HARTFORD, CT — Proposed legislation to require all motorcycle operators and passengers to wear helmets, regardless of age, met with stiff opposition by bikers at a public hearing on Wednesday.
The bill, HB 6048, is being proposed by Rep. Tony Guerrera, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, which held the hearing at the Legislative Office Building.
Currently, Connecticut requires those under the age of 18 to wear a helmet if they’re on a motorcycle.
Guerrera said he had some constituents ask him to take up the legislation this year, even though there have been similar attempts to pass legislation in the past that have failed.
Guerrera said part of the reason he is bringing the bill up this year is, “It’s scary out there. It really is.”
“When you got all these people using these phones, and texting and driving, not paying attention, you know — it’s not the motorcyclists, I know that,” Guerrera said. “You guys obey the rules, you stay on the roads, people veer into your lanes, you got to swerve around them and all that.”
Those on both sides of the issue claimed to have data showing they were right.
The most compelling testimony against the proposed legislation was given by Richard Paukner, former legislative chairman of the Connecticut Motorcycle Riders Association, who made the basic argument that it is a biker’s “personal choice” whether to wear a helmet.
“The state of motorcycling in Connecticut is at an all-time record high of reduction in accidents, reduction in fatalities, and reduction in accidents that yield the most severe injuries,” Paukner said.
The reason, Paukner said, is because of the mandatory motorcycle driver education classes riders must take before being licensed.
Paukner told the committee that there is no significant statistical difference in fatalities and accidents between the 19 states that have mandatory helmet laws for all riders and the 31 states that do not.
Disputing Paukner, and the other motorcyclists opposed to the legislation who packed the hearing room, was Garry Lapidus, director of the Injury Prevention Center for the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
“On average in our state we have about 1,600 motorcycle crashes reported by the police each year,” Lapidus said. “Of those 1,600 crashes, 50 Connecticut residents die each year.
“The Center for Disease Control estimates that it costs our state each year $407 million,” Lapidus said.
Lapidus said the states that have mandatory helmet laws “have high compliance with wearing a helmet — over 90 percent of riders will wear a helmet.”
In the states who don’t have mandatory laws, Lapidus said, the compliance rate is about “50 percent.”
Lapidus said in the most recent data he’s reviewed, from 2014, there were 180 deaths of unhelmeted riders in the 19 states that had mandatory helmet laws and 1,800 deaths in the states that did not.
Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, a member of the Transportation Committee, said one of the committee’s chores will be to sift through the conflicting data from both sides to see who is right.
Paukner said “it is not fair and it is not right” to single out motorcycle riders as a potential social burden if they get injured while riding.
“I’m going to use a visual to make my point,” Paukner told the committee, in referring to himself.
“Potential social burden folks — cigarette smoker. Potential social burden — I used to be able to close my jacket. Can’t close it no more. Potential social burden, I like to drink beer and other spirits.”
Paukner continued: “My point is simply this — it is totally ludicrous to single out motorcyclists, a small percentage of the population, a small percentage of users of the road, and small contributors to the so-called medical costs that could be saved which is in dispute to begin with.
“It’s wrong to single us out and simply say that we should regulate their personal behavior, remove their freedom of choice when we’re not going to outlaw tobacco, when we’re not going to regulate people’s diets, when we’re not going to put restrictions on the amount of alcohol one can consume.”
Also testifying against the proposed legislation was the current Legislative Chairman of the Connecticut Motorcycle Riders Association, Sandra Clark.
She said she agreed with Guerrera that one of the biggest dangers facing motorcyclists is distracted drivers around them.
“We would love to see more about no texting and driving,” Clark said.
Paukner and Clark said there are two other issues concerning the wearing of helmets by motorcyclists that are seldom discussed when the issue of safety is raised: first, they said a biker’s peripheral vision is hindered by wearing a helmet; second, they said, if a motorcyclist wearing a helmet is injured, it can sometimes be difficult for an emergency medical personnel to remove the helmet from the injured person.
The claim that there is no discernible difference in injuries or fatality rates whether people wear helmets was disputed not just by Lapidus, but also by Transportation Committee member Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr.
Kennedy said the committee has been given testimony that show there “are studies that show the level of injury of someone riding a motorcycle that has a helmet” is less severe than those who don’t wear helmets.
Kennedy said it is “important for our committee to understand that there is a social cost.”
Several committee members brought up the idea of possibly passing the legislation with a “grandfather” clause — meaning older bikers wouldn’t have to wear helmets, but younger ones, at an age-to-be determined would.
Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, was one of those who suggested such an idea, saying maybe “people below the age of 25” might make sense.
O’Dea brought some levity to the debate when he said he wouldn’t want his teenage son to be on a motorcycle without a helmet. “My son, god bless him, is an idiot.”
Leone, who said he used to be a motorcycle rider “years ago,” said what makes the issue a tough one for him and other committee members is when someone is badly injured or killed in an accident.
“It’s not that person who comes to us, it’s the family members that come to us. It’s the mothers who then come to us and say, “Why is it that we don’t have mandatory helmets in this state when others do. We get very emotional testimony from family members. But for this legislation that could have passed, my family member could have been here today.”