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October 16, 2019

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Bill to repeal state’s helmet law makes it out of committee

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Sen. Don Gustavson

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They said it could never happen.

Lobbyists would joke about it in the hallways.

Legislators would privately roll their eyes each time the bill was introduced.

Yet, session after legislative session — five to be exact — state Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, would push a bill to repeal Nevada’s motorcycle helmet law.

And, session after session, Gustavson would watch the bill die in committee, never to see it make it to the floor.

But in a sign of the topsy-turvy dynamic of the 2011 Legislature — or perhaps the temperature in Hades is starting to drop — Gustavson’s helmet bill made it out of committee this session.

“I guess it’s good to be persistent,” Gustavson said Monday.

More than Gustavson’s persistence, however, is the changed complexion of the Legislature that seems responsible for Senate Bill 177’s surprising early success this session.

For one, Gustavson is no longer a member of the Assembly, but is in the Senate, where Democrats hold a much slimmer majority.

Term limits have also filled the Legislature with freshman lawmakers and newbie committee chairs, one of whom, Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, made the unusual move of bringing Gustavson’s bill up for a vote even though she opposed it.

“Oh, things are definitely different this session,” said Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, who killed the bill last session as chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. “How does a bill pass out of committee by one vote when the chair is opposed to it? I was a little alarmed by that.”

The committee hearings on Gustavson’s bill have always provided prime legislative theater.

The actors:

• Aging Baby Boomers desperate to persuade lawmakers to give them the freedom to feel the wind through their (thinning) hair as they chase their youth on Nevada’s open roads.

• Emergency room doctors recounting grim tales of motorcyclists who died after leaving most of their brain on the highway, or, perhaps worse, lived through a crash only to face life with a traumatic brain injury.

• Insurance company lobbyists arguing all motorists would have to subsidize higher rates or burden hospitals with higher costs of treating crash victims.

• Motorcycle club members countering that helmets in the 110-degree summers in Southern Nevada lead to heat-related illnesses that affect safety.

• Traffic safety officials plying lawmakers with statistics on the loss of life and economic costs associated with eschewing helmets. In Nevada, the federal government estimates 26 lives were saved by helmets in 2008 and that Nevada avoided $49 million in related costs because motorcycle helmets prevented a death or more serious injury.

• Motorcycle enthusiasts citing statistics from Arizona, where only motorcyclists younger than 17 are required to wear a helmet and where motorcycle registrations have gone up while fatalities have gone down.

In the past, the Assembly Transportation Committee would listen to hours of contentious and emotional testimony and the chairman would quietly slip the bill into the proverbial desk drawer, to never again see the light of day.

This session, Breeden said she felt it was proper to bring the bill up for a vote even though she knew it would pass over her own opposition.

Freshman Sen. Elizabeth Halseth, R-Las Vegas — she replaced a veteran senator on the transportation committee who was a vocal opponent of repealing the helmet law — voted in favor of the bill. She and two other Republicans were joined by conservative Democrat Sen. John Lee of North Las Vegas, who frequently breaks from his caucus, in support of the bill.

But for all of Gustavson’s persistence and all of the topsy-turvy dynamics this session, some things never change in Carson City. SB177 likely won’t make it much further this session.

The bill has one more day to exit the Senate floor or perish under today’s deadline for all legislation to pass out of its house of origin.

In this case, a calculation of the costs will probably relegate it to the legislative purgatory of the Senate Finance Committee.

But Gustavson remains both persistent and optimistic.

“I think I have the votes to get it off the floor,” he said, once more testing the temperature in Hades.

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