AUGUSTA — The latest proposal to again make helmet use mandatory for all Maine motorcyclists was framed by supporters Tuesday as a public-safety issue and by opponents as a matter of personal freedom.
Medical groups joined brain injury survivors and others in asking the Transportation Committee to pass the bill sponsored by Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, the Biddeford Democrat whose similar bill in 2009 was rejected.
The Maine Medical Association’s associate general counsel, Jessa Barnard, said helmets reduce the risk of head injuries by 69 percent and the number of deaths in a motorcycle crash by 37 percent.
“We also know that partial helmet laws like Maine’s, that apply to minors or young adults, don’t work as well as universal helmet laws,” Barnard told the committee. She said young people are less likely to comply with laws that are harder to enforce, in this case because it’s hard for police to tell from a distance who is in violation.
Maine passed a law requiring the use of helmets in 1967, but it was repealed in 1977. In the meantime, numerous attempted to reinstate the universal law have been shot down as motorcyclists maintain a unified political presence.
Current Maine law requires people under 18 to wear a helmet when operating or riding as a passenger on a motorcycle. The law also requires helmet use by those operating under a learner’s permit or within one year of completing a driving test, and any passengers.
Nineteen states have universal motorcycle helmet laws, which apply to everyone, according to the federal government. In New England, they include Massachusetts and Vermont.
Ralph Poland of Auburn, whose brain injury was caused by strokes, said a helmet law can prevent others from a condition he said affects speech, hearing, memory, smell, taste and vision. “Just trying to think hurts,” Poland said.
He and others noted that the state imposes similar safety restrictions on motorists, including seat belts in automobiles.
None of those who identified themselves as motorcyclists testified in favor of the bill. Opponents, who made it clear they don’t want to stop anyone from wearing a helmet, said the proposed mandate is an issue of freedom and that helmets can be an impediment to safety.
Eric Fuller of Jay, who heads a political action committee connected to the United Bikers of Maine, said helmets have only been certified to protect motorcyclists traveling up to 14 mph and cited a case in which he said a helmeted rider lost his life because of the way his head protection impacted his neck.
Responding to a lawmaker’s question, Fuller also said he believes Maine would lose motorcycle tourist traffic if it imposed a helmet law.
“I know riders who get to the Vermont border and turn around, and do not spend a nickel” in the helmet-mandated state, said Fuller. New Hampshire has no helmet law.
Past United Bikers president Fulton Butler of Wiscasset said helmet laws “are a mandatory dress code with the ability to cause injury or death.”
“Helmets should be left to the discretion of the motorcyclist,” he said.
The bill will be reviewed next Tuesday by the committee, which will then make a recommendation to the full Legislature.