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Measure to repeal motorcycle helmet law in Nebraska returns to Legislature

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Measure to repeal motorcycle helmet law in Nebraska returns to Legislature

The perennial effort to repeal, or at least loosen, Nebraska’s law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets returned to the Legislature on Tuesday.

State law has required anyone riding a motorcycle to strap on a helmet since 1989, even as other states have reversed course and eliminated or relaxed their requirements.

Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, who is leading the push this year with 15 others, sponsored a bill (LB91) that would allow any motorcyclist or passenger over the age of 21 who has completed a basic certification course by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to ride without a helmet.

That would keep Nebraska one of the most restrictive states in the region – most states with some helmet law require them for riders under the age of 19 – while also giving riders the freedom to make a personal choice about their own safety, Hansen said.

“I would personally wear a helmet and would encourage everyone else to wear one,” Hansen told the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. “But this is a risk they are free to take.”

Backers of repealing Nebraska’s helmet law said the current statute denies them a freedom granted by other states, and said motorcyclists will avoid traveling through the Cornhusker State in order to not be burdened by the helmet requirement.

Former state Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Wakefield, who fought for similar measures in previous years, said the helmet law has resulted in Nebraska losing out on thousands of riders who would otherwise stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and spend their money here.

“A freedom has been lost and a right has been denied,” Bloomfield said. “We are due for a rebirth of basic freedoms.”

Randall Geer, a district leader of American Bikers Aiming Toward Education of Nebraska – better known as ABATE – said helmets will only do so much to protect riders, adding proper training on defensive driving techniques was more important to keep motorcyclists safe.

“I know my 700-pound motorcycle will never win a battle royale with a 3,000-pound car,” Geer said. “Because of that I do things that minimize risk. I have an endorsement on my license, I make a point to allow adequate space between me and the traffic in front of me, and I make an effort to avoid driving in other drivers’ blind spots.”

Geer said more than half of motorcyclists killed on Nebraska roadways between 2016 and 2021 did not have the proper motorcycle endorsement, adding education would save more lives than helmets.

Former state Sen. Kent Rogert of Tekamah, a lobbyist representing ABATE, said forcing riders to wear helmets doesn’t inherently make them safer: “One might think we’re saving a motorcyclist from himself by forcing a helmet on them, but we’ll never save a motorcyclist from an oncoming truck.”

What helmet laws do is reduce the “enjoyment of life” motorcyclists are seeking on the open road, he added.

Opponents of the bill represented health care professionals, first responders, insurance providers and trial attorneys, all of whom said the helmet law helped save lives and keep the emotional and fiscal costs down.

Eric Koeppe, the CEO of the Nebraska Safety Council, said a study by the University of Michigan found a more than 25% decline in helmet use in the year after the state partially repealed its law in 2012, and a 14% increase in the number of crash-related head injuries.

A mandatory helmet law “saves live and quality of life,” Koeppe said, and was supported by more than 4 out of 5 Nebraskans surveyed by AAA, a national auto club group.

Daniel Rosenquist, a family physician from Columbus who testified on behalf of the Nebraska Medical Association, told the committee that helmets also reduced health care costs that are often shared by taxpayers because just over half of injured riders have private health insurance.

After Nebraska’s helmet law went into effect, there was a 22% drop in serious head injuries related to motorcycle crashes, Rosenquist said, and helmets are estimated to reduce head injuries by nearly 70%.

Brooke Murtaugh, a doctor who manages the brain injury program at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals, said while she was sympathetic to the idea that riders should have the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a helmet those decisions affected others as well.

Individuals with brain injuries used to be cared for during hospital stays lasting six months, she told the committee, while the costs of care and insurance has now reduced the length of those stays to 2-3 weeks.

“The brain does not recover that fast,” Murtaugh said, which can have negative consequences on riders injured in crashes, their families and others.

Requiring riders to wear a helmet lessens the likelihood of them suffering traumatic brain injuries which could reduce their quality of life, ability to work, and to make their own medical decisions, she added.

Mark Richardson of the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys, told the committee that he had represented "too many” motorcyclists who had been injured in crashes, and that while he respected each individual, as well as the culture as a whole, he believed helmets were beneficial.

“I’ve sat across from enough neurologists in my practice that have looked me in the eye and said ‘this helmet saved your client’s life,’” he said. “I trust them when they tell me that.”

Hansen, in his closing statement before the committee, said the Legislature doesn’t issue mandates for other dangerous activities such as putting Christmas lights on roofs, walking on ice or “going out in a lightning storm.”

Nor do state lawmakers enact statutes regulating how many drinks an individual can have in a bar, or how much soda an obese individual can consume, even though the health care costs to treat related conditions can also be passed onto taxpayers.

“I don’t think it’s the right of government to protect people from dumb decisions,” he said.

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee did not take any action on the bill on Tuesday.

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