State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair speaks on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers are one step away from repealing mandated motorcycle helmets in the state, advancing a long-sought proposal Wednesday.
State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, offered an amendment to do so during debate on a bill related to the Department of Motor Vehicles. His proposal, originally Legislative Bill 91, would allow motorcycle riders to ride without a helmet if they are older than 21, have completed a safety course and wear eye protection.
Lawmakers voted 30-5 to amend the provisions of LB 91 into LB 138, a bill by Lincoln State Sen. Carolyn Bosn related to DMV.
Hansen said numerous senators — Republican and Democrat — have tried for at least a couple of decades to change the law.
“There’s actually a coveted helmet that gets passed around to each senator who introduces it,” Hansen told the Examiner after the vote. “So now, I’m stuck with it, I guess.”
Hansen’s proposal differs from laws in other states that have allowed a blanket repeal of helmet requirements for adults. The advanced measure stipulates the completion of a DMV-approved basic motorcycle safety course. The DMV would update past driver records to show completion.
Training would include defensive driving, Hansen said, which can make the difference in avoiding some accidents.
The law would be a secondary enforcement for those older than 21, enforced as an infraction only if there is another reason for a stop. The proposal also increases the fine from $50 to $250. It would be enforced as a primary violation for those younger than 21.
Not all senators were not sold on the measure, including State Sens. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, Mike Moser of Columbus, Merv Riepe of Ralston, Carol Blood of Bellevue and Megan Hunt of Omaha.
Bostelman and Moser, chair of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, voted against advancing Hansen’s bill from the Transportation Committee to the full Legislature.
Hunt said the bill is not a “helmet” law but a “halo” law because rather than personal freedom, it could increase cyclist deaths.
Blood said the efforts could lead to an uptick in organ donations, as has happened in other states where similar laws have been repealed. Motorcycles are sometimes called “donorcycles” for this reason.
Riepe, a former hospital administrator, said he’s seen the harm of motorcycle-involved crashes as well as what they can cost taxpayers in Medicaid payments.
State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said, however, there’s an economic benefit in welcoming cyclists to the state and not sending a message they should drive around Nebraska.
He pointed to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, where some cyclists from the west decide to travel through Wyoming instead of entering the Cornhusker State.
Nonresidents older than 21 could ride without a helmet if they wear eye protection and complete an equivalent course to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation basic course or some other substantially similar course in the driver’s resident state.
State Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth said the bill is more about personal freedom. Some of his constituents, he said, expressed intent to ditch a helmet in town but still wear one on interstate highways.
Hansen said his proposal remains in line with allowing individuals to make decisions when they are of age.
“Your decision to wear a helmet or not wear a helmet does not affect anybody else’s civil liberties,” Hansen said.
Hansen and other senators said they still encourage people to wear helmets after the bill becomes law.
The law would take effect Jan. 1, 2024, if passed as early as next week.
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