On a close vote today, the Tennessee House Transportation Committee approved a bill to allow adult motorcyclists to ride without helmets. The vote to send the bill on to the Finance Committee was nine to eight.
The bill has already passed in the state Senate.
Mike Hayes, the lobbyist for Concerned Motorcyclists of Tennessee, has worked toward the bill since January. He says it will give anyone 21 or older the option of wearing a helmet.
“Twenty-one and over would be exempted from the mandate to wear a helmet. They would have the option. We’re not trying to take helmets off of anybody. But we have data that is showing historical trends from 1978 to 2002, which, 1978 was the year after the repeal of the first federal mandate. Those historical trends show that in states where helmets are optional, fatality rates are lower.”
But in trying to fight off the bill, Dr. Julie Dunn, the director of trauma at Johnson City Medical Center, calculated both head injuries and fatalities against miles driven, rather than fatalities compared to motorcycle registrations.
“Certainly you’re going to have injuries, you’re going to have leg injuries, you’re going to have arm injuries, you’re going to have chest injuries. But most of those people return to productive society. But when you’re dealing with a head injury, these are people that require long-term care of either their family members, or in a nursing home, rehab costs, and etcetera. So it’s an enormous cost, really to society.”
The loose confederation of medical providers who traditionally oppose a lessening of the helmet law didn’t work against the bill. Sources say they will try to head the bill off in the House Budget Subcommittee.
The Fiscal Review Committee staff estimated costs based on Kentucky’s experience, which reported a seventy-seven percent increase in head injuries after repealing its helmet law. Medical costs might exceed twenty-six million dollars, the Fiscal Review staff said, although the state’s share was estimated only at “more than one hundred thousand dollars.”
Motorcyclist Mike Hayes insisted that the fatality rate he sees in the national figures is the real story.
“You can look at the national numbers, and you can see that nationally, the fatality rate for states that do not require helmets for all riders is point-seven-two, whereas the national rate for those states that do require helmets for all riders is about one, and that’s based on one in 10,000 registrations.”
Hays said there are 137,000 registered motorcycles in the state and 275,000 licensed motorcycle riders.
The bill is HB 1283 Hensley/SB 1877 Burchett. The Senate passed the bill April 9 by 19 to 11.