The personal choice to wear a helmet on a motorcycle is not the same as choosing a pencil versus a pen or glasses over contact lenses. It’s a decision that pits safety against freedom and can mean life or death for the decision-maker. Local residents are making their preferences known as state legislators consider reinstating Connecticut’s mandatory helmet law.
State Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Newington, introduced House Bill 6048 back in January, to require the use of a helmet by passengers and operators of all ages. As it stands now riders under age 18 must be outfitted, but adults are free to make their own choices. A public hearing was held in February, but action has yet to be taken on the bill.
Connecticut motorcyclists have defended their right to remain un-helmeted for over 40 years, against multiple attempts by doctors and the state Department of Transportation to re-enact a law repealed in 1976.
“They think they have the right to tell everybody and anybody what to do,” said Brenda Martin, founder of Bristol’s Twisted Sisters Motorcycle Club. “I’ve been riding motorcycles since 1983 and as long as I can remember the CMRA has been going to the capitol to fight against this.”
That would be the Connecticut Motorcycle Riders Association, which acts as the political arm of bikers in the Nutmeg State. Former Legislative Committee Chairman Richard Paukner has led efforts to protect their freedoms since 1985, when members were still meeting on Broad Street in New Britain.
At that point they had enjoyed their right to choose for just under a decade. In the years since, CMRA has defeated legislative attempts to raise motorcycle insurance premiums among other bills, while supporting driver education programs and offering incentives to riders who enroll.
Still, stopping the helmet law is perhaps their proudest, longest and most controversial work.
“How far do we permit government to control personal behavior choices?” Paukner asked. “Don’t single us out when you’re not going to be consistent and regulate behavioral patterns that significantly impact health care costs and society.”
He pointed out that other lifestyle choices like smoking and drinking cost society more in healthcare and more people their lives, yet both are legal for adults.
“There are 31 states in this country that don’t require adults to wear motorcycle helmets,” Paukner added. “If this proposal was so effective there’s no way we’d have that many states not enacting helmet laws.”
To be clear, CMRA is not opposed to helmet use, only helmet law. As the proposal has reappeared over the years, members presented statistics showing a drop in motorcycle-related injuries and deaths since the 1980s. They credit this decrease to motorcycle education empowering bikers to take responsibility for their own riding.
“There are right and wrong ways to do things,” Paukner explained. “Education in a free society is a better way to attack the problem.”
The state Department of Transportation’s Motorcycle Safety Unit is headed by Nick Just, who submitted the recent helmet bill to the legislature on behalf of the DOT.
“I would say that there has been very little movement in the positive direction in regards to motorcyclist safety in the past decade,” Just said. “I support any legislation that requires the use of a motorcycle helmet by all users.”
State Department of Motor Vehicles records indicated 93,154 registered motorcycles in December 2016. There were 1,320 motorcycle crashes in 2016 - 237 of which resulted in serious injury and 46, death.
“Of these fatalities, 31 riders were un-helmeted,” Just pointed out. “Motorcycle helmets are 37 percent effective at reducing death in the event of a crash, so if the 31 un-helmeted fatalities all wore helmets an additional 11 lives would have been saved.”
He urges riders to lessen their risk by taking a safety course to freshen up rusty skills, driving sober and wearing protective equipment including a DOT-compliant motorcycle helmet, eye protection, abrasion resistant pants and jacket, high boots and heavy-duty, abrasion resistant gloves.
“Motorcycling is an inherently dangerous activity,” Just added. “There are countermeasures that can be taken to lessen the risk involved.”
Paukner doesn’t consider a helmet one of them.
“We don’t believe a helmet law will result in less deaths, less accidents or less injuries associated with those crashes,” he said.
Don Clady, publisher of Connecticut Cruise News, took the helmetless stance over 30 years ago and has stuck by it.
“As much as I believe that helmets help greatly to prevent traumatic head injury and save lives, I also have been a supporter of CMRA and the motorcycle riders of Connecticut to let those who ride decide,” Clady explained.
He believes the requirement for children under 18 should stand.
New Britain resident Lucious Downey won’t let 6-year-old son Tyler on his Yamaha without proper head gear.
“I have always been an advocate for wearing a helmet,” Downey said.
As far as it being mandated, he’s still on the brakes.
“I would never operate without one, but I’m not sure if I agree on making it mandatory.”
Downey compared the choice to that of fastening oneself into the typical four-wheel mode of transportation.
“When I get in my car I put my seatbelt on, but if I’m stopped at the light and I see you not wearing your seatbelt I don’t give it a second thought. It’s what you chose to do.”
New Britain resident Chuck Burby is a born-again Christian and a helmetless biker.
“It obstructs my hearing and peripheral view,” he said. “But I think it should be to everybody’s own digression. In the case of an accident it’s always better to have a helmet on but sometimes accidents can be avoided by hearing or seeing something to your right or your left that you might not have been able to.”
Burby is a member of the Sons of Abraham Christian Motorcycle Ministry, which operates out of the Second Chance Biker Church in New Britain.
To show him the righteous path and protect him on two wheels, he turns to God.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or email@example.com.