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Connecticut revisits 1976 repeal of motorcycle helmet law

Hartford — The uptick in distracted driving is prompting Connecticut legislators to revisit whether the state should reinstate a law repealed in 1976 that once required all motorcyclists wear protective helmets.

Rep. Antonio "Tony" Guerrera, the Democratic co-chairman of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee and author of the "helmet law" legislation being considered this session, said he's become more and more concerned for the safety of motorcyclists.

"It's scary out there, it really is," he said. "When you've got all these people using all these phones, texting and driving and not paying attention."

Connecticut once required anyone riding a motorcycle, including a passenger, to wear an approved helmet. That law was repealed in 1976. In 1989, the legislature passed what's considered a "partial helmet law," requiring anyone under the age of 18 to wear a protective helmet, whether they are the driver or passenger.

Thirty-one states currently allow adults to choose whether to wear a helmet.

The helmet law issue is a contentious one. It often pits motorcycle enthusiasts, who claim the requirement would infringe on their personal liberties, against medical professionals, who contend a helmet law will save lives and reduce serious head injuries. It last came up in Connecticut in 2003, but was defeated. Guerrera was among those lawmakers who opposed the bill back then. But he said things have changed with distracted driving.

"I just wanted to have the conversation," said Guerrera, who is uncertain whether the bill has enough support to clear the Transportation Committee. "It's a tough call."

A crowd of motorcycle riders turned out last week for a public hearing to oppose Guerrera's bill, many wearing stickers that read "No Helmet Law."

Richard Paukner, former legislative chairman of the Connecticut Motorcycle Riders Association, argued that motorcycle deaths in Connecticut have declined since 1982, when a rider education program was enacted. Citing statistics from the University of Connecticut, Paukner said there were roughly 80,000 registered motorcyclists in 1982; 99 deaths; and 3,102 motorcycle-related accidents, 1,068 of which were serious. In 2016, there were 89,642 registered motorcycle riders; 49 fatalities; and 297 serious injuries.

"We haven't had a helmet law since 1976 and we've achieved all of this," said Paukner, questioning why lawmakers were targeting one potentially dangerous behavior and not others, such as smoking and drinking.

"It's wrong to single us out and to simply say that, 'We should regulate their personal behavior, remove their freedom of choice when we're not going to outlaw tobacco, when we're not going to regulate people's diets, when we're not going to put restrictions on the amount of alcohol one can consume,'" he said. "That's simply unfair."

Gary Lepidus, director of the injury prevention center at the Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford, said he understands the argument about protecting personal freedoms. However, he said "there's 30 years of solid, scientific evidence" that documents the benefits of wearing helmets.

"It's very, very clear," he said. "Those states that have a full helmet law, the death rates are lower, significantly."


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