Nixon vetoes Missouri motorcycle helmet repeal

JEFFERSON CITY | After coming as close as they've been in a decade, Missouri bikers won't be feeling the wind in their hair anytime soon, after all. Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday vetoed a bill that would've allowed adult motorcyclists to ride without helmets.

The decision came after weeks in which Nixon, a Democrat, avoided comment on the bill and appeared genuinely conflicted over whether to sign it into law.

In finally rejecting the bill, he cited health concerns for bikers and potential costs for the state in treating additional and more severe head injuries.

"In terms of lives and of dollars, the cost of repealing Missouri's helmet law simply would have been too high," Nixon said in a statement. "Keeping our helmet law in place was the safe and cost-effective choice for Missouri."

The bill exempted riders over 21 from the state's helmet requirement, although headgear still would've been required on interstate highways. The exemption would have expired in five years.

Proponents' reactions varied.

Tony Sheppard, founder of the motorcycle organization ABATE for Missouri, called the bill flawed, and said he was neither surprised nor upset with Nixon over the veto.

The law's distinction between interstate highways and smaller roads was "backward," Sheppard said, because the vast majority of motorcycle accidents take place on state and local roadways.

He also derided the bill's five-year sunset, which he said would've ensured its repeal after officials noted a rise in injuries and fatalities.

“Yes, I’d like to ride around without a helmet, but I want to do it the right way,” Sheppard said. “And don’t just give me half the law.”

State Sen. Luann Ridgeway, however, expressed deep disappointment in the veto. The Smithville Republican has fought for years to roll back the helmet requirement and introduced the amendment that added it to the bill passed this year.

The expiration date and helmet requirement on interstate highways represented a compromise, she said, noting the bill generated little debate compared to previous years and passed with substantial margins in both the House and Senate.

“This just shows the difference between a conservative and a liberal,” Ridgeway said. “I believe people need to take responsibility for themselves and that we don’t need a nanny state. The governor apparently disagrees.”

Bills removing helmet requirements have bounced around the legislature for years. One last reached the governor’s desk in 1999, when then-Gov. Mel Carnahan vetoed it.

This year, Nixon cited several studies from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showing increased fatalities following helmet-law repeals and increased costs to treat injuries.

In Florida, where mandatory helmet laws were repealed in 2002, fatalities rose 21 percent. Similar jumps were reported in Texas and Arkansas in the 1990s.

The governor also pointed to studies showing injuries for riders not wearing helmets to be twice as costly to treat, and often burdensome for public and charitable health systems.

The Missouri Department of Transportation, which was criticized earlier this year for mounting its own independent campaign against the bill, lauded Nixon’s veto as “courageous and compassionate.” “He has saved lives today,” MoDOT Director Pete Rahn said in a statement.