Feb 25, 2019

Bikers Rally in Opposition to Mandatory Helmet Proposal

Reporting Texas

Members of the Tyler Biker Church pose for a photo during Bikers Legislative Day at the Texas Capitol on Jan. 28, 2019. Cami Toro/Reporting Texas

Rebecca “Sunshine” Brown, squinted, her nose ring glistening in the sunlight. Her yellow and red scarf matched the patches on her black leather vest.

“In 2013, I was hit by a drunk driver,” said Brown, a nurse and motorcycle enthusiast. “After a year in a wheelchair and seven surgeries, here we are. They ride down here every year to make their voices heard, but this is the first year I’ve been able to attend.”

On Jan. 28, Brown made the trip to the state Capitol in Austin from the North Texas town of Bedford for the biennial Bikers Legislative Day.  At the top of the bikers’ agenda was fighting an effort to make helmets mandatory for all motorcycle riders in Texas.

“I began wearing a helmet after my accident, but it’s a right,” Brown said. “It’s not something that needs to be legislated.”

Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, filed House Bill 748 in January. The bill would make operating a motorcycle without a helmet at any age a Class C misdemeanor. Neave says the measure is the first attempt to bring back the state’s so-called universal helmet law since it was repealed in 1997.

In 2016, 60 percent of motorcyclists that were killed in states without universal helmet laws were not wearing helmets. Only 8 percent of the motorcyclists killed in states with universal helmet laws were not wearing helmets.

“We understand there is going to be some resistance … but when it comes to saving lives, we think it’s a worthwhile conversation that we need to start having about wearing helmets,” Neave said.

Bikers from around Texas stand for the national anthem during Bikers Legislative Day on Jan. 28, 2019. Cami Toro/Reporting Texas

Neave says the bill arose because of the death of an Air Force veteran Texas named Joe Swim.

On a Monday in August 2018, Swim borrowed his son’s motorcycle for a short ride to pick up dinner. On his way to the restaurant he crashed, says Swim’s daughter, Jamie Angiel. Angiel said she and her family desperately searched the internet for more information when they came across a Facebook post by a man named Cannon Brown who witnessed the crash. Brown used his car to block off traffic from Swim, who was thrown two or three lanes from the motorcycle after clipping the car in front of him.

Brown, who contacted Neave after the crash, said he hopes people call the bill “Joe’s Law” if it passes.

Angiel said her family’s goal is to hold bikers accountable for their own safety, not to infringe on anyone’s rights. “My dad suffered a cranial fracture,” Angiel said. “Had he been wearing a helmet, we believe that, you know, maybe he would’ve had a fighting chance.”

The Texas Medical Association and the Texas Hospital Association have announced their support of the bill, Neave says.

The measure has a long way to go before it becomes law — it is still waiting to be referred to a House committee. Supporters are encouraging people to reach out to their legislators to let them know they support the legislation.

Two bikers speak next to their motorcycles during Bikers Legislatives Day on Jan. 28, 2019. Cami Toro/Reporting Texas

Since 1997, Texas has not required riders age 21 and up to wear helmets. Texas is one of 27 states that have adopted partial motorcycle helmet laws, giving riders what they call an “adult choice” when it comes to protective headgear. According to the Texas Coalition of Independent Riders, 64 percent of bikers already choose to wear helmets.

“We just don’t want our liberties infringed upon,” said Dave Bianchi during the Bikers Legislative Day in January. Bianchi is the pastor at Tyler Biker Church.

“A lot of people think motorcycle clubs are just fighting each other,” Bianchi said. “You’ll notice there’s patches from all over the state, and we come together with a common purpose.”

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who is known for riding motorcycles and wears a helmet himself, sponsored the event. According to Watson’s office, he supports the current partial law on motorcycle helmets.

As the speakers wrapped up around 12:30 p.m., bikers were encouraged to be tactful, educated, firm and non-partisan in their meetings with their legislators, and a sea of black leather flooded the Capitol entrance.

“People don’t realize, we’re all hard-working people. We’re mothers. I’m a nurse,” said Rebecca “Sunshine” Brown, “We feel like our rights are being systematically removed.”