It’s become a familiar pattern in recent years: When a new legislative session opens at the State Capitol, a new effort arises to abolish the state’s helmet law.
That law, on the books since 1989, requires motorcycle riders to wear helmets.
Opponents have failed for years to overturn the law. A key reason for their failure is that a majority of Nebraska lawmakers are aware of another pattern, cited by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):
Whenever a state has weakened or done away with the helmet requirement, it’s seen an increase in its motorcycle fatality and injury rates.
Witnesses from Nebraska medical institutions and nonprofits emphasized that fact during a recent hearing on Legislative Bill 900, the latest proposal to water down the helmet law.
LB 900 would remove the helmet requirement for riders aged 21 and older — the age group that in 2014 accounted for nearly nine in 10 Nebraska motorcycle injuries.
Under LB 900, helmets would be required only for riders 20 years old or younger. According to the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety, that age group accounts for only 1 percent of the state’s licensed motorcycle riders.
A study by the NHTSA found that when states limit the helmet requirement to only those under age 21, helmet use falls for that age group. In Texas, usage fell to only 29 percent of young riders, gravely increasing their risk of injury.
Such considerations illustrate why driving isn’t a right but a privilege, with restrictions and obligations based on the public interest.
The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee voted 5-1 on Friday to send LB 900 to the full Legislature for debate.
During the committee’s hearing on the bill, Dr. Lori Terryberry-Spohr, a clinical neuropsychologist at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, cited the troubling medical results in Florida once that state removed its helmet requirement for riders 21 and older.
Hospital admissions for head injuries in Florida rose by 82 percent in a three-year period, and the number of injured motorcyclists admitted to hospitals went up by 40 percent. Compare that, she said, to what happened in Nebraska once the state re-adopted its helmet law in 1989 after a 12-year absence: Serious head injuries fell by 22 percent, a 1992 study found.
It’s telling that LB 900 itself acknowledges the severity of this problem. The bill proposes that Nebraska increase motorcycle fees to create a traumatic brain injury fund to help cover medical costs. Private insurance generally falls far short of those expenses.
The fee increases would generate about $1 million annually. Andy Hale, with the Nebraska Hospital Association, said that amount wouldn’t come to close to addressing the total need in Nebraska, which in 2013 exceeded $11 million.
Only 9 percent of that cost was covered by Medicare or Medicaid, Hale said, and as a result hospitals wound up bearing much of the costs as uncompensated care. A considerable share of the expense, he said, then becomes “a hidden cost or tax” shifted to insurers and private-pay patients.
Terryberry-Spohr, with Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, said Nebraska’s already-heavy hospital costs from motorcycle injuries would climb if LB 900 becomes law, because the rider-injury rate would surely rise.
And by no means does the personal harm fall only on the injured rider, she said, quoting a 2013 study: “Close relationships are at risk and many marriages and partnerships break down, increasing the risk of social isolation and subsequent psychological distress to the survivor.”
The Brain Injury Institute reports that the lifetime cost of a traumatic brain injury can reach $3 million, depending on the severity.
“I have yet to hear a patient say to me that they were glad they weren’t wearing a helmet,” Terryberry-Spohr said. But, she added, “They often say they didn’t understand the lifelong ramifications or didn’t think it would happen to them.”
Such considerations are why Nebraska has kept its helmet law on the books since 1989. State senators would be wise to keep it.