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Assembly votes not to repeal motorcycle helmet law

The Associated Press
Tuesday May 14, 2002

SACRAMENTO — The Assembly on Monday defeated a bill that would have allowed motorcyclists age 21 and older to ride without helmets. 

Cyclists would have to carry with them proof of $1 million in health insurance to legally ride without helmets, under the defeated legislation. That was an attempt by the author, Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy, R-Monrovia, to moot opponents’ argument that society has a right to require helmets because taxpayers often help pay for injured motorcyclists’ treatment. 

Opponents weren’t convinced, defeating the bill 34-32, short of the 41 votes needed for passage. However, Mountjoy could bring the bill up for another vote. 

“We don’t tell skydivers they can jump out of airplanes without parachutes” even if they want to, said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. “This is the most troubling bill I have seen on the floor this session. Why in the world would we give people the right to kill themselves? ... If this bill becomes law, we are sentencing people to die.” 

Despite Mountjoy’s insurance requirement, the California Highway Patrol estimated the bill would cost taxpayers $1.93 million a year. The CHP said that would include $616,000 for training, $136,000 to enforce the insurance requirement, $605,000 because of a projected increase in fatalities, and $575,000 for additional emergency services. 

Those monetary projections can’t account for the loss of a loved one or breadwinner to survivors, opponents said. 

“He’s made that choice for himself,” if the rider chooses to ride without a helmet and is injured or dies, Mountjoy said. 

Supporters said wearing a helmet can increase the chance of neck and back injuries, impedes peripheral vision and hearing, and tire the wearer. 

Among conflicting studies and statistics offered by supporters and opponents is a study by the University of Southern California concluding that helmet use was the most important factor determining survival in motorcycle collisions. 

Those on both sides said the measure confronts a fundamental question of where individuals’ freedom stops and society’s control begins. 

“Do you believe in individual rights and individual freedoms, or do you believe in a nanny government?” asked Assemblyman Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks. “It’s an individual person’s right whether to wear a helmet or not wear a helmet.” 

California was one of three holdouts among states despite the federal government’s threats to withhold highway funding from states without helmet laws. Though the federal legislation was passed in 1966, California didn’t come into full compliance until 1991. 

The federal mandate was repealed in 1995, however. Now, 27 states have laws requiring helmets for at least some riders, usually those under age 18. Three states have no helmet requirement. 

The Assembly passed bills repealing the helmet requirement in 1996 and 1997, but the measures were defeated in Senate committees.