CARSON CITY - As he has done in every Legislature since 1997, Sen. Don Gustavson intends to introduce a bill next year to repeal Nevada's 40-year-old law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.
Gustavson, R-Sparks, said he believes the bill will pass this time because of the national move to give riders the "freedom of choice" to decide whether to wear a helmet. Thirty-one states have repealed helmet laws; the most recent was Michigan in April.
"I am a fighter for what is right," Gustavson said . "The opposition is just continuing the 'nanny state' view that government should protect people from themselves."
He is introducing the same bill he sought to pass in 2011. The bill would require all riders and passengers under age 21 to wear helmets. Motorcyclists 21 and older could ride without helmets, as long as they have at least one year of experience and have passed an approved motorcycle safety course. Passengers 21 and older also could ride without helmets.
But opponents such as Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, said Wednesday that repealing the helmet law only would cause more motorcyclists to die and lead to more serious injuries to those who survive. State and local governments ultimately would have to pay a large share of the hospital costs for those who suffer traumatic injuries, he added.
"Even if you are wearing a helmet, you are very vulnerable to severe injuries," Manendo said.
The statistics support his view. The four Nevada trauma centers - University Medical Center; Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center; St. Rose Dominican Hospital, Siena campus; and Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno - admitted 5,559 injured motorcyclists or passengers between 2005 and 2010.
Ninety percent of them were wearing helmets, and their average hospital charges were $68,734. The 10 percent not wearing helmets had average charges of $84,004.
In 2008 and 2009, Clark County-run UMC ate $45 million of the cost of treating injured motorcyclists, according to the state Office of Traffic Safety.
"I haven't seen a study that the fatality rate has gone down in a state that repealed its helmet law," said Bill Brown, director for the Center for Traffic Safety Research at the University of Nevada Medical School in Las Vegas.
Nineteen motorcyclists were killed in Nevada in the first half of 2012. In recent years, 40 to 57 motorcyclists have been killed a year.
Beginning in 1967, the federal government began threatening to withhold highway construction funds from states that did not impose helmet laws, and within eight years, 47 states had the laws. But in 1976, Congress removed the threat, and states started repealing their laws.
Nevada imposed its law at the urging of Gov. Mike O'Callaghan. Even after his terms as governor, O'Callaghan continued to push to retain the law as executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun. He died in 2004.
"He refused to endorse candidates who did not support the helmet law," Gustavson said.
Gustavson said he has the support of Gov. Brian Sandoval in his repeal effort. But Sandoval's spokesman, Mary-Sarah Kinner, said the governor has not taken a position.
During the 2011 legislative session, Gustavson's bill passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee, but was blocked by the Democratic leadership from coming up for a vote in the Senate.
He does not consider helmet repeal a partisan issue. A map of the states shows that it is the more liberal Pacific Coast states and the conservative South that have helmet laws.
California has a helmet law, but Arizona, Utah and Idaho do not.
Motorcyclists have money and are willing to spend it at the numerous rallies around the state, Gustavson said.
If Nevada's helmet law is repealed, more cyclists from California would take trips to Nevada to attend rallies and events, he added.
Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles statistics show there are 129,000 registered motorcyclists in the state. Only 142 are under the age of 21.
When Michigan repealed its helmet law in April, it included a provision that motorcyclists must have at least $20,000 in medical insurance. Gustavson doesn't consider that necessary, arguing that most motorcyclists already have more than that amount of medical insurance.
But Manendo said $20,000 is hardly enough to treat brain injuries. Those who consider riding without a helmet a freedom of choice issue don't have the freedom to force the rest of us to pay their medical expenses, he added.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.