Helmet law repeal bill approved by transportation panel

CARSON CITY -- With Democrat John Lee breaking party ranks, a bill to repeal Nevada's 39-year-old helmet law won approval on a 4-3 vote Thursday in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Lee also sided with Republicans to kill a bill that would have allowed police to cite motorists for seat belt violations without first charging them with another violation. The committee supported two bills to repeal a state law forbidding toll roads.

The most surprising action undoubtedly was the committee's support of Senate Bill 177, which would allow riders 21 and older to ride without helmets, as long as they have completed a safety course and have at least one year of riding experience. Their passengers 21 and over also would not have to wear helmets.

Even if the measure by Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, passes the Senate, it faces a formidable hurdle in the Assembly, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 26-16.

As an assemblyman, Gustavson failed in five sessions to pass bills to repeal the helmet law. For years, he argued that wearing a helmet should be a matter of personal choice for the rider. This session, he also argued repealing the law would lead to more purchases of motorcycles and increased attendance at motorcycle rallies from which the state would benefit financially.

The Senate committee voted to back helmet law repeal, despite impassioned pleas by Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, who called SB177 "a jobs creation bill for the medical industry."

He made the comment after Sen. Elizabeth Halseth, R-Las Vegas, called the bill "a good jobs bill, a great pro-business bill, a great pro-liberty bill and a great safety bill."

Lee, D-North Las Vegas, said, "I see this as a personal right," and sided with Republicans Halseth, Mike McGinness of Fallon and Dean Rhoads of Tuscarora. Voting to maintain the helmet law were Schneider and fellow Democrats Shirley Breeden of Henderson and Mark Manendo of Las Vegas.

The committee voted along the same lines on Senate Bill 235, which would allow police to stop a motorist for not wearing a seat belt.

The committee also approved two measures to allow toll roads: Senate Bill 83, a Nevada Department of Transportation measure, and Senate Bill 214, by Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City.