Saturday, June 30, 2007

MA Helmet Bill

BOSTON - Al Rizzo takes his motorcycle helmet off his head as soon as his bike touches the New Hampshire line because it's uncomfortable - and because he can.

"I don't like it," said Rizzo, owner of East Coast Cycle Designs in Methuen. "It's hard to see, and it gets hot. ... I think people should have the choice to wear them or not if they're over 21."

Some state lawmakers agree.

Current law requires all motorcyclists and their passengers to wear a helmet, but several bills heard yesterday by the Legislature's Transportation Committee would allow riders 21 years and older to ride without a helmet.

Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, said government shouldn't get involved in whether an adult decides to wear a helmet.

"It's like a seat belt," Baddour said. "I'd encourage every motorcyclist to wear a helmet like I encourage seat belts. But at the same time it's a choice. People over 21 have the capacity to make that decision. Government shouldn't be interfering."

That's what Amesbury resident Paul Cote believes. He's director of government relations for the Massachusetts Motorcycle Association. He said the issue is about personal responsibility.

"It should be about choice and personal freedom," Cote said.

It's also about properly training riders. Cote's group wants to increase the share of motorcyclists' registration fees that go into a state fund to subsidize motorcyclist safety training courses. It also wants the state to stop diverting part of that money to the state's general fund, where it is used for expenses unrelated to motorcycle safety.

Yesterday's Transportation Committee hearing followed a series of motorcycle crashes across the region. On Sunday, a motorcycle crashed into a Honda sedan on Route 128 in Danvers, about a quarter-mile from Exit 21. The motorcyclist was taken by helicopter to a Boston hospital. A helmet was found at the crash scene.

In May, a 31-year-old Boston man was killed when his motorcycle collided with a 2003 Ford Expedition turning off Massachusetts Avenue in North Andover.

There are 167,112 motorcycles registered in Massachusetts, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Last year, there were 49 fatalities among motorcyclists and their passengers, the agency said.

Even with a helmet law, motorcycle crashes are dangerous and costly, said Inta Hall, public policy consultant with the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts.

The association, which opposes making helmets optional for people over 21, pointed out that in fiscal 2005, there were 2,329 motorcycle-related traffic accident victims treated in state emergency rooms. Of those, 82 percent were of those treated were 21 or older.

Moreover, caring for the victim of a motorcycle accident is more expensive than the average hospitalization. In fiscal 2005, care for the average traffic accident victim cost $37,400. A motorcyclist ran up bills on average exceeding $49,000.

Cote doesn't disagree that there's a cost. But he says the cost is because motorcyclists critically injured in accidents are required to wear helmets that are insufficient.

The minimum standard for helmets is to withstand crashes up to 14 mph, Cote said, so they do very little to protect a rider in an accident. If anything, they keep a person alive so that they're a cost to society.

"If there's a cost, there's the cost of long-term care," Cote said.

But Hall said motorcycle crash victims who wear helmets survive their crashes and can recover.

"Only 7 percent of motorcycle crash victims die in Massachusetts," Hall said. "Whether you wear a helmet or not, we have very good emergency care in this state. I can't see where people say, 'Let me lie on the road side.'"

Some local people interviewed yesterday think helmets are a good idea.

Erik Valcanas of Haverhill said he prefers wearing a helmet when driving his red Kawasaki 750, even when he crosses the border.

It's a skull cap, so he admits it doesn't offer the best protection, but he likes the feel.

"It's not much more than decoration. But it still gives me a small sense of security," Valcanas said. "And it's better with the bugs."

But Valcanas still believes people should be able to choose.

Jason Danella, a Harley driver in Methuen, said most people he sees aren't wearing Department of Transportation-approved helmets anyway, and they take them off at the state line.

Others just make it a point not to drive in Massachusetts.

"I don't think the helmet law is keeping people safer," Danella said. "With people wearing the skull caps, it's almost pointless anyway."

Danella said he actually drives more slowly and cautiously without the helmet.

"When I'm not wearing one, I try not to speed or drive aggressively," he said. "With the helmet, there's a marked difference in vision and hearing your surroundings."

Joseph Richard of Haverhill said he wears his helmet only for fear of being ticketed.

"I'm all for no helmets. It's just a false sense of security," he said. "How much is it really going to protect you if you go down?"

Joe "Sarge" Komola likes riding on a motorcycle because it lets him more fully experience the scenery he passes through than if he were in a car. When he rides his bike through the state's back roads, he can enjoy the trees. He can hear the sounds and take in the smells that people inside automobiles can't.

And Komola doesn't want that experience interrupted by having to wear a helmet.

"There's no guarantee they're going to save your life," said Komola, a Tewksbury resident and vice chairman of the Massachusetts Motorcycle Association. "They make sure you look pretty in a casket."

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