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House loses its head over helmets

Oregon Editors Say

The shortsighted, deadly repeal of helmet law should die in the Senate

The (Eugene) Register-Guard

The Oregon House of Representatives took a tremendously shortsighted ' not to mention deadly ' course of action last week. By a narrow 31-27 vote, the chamber adopted House Bill 2432, which would repeal Oregon's motorcycle helmet law for riders age 21 or older. Even the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jeff Kropf, R-Sublimity, acknowledged that helmets reduce injuries. But he trotted out the tired old argument that adult motorcyclists should have the freedom to choose whether to wear a helmet.

In May 1988, the voters of Oregon ' by a 2-to-1 margin ' disagreed with the freedom to choose argument by passing Measure 2, mandating that all motorcyclists wear protective helmets. The need for the helmet law is underscored by a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finding that the fatality rate among motorcyclists in the United States has risen sharply ' by nearly 60 percent ' during the past five years. By contrast, the Oregon Department of Transportation says that motorcycle fatalities in this state have been reduced by half since voters passed the mandatory helmet law.

There are no doubt several causes for the national rise in fatalities: drunken driving, an increase in the median age of riders from 24 to 38 (baby boomers have created a whole new class of older motorcyclists), and much higher motorcycle horsepower (one company is unwisely considering producing motorcycles that can top 300 mph). But the leading cause of the bump in fatalities has to be that a declining number of states, Oregon being one, have mandatory helmet laws.

Congress contributed to the sad statistics in 1995, when it quit threatening to withhold federal highway financing from states without mandatory helmet laws. Since that dumb decision, five states ' Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky and Texas ' have weakened their helmet laws, leaving only 20 with mandatory helmet laws. HB 2432 would make it 19.

— HB 2432 now heads for the Senate, where it should be summarily rejected. It's possible that House members passed the bill less because of sympathy with the freedom-to-choose sentiment than because the majority Republicans wanted to do a favor for one of their own, Kropf. It's to be hoped that was the case. The Senate, however, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, has no need to do Kropf a favor.

If by some quirk the bill should pass the Senate, Gov. Ted Kulongoski should veto it. The governor has said he doesn't like HB 2432 and wouldn't sign it. That's not good enough. If the measure gets to the governor's desk, he should not let it become law by simply not signing it. He should stop it in its tracks with a veto.

That's what Gov. John Kitzhaber did when the Legislature foolishly sent him the same bill, and that's what Kulongoski should do now if the measure reaches him. A veto would save lives. Looking the other way with a sigh would not.