No helmet law means less money for roads, more for safety programs


Dennis Conrad

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP)—Illinois will spend millions of dollars on highway safety programs because lawmakers failed to adopt a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Under a 1991 law passed by Congress, states without a mandatory motorcycle helmet law will be forced to use some of their federal highway money to tell people it makes sense to wear helmets and take other safety precautions.

Like 24 other states, Illinois failed to meet Friday’s deadline.

Next October, Illinois must divert 1.5 percent of its federal highway funds to highway safety education. The figure is fixed at 3 percent in 1995.

For 1994 alone, road projects will lose $5.3 million, enough to resurface 20 miles of a two-lane highway or pay for a major bridge replacement, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Some state lawmakers and members of Illinois’ congressional delegation are urging Congress to drop the penalty provision. Some believe a technical rewrite of the federal highway bill could include a one-year waiver.

‘‘I don’t agree at all with the federal government trying to blackmail,’‘ said Sen. Denny Jacobs, D-East Moline. ‘‘If the federal government felt so strongly, it should have mandated the wearing of helmets.’‘

The state had a mandatory helmet law decades ago, but it was found unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1969. A subsequent ruling by the high court cleared the way for a new law, but none has ever passed.

Illinois is in compliance with another federal mandate requiring states to pass seatbelt laws or face seeing road money diverted to safety programs.

Leading the opposition to mandatory helmets has been A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education, a group representing many of the state’s 188,000 motorcycle owners—an estimated two-thirds of whom do not regularly wear helmets.

The group favors repeal of the federal penalty, but supports more money going for highway safety education.

‘‘I think it will be more beneficial along the education lines if you compare it with how much road you can build with the money,’‘ said member Linda Constant of Springfield.

The sponsor of helmet legislation, Sen. John Cullerton, said the group’s lobbying at the state Capitol was so successful last spring he couldn’t even get his bill out of committee.

Critics of the measure say they should be free to decide if and when to put on a helmet.

‘‘I wouldn’t wear one when it’s 110 degrees out,’‘ Constant said.

But Cullerton, D-Chicago, and others cite studies documenting the risks of riding a motorcycle without one.

An unhelmeted motorcyclist is three times more likely to incur a fatal head injury and two times more likely to incur a serious head injury than a helmeted motorcyclist, according to one federal report.

A University of Illinois study in 1988 found the average health-care costs were 23 percent higher for unhelmeted accident victims. Of 26 fatalities in the study group, 25 didn’t wear helmuts.

Cullerton dismissed some lawmakers’ argument that a helmet law is an unwarranted form of government intrusion.

‘‘These are the same people passing a bill, signed by the governor, mandating that hunters wear an orange hat,’‘ he said.