Environment and Natural Resources Featured Liberty and Justice

Bikers Butt Heads With Bean Counters

Even with Speaker Pro Tempore Judd Matheny in the saddle of an effort to allow motorcycle riders to opt out of wearing helmets, he says he’s still only got a “50/50” shot of getting the bill to the floor next year.

And even then, that doesn’t mean it’ll get much more traction.

“I think it’s going to happen eventually. It’s manifest destiny,” said Matheny, a Tullahoma Republican who is trying to rev up support among lawmakers on the House Transportation Committee to allow bikers with at least $15,000 of medical insurance coverage to ditch their helmets if they’re at least 21 years old.

The issue has been cruising around Capitol Hill for almost a decade under different sponsors as advocates for a helmet-free lifestyle argue they should have the freedom to choose whether to wear a lid. They add that loosening up the laws will boost tourism revenues by attracting more bikers to the state.

Meanwhile, opponents say changing the law will lead to more fatalities and boost health care costs.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, passing the legislation would have an indirect increase in costs to public health systems for state and local governments, including an estimate that TennCare costs could increase by $2 million.

“I understand the proponents talk about freedom, nobody’s against freedom,” said Gary Zelizer, director of government affairs for the Tennessee Medical Association. Zelizer argues that the bill would lead to deaths of teenagers riding without a helmet, even though they would not be covered by the exemption. “I hear the tourism issue. But should those be at the expense of our kids?… Is that what you really want to do?”

Some 158,000 motorcycles were registered in Tennessee last year, according to state agencies. About 4,700 bikers are involved in crashes each year, with roughly one in five resulting in head injuries, according to the fiscal note.

When Florida implemented a law similar to Matheny’s proposal, the state saw a more than 80 percent increase in head injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Earlier this year, the bill languished in committee until the Transportation Subcommittee agreed to study the issue over the summer. Members plan to sit down with the Fiscal Review team to examine exactly how it developed its price tag, which Matheny says will help the measure get past a major road block.

Matheny, who rides horses instead of a hog, said he would be equally upset if the state required him to wear a helmet on horseback, and suggested bikers should have the choice to sign some sort of liability waiver stating they understand the risks of biking sans helmet.

“Giving personal responsibility back to people, and letting them be responsible for their own actions if they know the inherent risk, is not something that is alien to this General Assembly,” Matheny said.