Lawmakers want helmet law

Some Texas lawmakers want the mandatory helmet law brought back. DPS records show motorcycle deaths have gone up since the "no helmet" law was passed last year. A state lawmaker is calling last year’s partial repeal of the mandatory helmet law an obvious mistake and vows to reverse it. "I knew when this legislation passed that it was not going to work," said Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth. "I think it is obvious this legislation is a failure." The recent law - passed last year - says that if you’re 21, have a valid motorcycle license, have taken a motorcycle safety course, or have at least $10,000 in medical insurance, you don’t have to wear a helmet. But is wearing a helmet the safest bet? "It’s kind of a 50-50 deal. There’s just as many people killed by helmets because helmets will break your neck as are people who are saved by helmets," says Wendy McNichol from the Texas Motorcycle Rights Association.

Moncrief said the mandatory law needs to be reinstated for all riders when the Legislature next meets in 1999. "If someone else doesn’t introduce that legislation, I will," he said. Early state figures obtained by The Associated Press show an increase in helmetless riders dying in crashes in the first four months after the law changed Sept. 1, 1997. According to the preliminary figures, at least 13 - 35 percent - of the 37 motorcycle riders and passengers killed between September and December last year were not wearing helmets. That was more motorcycle-related deaths - and more deaths without helmets - than during the same months in 1996. At that time, 27 people died in motorcycle crashes, including two - 7 percent - without helmets.

Law enforcement officials weren’t sure whether five people killed last year were wearing helmets at the time of their crashes. Sen. Jerry Patterson, R-Pasadena, the main sponsor of the partial repeal, said unless it can be proven the deaths were caused by head injuries, the use or non-use of a helmet is irrelevant. "We can’t make public policy based on assumptions that they were head injuries," Patterson said.

Information about a person’s cause of death is not open to the public for 25 years unless a public official ordered an autopsy, according to the state Bureau of Vital Statistics. Using newspaper clippings and other sources, the AP located the cause of death for only one of the riders killed without a helmet last year. That person, 29-year-old Frank Robinson, died of injuries to his neck, heart and liver after an October 1997 wreck, according to the Bexar County medical examiner.

H.W. "Sputnik" Strain, a lobbyist for the Texas Motorcycle Rights Association, said the only reason more people are dying without helmets is because there’s a bigger pool of people not wearing them. He said the rise in deaths isn’t as great as repeal opponents had argued. "There’s nothing you can take from that," he said of the statistics. Under the new law, riders who don’t wear helmets must carry a minimum $10,000 in health insurance coverage or successfully complete a safety training course. Strain, who doesn’t wear a helmet, said his group will push for repeal of the insurance and rider-safety measures next year.

The Department of Public Safety does not track the state’s 13 million drivers by the type of vehicles they are licensed to drive. But the agency’s motorcycle safety division said there are more than 610,000 motorcycle riders in Texas. Clifton Burdette, coordinator of the DPS’ motorcycle safety unit, said after lawmakers repealed the mandatory helmet law in 1977 for riders 21 and older, fatalities increased 91 percent in the first full year. The mandatory law for all riders was reinstated in 1989 before it was partially repealed again last year.

Here’s a look at motorcycle fatalities from September through December last year, as compared to 1996 fatalities during the same period. Lawmakers made motorcycle helmets optional for riders 21 and older starting September First, 1997:

Total drivers and passengers killed, 37
Drivers with helmets killed, 15
Drivers without helmets, 13
Drivers with helmet use unknown, 4
Passengers with helmets, 3
Passengers without helmets, 1
Passengers with helmet use unknown, 1

Total drivers and passengers killed, 27
Drivers with helmets killed, 23
Drivers without helmets, 1
Drivers with helmet use unknown, 0
Passengers with helmets, 2
Passengers without helmets, 1
Passengers with helmet use unknown, 0

Source: Department of Public Safety

(Portions copyright 1998 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Compliments of: Elmer McKeegan TMRA II District Advisor 9