Arizona motorcyclists remain free to ride with the wind in their hair, the sun burning their scalp — and the chance of a head injury.
Without a single vote in support, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday rejected a proposal by Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, to require adults to wear helmets or at least pay a fee into a special trauma injury fund.
The vote came despite statistics from Friese, who is a trauma surgeon, and other doctors about the number of motorcycle riders who suffer brain injuries. They said the chances of that happening are higher for those who don’t use a helmet.
But committee members said they are not convinced that the numbers override the personal rights of riders to decide what protections they want to use. And several accepted the argument that the real problem is drivers of larger vehicles failing to pay attention to the bikes.
Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, who chairs the panel, said he personally wears “every piece of equipment you can get on” when he rides his motorcycle. But he said a better approach would be incentives for riders to protect their heads rather than penalties for those who do not.
Arizona has not had a helmet requirement since 1976, at least for adults, though anyone younger than 18 is required to have headgear. Various efforts to reinstate the mandate have gone nowhere.
Friese figured he’d try a different approach: Require helmets — but allow riders to opt out by paying a fee. The dollars generated would go into a special fund designed to provide rehabilitation and other services to those who suffer head injuries in all types of vehicle crashes.
And his measure would allow cyclists to be ticketed only if police stopped them for some other reason first, like speeding.
Friese said he figures about half of riders now voluntarily use a helmet. He said HB2046 might bring compliance up to about 60 percent, with the balance choosing to pay the fee.
Bobbi Hartmann, lobbyist for the Modified Motorcycle Association, complained that fee would be set by the head of the state Department of Transportation, with no limit on the charge. She said there were other flaws in what Friese proposed, including how that exemption would work for someone visiting Arizona whose vehicle was registered in another state.
But the common theme among the objections was the belief that the solution to keeping motorcyclists from getting injured is better training.
John Dreyfus of the National Coalition of Motorcyclists said Arizona is a haven for retirees. What happens, he said, is they suddenly decide they’ve always wanted to ride a motorcycle.
“So he goes and buys one,” Dreyfus told lawmakers, with all the power available, but “has no clue how to ride it.”
But that issue of training is not limited to those on two wheels.
“We need to educate drivers to look out for motorcycles,” said Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale, detailing some of his experiences when he used to ride a motorcycle.
“I got rear-ended twice,” he said, even though he wore not only a helmet but also a bright orange vest. “But I still got hit.”
Other legislators who voted against the measure had their own reasons.
Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said he feared the mandate is so broad it would apply to farmers and ranchers who use all-terrain vehicles around their property.
And Rep. Paul Mosley, R-Lake Havasu City, saw it as matter of personal freedom.
“My first ancestor came here on this boat called the Mayflower,” he said.
“Many of my ancestors came here for freedom: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to live the life they want to live,” Mosley continued. “I don’t believe that the government should dictate everything that we do.”
Campbell said he’s willing to give Friese another chance — if he tries the carrot versus the stick approach.
“Let’s make it an incentive and let people choose to be incentivized to wear a helmet,” he said, perhaps a tax credit for wearing a helmet rather than a penalty.
Figures from ADOT show there are close to 200,000 motorcycles registered in Arizona out of close to 8 million motor vehicles.
Out of 116,609 crashes in Arizona in 2015, the most recent figures available, 2,988 involved motorcycles, with 134 people killed and another 2,497 injured.