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Vermont bikers want to void helmet law

By Anne Wallace Allen
The Associated Press

MONTPELIER – Sure, it hurts to get hit by a bug on the head when you're riding at 50 mph on your motorcycle.
That's happened to Dave Laramee. He's even hit a bird. But this week, he told lawmakers he still wouldn't wear a helmet if he didn't have to – and he thinks it's time Vermont changed its mandatory helmet law.

"I don't oppose motorcycle helmets," said Laramee, who owns Dave's Sled Shop in Irasburg. "I think it should be your choice."

Laramee and others testified on two bills that would alter Vermont's 1967 motorcycle helmet law, which now requires all riders to wear a helmet and eye protection. The bills would exempt riders 21 and older with at least one year's experience. One of the bills would also require those riders to show they had health insurance to cover at least half a million dollars in costs from one accident.

At this late date of the legislative session, there's little chance either bill will go anywhere.

Nonetheless, lawmakers questioned Laramee and others closely on the ins and outs of wearing helmets.

Many of the questions concerned the risks of a rider crashing if a large bug hit them on the head as they rode.
"Could it knock you out?" asked Rep. Janice Peaslee, R-Guildhall.

Laramee assured her a bug probably couldn't - and that helmets could do little to lower the risk of such incidents anyway. Safe driving - for motorcyclists and other drivers - is more important, said Rep. John Rodgers, D-Glover, a motorcyclist.

"What's primary is avoiding accidents, and good training," Rodgers said. "I think that has a lot more to do with safety on the highway than seatbelts and helmets."

Laramee added that helmets may give riders a false sense of security, encouraging them to take more risks - and said helmets make it harder for riders to see and hear.

And he and others said Vermont's strict helmet laws discourage motorcyclists from visiting.

"Large groups of motorcyclists come to New England each year, and they avoid states (that require helmets)," said Rodgers. "To pass this law would be huge for Vermont tourism. Motorcyclists are spending a lot of money in the neighboring states."

Twenty states and the District of Columbia require motorcyclists to wear helmets, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Twenty-seven states have helmet laws that apply to some motorcyclists, such as teenagers. Colorado, Illinois and Iowa have no helmet laws.

States started to relax their helmet laws in 1995, after Congress repealed a federal law linking highway funds to such laws.

Helmet proponents say helmets save lives, and save money on health costs. Glen Button, a spokesman for the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, said the DMV opposes the two bills because of safety concerns, and because the laws would be difficult to enforce.

"You don't know if a rider is 21 or under or has been riding for a year," he said. He added that New Hampshire, which doesn't require helmets on all riders, has many more motorcycle fatalities than Vermont.

The NHTSA says motorcyclists without helmets are 29 percent less likely to survive a crash, and 40 percent more likely to die from a head injury.

Advocates for riding bareheaded dispute those statistics.

"There's no data showing that helmet laws work," said Mark Laurencelle of Brownington, a former motorcycle safety instructor for the state.

Anyway, said Laurencelle and Laramee, it should be up to the riders to weigh the risks and decide.

"I want to be responsible for my own actions," Laramee said.

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