are the leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes and that wearing helmets reduce the risk of death by 37 percent.
But that did little to convince the 30 or so motorcyclists at Tuesday’s public hearing, many of whom argued against the proposed law on the grounds of personal freedom and that helmets don’t increase safety as much as some people claim. And many pointed out that people die by the thousands in cars, snowmobiles and ATVs, but there is no effort for a universal helmet law for any of those vehicles.
“Automobile accidents kill close to 50,000 people a year,” said George Hrichak of Montville, who is president of the Garry Owens Motorcycle Club. “How fair is it for you to ask me to wear a helmet when you’re not requiring the drivers and passengers of an automobile to wear the same thing? There are much more of them on the road than there are motorcyclists.”
This isn’t the first time the Legislature has considered requiring helmets and not the first time Beaudoin has led the effort. Beaudoin sponsored a bill in 2011 that would have required motorcyclists with less than 10 years of experience to wear helmets, but that bill failed. Those efforts followed several previous attempts, including one in 2009 and another in 2005 by former Rep. Walter A. Wheeler Sr., D-Kittery.
Under current Maine law, riders age 18 and younger, as well as first-year licensees and those who hold learner’s permits, must wear helmets. In the 1970s, most states, including Maine, ceded to federal rules that withheld construction funds to states that didn’t adopt universal motorcycle helmet laws. Maine relaxed its law in 1977 and today is one of 30 states that don’t require all motorcyclists to wear a helmet.
Safety concerns weren’t the only arguments in favor of Beaudoin’s proposal. Some argued that motorcyclists with brain injuries cost society millions of dollars in medical care costs, particularly those who don’t have health insurance.
Preston Bjorn, a trauma nurse coordinator at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said a typical trauma patient at that hospital is charged approximately $37,000. That number increases to an average of more than $55,000 for motorcyclists and jumps to $93,000 for those who were not wearing helmets when they were in an accident.
Jessa Barnard, an attorney for the Maine Medical Association, reiterated that point.
“Unhelmeted motorcycle accidents cost Maine taxpayers,” said Barnard. “Some people may say that it’s an issue of personal choice whether to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. Just as with seat belt use, that is only true until we all have to foot the bill for someone who is injured in an accident. Unhelmeted motorcycle riders are twice as likely to suffer traumatic brain injuries from crashes.”
Marcia Cooper of the Brain Injury Information Network of Maine said her reason for opposing the bill has to do with the fact that she knows firsthand how horrible a brain injury can be.
“I believe in freedom and I will fight for freedom, but freedom always comes at a cost,” said Cooper. “One who rides a motorcycle without a helmet and gets in an accident, that irrevocably results in a total loss of freedom. I know too many families that have disintegrated because of brain injuries.”
Eric Fuller of Jay, chairman of the Maine Motorcyclists Political Action Committee, said creating a helmet law in Maine also would have an economic cost for the state.
“You can’t go anywhere on a motorcycle without spending $100 a day,” he said. “I think this would drop tourism drastically. Many riders go to the Vermont border, which has a helmet law, turn around and never drop a nickel in Vermont.”
Fulton Butler of Harpswell, past president of the United Bikers of Maine, was also police chief for the town of Wiscasset for 21 years. He said wearing a helmet should be a personal choice and that data from safety testing of helmets is sketchy at best.
“A helmet will protect a head form in a laboratory up to 13.6 miles per hour,” said Butler. “Unfortunately head forms do not ride motorcycles.”