Helmet requirement clears Senate subcommittee

Legislation would require a person under 18 years of age to wear a safety helmet when operating a motorized bicycle

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DES MOINES – “Ecstatic,” that’s how Leah Murray and Olivia Lofgren described their reaction to a Senate Transportation subcommittee’s decision Thursday to move forward with legislation that would require a person under 18 years of age to wear a safety helmet when operating a motorized bicycle.

Murray, 18, a freshman at Hope College in Michigan, and Lofgren, 19, a freshman at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, were among seven people who spoke in favor of a measure that now goes to the Senate Transportation Committee for consideration – a step farther in the process than the idea got last year and that was big progress for two women who are motivated by the 2011 death of a friend who was killed when she lost control of her moped.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” said Murray, whose optimism might be blunted by the fact that the two Democratic senators – Bob Dvorsky of Coralville and Matt McCoy of Des Moines -- who voted it out of subcommittee were co-sponsors of a bill that faces an increasingly steep climb as it wades into the legislative process.

“This is a big victory here,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, a co-sponsor who attended Thursday’s meeting. “We haven’t seen progress on this issue for a very long time.”

Iowa is one of three states that do not have a helmet requirement for operators of motorcycles and motorized bikes. Senate File 37 would establish the requirement for young operators and create a scheduled fine of $100 as punishment for violating the simple misdemeanor offense.

“Helmets do not stop crashes. Training and education is what stops crashes,” said Mark Maxwell, a lobbying for ABATE of Iowa, which he noted “adamantly” opposing the bill.

Opponents worry a law covering young people would make it easier for the state to require that motorcyclists wear helmets. They argue that there should be a limit in government’s oversight of personal actions.

Proponents of the helmet requirement cited grim statistics for head injuries, disabilities and deaths associated with riding a motorized bike without protective gear.

“Brain injury is the last thing on your mind until it’s the only thing on your mind,” said Geoffrey Lauer, executive director of the Brain Injury Alliance of Iowa. He said currently there are 95,000 Iowans living with long-term effects of brain injuries and “we don’t want to add any more.”

For Murray and Lofgren, the statistics included their friend and high school classmate, Caroline Found, 17, who died in August 2011 after the moped she was operating struck a curb near a curve on Mormon Trek Boulevard in Iowa City and then struck a tree in the median. They presented subcommittee members with a petition bearing nearly 1,500 signatures support Senate File 37 that they said they gathered in two days.

“The support across the state is huge,” said Lofgren. “If we can save one person’s life, we’ve done our part.”

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