Motorcycle Helmet Bill Fails in Ark. Senate Committee

February 14, 2007

Helmetless motorcyclists need not fear arrest in Arkansas unless the sponsor of a measure to require helmets decides he can muster the votes in the state Senate to remove his proposal from a committee that declined to endorse it.

The bill, by Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, ran into the same opposition that similar bills have faced since the state repealed its motorcycle helmet law in 1997. Only two members of the Senate Transportation Committee voted for the bill Feb. 12.

Hendren said some riders deride helmets as a “magic ice chest.” But those supporting a requirement for helmets say it would cut down on hospital costs from injured cyclists, which can become the state’s burden.

“It’s not a popular position,” Hendren acknowledged before the hearing. “I’ve had people who have said unkind things. I’ve had people who say I need to be replaced.”

A Capitol police officer sat in on the hearing as motorcycle enthusiast Rodney Roberts portrayed the issue as one of personal freedoms. Roberts, who campaigned against the helmet law in 1997, showed the foam insides of one helmet, likening it to a cooler. During questioning by Sen. Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, Roberts said he wouldn’t wear a helmet if he knew he’d be hit by a car. Bookout shook his head.

“This has become an emotional issue and the facts have very little to do with it,” said Roberts, a motorcycle shop owner from Little Rock. “It’s a real joke. You can’t say if the helmet is going to save you or the helmet is going to kill you.”

In response, Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, said the law could help save lives.

“For you to have your freedom … there are going to be some people killed because there’s no mandatory helmet law in the state of Arkansas,” Glover said.

For 20 years, motorcyclists were required to wear protective headgear while riding. But after the federal government relaxed its own helmet requirements, the Arkansas Legislature repealed the helmet law in 1997. Twenty states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, require helmets for all motorcycle riders.

Since 1997, legislators have discussed reinstating the law, but the measure never gained traction in both chambers. In the meantime, hospital officials warned that not having a helmet law put more people at risk and left state coffers covering hospital treatments from traumatic injuries.

A 2002 study by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences showed motorcyclists injured while not wearing helmets cost the state more than $1 million in unreimbursed medical charges since the law was lifted.

Another study last year by The Med in Memphis, Tenn., showed the hospital had treated 114 Arkansans since 2002 who were involved in motorcycle crashes. A Med official at the time blamed higher patient counts – and higher costs – on Arkansas not having a helmet law.

Federal estimates say a surviving patient with a critical head injury costs an average of $171,000 to care for in the first year alone. Those costs often get passed onto the state as a motorcyclist’s insurance coverage ends, said Dr. Marvin Leibovich, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at UAMS.

“When their health insurance terminates because they have exhausted all of their benefits, who has to pay the costs for those individuals?” Leibovich asked the committee. “The citizens of the state of Arkansas because someone wants to have the opportunity to exercise their own freedom.”

In the end, only Hendren and Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy, voted for the bill in the committee. Hendren said he likely wouldn’t run the bill again this session, but stressed the importance of protecting the public even if it might affect what motorcyclists consider a personal choice.

“I believe if it is right, we ought to do it,” Hendren said.

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