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Government, Politics & Issues

Motorcycle helmet laws separate Illinois, Missouri

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2011 - The Mississippi River all too often seems to be a barrier between Missouri and Illinois; but most of the perceptions that keep folks apart are just that - differences more imagined than real. It is a fact, however, that within a few minutes of crossing the river, you are likely to catch sight of a helmetless motocycle rider.

Illinois is one of three states that have no law regarding motorcycle helmets, while Missouri is one of many that requires every rider to wear a helmet.

From Dupo to Okawville, from Route 3 to the River Road, Illinois riders are known nationwide for their legal ability to ride without a lid, and for their fierce desire to keep things just that way. Earlier this year, an Illinois legislator floated the idea of amending the helmet law to mandate lids for those 26-and-under. The bill failed. So did an attempt in 2010 to require motorcycle riders under the age of 18 to wear helmets. Another proposal that year - one with a blanket mandate - didn't make it out of committee. Any attempts to change the helmet-free status will run into multiple advocacy groups.

Given that history, riders seem to feel that things are going to stay as they are; and that legal status has even been the reason a few riders call the state home.

Pontoon Beach, a town of 5,300, has the same feel as many places in that part of Madison County, with small businesses mixed in among ranch houses surrounded by soybean and corn fields. A small motorcycle shop sits on Route 162. It doesn't sell the actual bikes, but it has just about every type of accessory you can imagine and the folks there work to outfit bikes into varied, after-market forms.

It also sells helmets. But owner Mike Case is as forceful as can be when discussing the helmet law debate. He doesn't believe in one. He doesn't believe in seat belt laws. And he even moved to Illinois from Michigan about two decades ago because Michigan adopted a helmet law.

"That's not the only reason," he says of his move. "But it's definitely a big one.

"Most people I know don't want to wear helmets," he says. "I've had a helmet save my life once. But I still don't want someone to tell me I have to wear them."

For Case, the crash in question came when he was 16, decades ago but fresh enough for him to remember it well. He'd been drinking, he admits, and there was some confusion on the road, a hill involved. Soon enough, he put his bike down and the helmet played a major role in his survival.

He's quick to point out that he sells a wide range of helmets. Novelty ones are typically open-face and cut across the ear line. They're "lighter on your head and have less padding," Case says. They are also cheaper. One model on his well-stocked shelves, just behind his register, sells for $60. From there, novelty helmets go up in price, to several hundred dollars; and with that purchase, a rider would need eyewear to combat debris and bugs. Helmets approved by the government, on the other hand, are fitted with at least an inch of protective foam and wrap around the head in a more form-fitting fashion. Some even come with air bladders that fill to further protect your cranium.

Case admits that he understands why young riders should wear helmets. He even says, "When my lady used to ride, I always wanted her to wear one." He says that riders in the early 20s, let alone teens, often lack experience and take their bikes to speeds that they can't handle. But he's not going to say that they should be forced to strap on headgear. "It really depends on the rider," he says. "But a lot of the young kids are getting these faster Japanese bikes and that's when you see them get hurt."

Bob McCaw, working in the shop during Case's interview, popped out to express his own views of the helmet laws, which he did by extending a middle finger. (Admittedly, he did it with a smile.) To him, such a law would be another incursion on individuality. McCaw did confess that his own bike went down earlier this summer, just a couple months back, outside of Kansas City. Though Missouri's laws certainly require helmets, he wasn't riding with a hat that day, but he avoided a head hit. His arms, though, bear the distinct scars cause by road rash, with both of them streaked with red.

To him, what's galling is that on the Missouri side of the river, riders can zip around an urban environment on scooters of 49cc and below without helmets.

"Nobody," McCaw says with a straight face, "should ever ride a scooter."

If the gents at Case's Customs are strident about their feelings in support of helmetless riding, they'd find mixed reactions among colleagues. Mark Oldham works in sales at Moto Europa in Grand Center, part of the motorcycle-geared corridor including the Triumph Grill and the Moto Museum. He's also suffered a pretty good crash of own, which resulted in a recently broken arm. His ultimate feeling is that, no matter the legality on either side of the river, helmets are best worn, rather than admired.

"Most people I know feel the same way as I do," he says. "I think helmets are great, I'm not sure if everyone should be made to wear them; but anyone 21-or-under should be required to. Most teenagers are incapable of making an informed decision on this subject. I was. Fortunately, my dad was all about seat belts and helmets, so I was on board from the beginning. It's just too easy to make a small mistake and get severely injured in an accident that, had you been wearing a helmet, you would have come out unscathed.

"The helmets we sell range from around $100 for a decent half helmet to $850 for a top of the line Ducati-brand," he continues. "You can buy a really good quality full face helmet for around $350. There is an old saying '10 dollar head ... 10 dollar helmet.' I like good quality safety equipment, it makes sense. Why wouldn't you want to protect yourself with the best possible option?"

Attempts to repeal Missouri's mandatory helmet law are fairly common, with the legislature in 2009 approving a bill that would have lifted the requirement for people over 21. The governor vetoed it.

In Illinois, Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, has been a member of the state House since 1985, a goodly run that's seen her try to change the helmet law more than once. Her most recent attempt, House Bill 0285, wasn't able to gain much traction. Still, Flowers feels that time and education are moving sentiment about the law in her direction, especially one with caveats like HB 0285, which would've mandated helmets for those 26-and-under.

"It was important to me to address young people," she says. "To me, it's an important issue. And I realize that not every situation is the same. A law is not going to save everyone's life. I understand that, but I think it will save some tragic deaths."

Rep. Flowers provides anecdotal examples, incidents in which folks in her life, or among her constituency, have been affected by motorcycle crashes. She says she "respects everyone's opinions," including the vocal parties that argue against legislation, which can come through websites such as http://bikerights.com. But she'll be back with another bill.

"I never give up on legislation I believe in," she says. "I've been in office for 28 years and it once took about 16 years to get a piece through. Others can take five, or seven years. Let's work together to find a compromise, and I don't mind taking baby steps."

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer. 

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