by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Senate Bill 202 is awaiting signature on Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk. Introduced by our local senator, Kurt Schaefer, the original intent of the bill was to prevent insurance companies from assigning blame to motorcycle riders involved in an accident simply because they were riding a motorcycle. SB202 started out as a good measure to provide more equitable settlements after an accident occurs.

However, during its travels through the General Assembly, Sen. Schaefer’s bill was amended so that it would also repeal Missouri’s law requiring all motorcycle riders to wear a helmet while on public roads; only those under 21 or riding interstate highways would still have to wear a helmet if SB 202 is signed into law.

For those concerned with public safety, this bill has caused much ado. The public safety reasons for the governor to veto this bill are numerous and compelling. Here are just a few statistics about helmet use:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently found that in 10 of the states where helmet requirements were lifted, helmet-use rates dropped from 99 percent to 50 percent and motorcycle accident fatalities dramatically increased. For example, within two years of Florida rolling back its helmet requirement, motorcycle fatalities increased by 81 percent and hospital admissions for riders with head injuries increased by 82 percent. And the cost for treating motorcycle injuries in Florida has doubled.

The same organization estimates that 42 lives were saved in Missouri in 2007 because of motorcycle helmet use.

A Missouri Department of Health study of motorcycle crashes found that 7.7 percent of the riders without helmets died compared to 2.5 percent of those wearing helmets. Thirty percent of riders without helmets had to be admitted to a hospital compared to 20 percent of those with helmets. The same study estimated a savings to Missouri’s health care system of $2.7 million due to helmet use alone.

Evidence that helmet use prevents death and injury has been around for decades — that is why the helmet requirement was implemented in the first place. But for decades there has also been a small and very vocal minority of Missourians — less than 10 percent, according to a recent poll — calling for repeal of the helmet law. This group frames its argument as a call for freedom: Yes, motorcyclists are more likely to get killed and injured without a helmet, but the state should not restrict their freedom to choose not to wear a helmet. So far, the governor has received more than 1,000 messages from Missourians who want to see the helmet law repealed.

Our right to the pursuit of happiness certainly includes the right to take risks, including risks that might end up getting one killed or injured. From extreme sports like rock climbing or skydiving to the more leisurely pursuit of slowly drinking yourself to death, it’s all good if that’s what makes you happy. However, Missouri’s helmet law doesn’t apply to operating a motorcycle on private land, but rather to those operating a motorcycle on public roads and highways, where the state does have an interest in reducing injuries and where motorcyclists can injure or kill not just themselves but others on the road as well.

Wearing a helmet — or a seat belt, for that matter — will protect you from direct physical harm in an accident, but it also allows you to maintain control of your vehicle. A motorcycle rider going down Providence Road at 60 mph when a rock or piece of debris flies up to hit his head will be better able to maintain control of his motorcycle if he is wearing a helmet. Without a helmet, it could be the beginning of an accident that will involve not just the motorcyclist, but also others traveling on the road.

When you drive a motor vehicle on a public road, you have an obligation to maintain control of your vehicle and not to endanger your fellow motorists or passengers. Most of the safety equipment used on our vehicles — optional and mandatory — makes operation safer for not just the driver, but for anyone using the same road.

While Sen. Schaefer doesn’t seem happy at the prospect of seeing his bill vetoed — he passed on the chance to kill SB202 after the helmet repeal amendment was added and recently lashed out at the director of the Missouri Department of Transportation for urging Nixon to veto the bill — the senator does see the value of helmets.

“I always wear a helmet,” Schaefer said. “I would encourage everyone to wear a helmet regardless of age or regardless of where you are riding.”

He adds, “It’s difficult to legislate every single thing that is a good thing for somebody to do.” Granted, but that is no excuse for undoing Missouri’s helmet law, which has proved itself an effective public safety measure for motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists for decades.

Gov. Nixon should veto SB202.