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For Missouri Motorcyclists, Helmet Law Could Represent Big Changes

Trevor Hook
David "Racin' Dave" Stevens polishes one of his motorcycles on June 20, 2019 in the garage of Gilbane Motorsports in Columbia. Stevens has ridden motorcycles for more than 40 years, and says he hopes the state's mandatory helmet law is changed.

David “Racin’ Dave” Stevens has ridden a lot of motorcycles. “The name actually came from car racing days cruising the loop back in the ‘80s,” he said. He fixes a lot of them too. Stevens is a mechanic at Gilbane Motorsports in Columbia.

He has ridden a variety of bikes – motorcycles, dirt bikes, three-wheelers - for more than 45 years. And not always while wearing a helmet.

“If I’m riding my bike into town, I’m not being stupid or unruly. I feel like I should have the choice of not wearing a helmet if I don’t want to,” Stevens said.

Senate Bill 147 may give him that choice.

This bill began as a way to alter vehicle registration deadlines statewide, but became something akin to an omnibus bill – one bill that covers several different topics. One of the amendments in the bill would remove the requirement to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle as long as the rider is over 18 years old and has health insurance. The law has passed both the Missouri House and Senate, and currently is on the governor’s desk.

Missouri Senator Eric Burlison, who represents the Springfield area, wrote the language for the amendment changing the helmet law. He says this is an issue of individual freedom.

“If you’re going to make an argument that the activity of my neighbor is my financial burden, then we’ll go down a path that I don’t think any of us want to go down,” Burlison said. “Which is that we start really over-regulating the lives of our neighbor.”

But not everyone agrees. Ray Pierce is the program manager for the Missouri Motorcycle Safety Program. This group runs safety training courses for motorcycle riders throughout the state and monitors crash data. He said that this law is a bad idea.

“Taking a helmet off a rider is like taking the bumpers, doors and roof off a car,” Pierce said.

Pierce has ridden motorcycles for decades, and said that he respects that people want their individual freedom.

“However, having been in my business as long as I have – I have to read through every fatal motorcycle accident report that happens in the state of Missouri. And that’s always a sobering day, to read about someone’s last minutes," Pierce added. "Sometimes, we need regulations to protect ourselves from each other, and from ourselves.”

Burlison and motorcyclist rights organizations like Freedom of Road Riders of Missouri say there will be other benefits from changing the state’s helmet law, like an increase in motorcycle tourism throughout the state. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, helmets are approximately 37 percent effective in preventing motorcycle deaths and about 67 percent effective in preventing brain injuries.

Pierce said he believes that head injuries are going to go up if this bill is signed into law.

“Most people, when they come off a motorcycle, they don’t impact something directly. But their head almost always skips down the highway. And they say, ‘Oh, I’ll just brace myself with my hand.’ No, it doesn’t work that way,” Pierce said. “Why do motorcycle racers wear all that gear? Why do car racers wear helmets? Why do combat pilots wear helmets? Because your head can bounce off stuff. And once that happens, you’re probably not coming back.”

But something all three of them agree on - regardless of how they feel about Senate Bill 147 - is that riding a motorcycle can be dangerous.

“Life is dangerous. There’s no doubt about it,” Stevens said. “You get up in the morning and you put your boots on and you take your chances. No matter what we do, none of us are getting out of this alive.”

Governor Parson has until July 15th to sign the bill.

Trevor Hook is a reporter, producer and morning anchor for KBIA 91.3 born and raised in New Franklin, Missouri. He graduated from the University of Missouri with both a Master's degree in Audio Journalism in 2020 and a Bachelor's degree in Convergence Journalism in 2018.