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Motorcycle-only checkpoints rev up controversy in Congress

February 9, 2012 |  2:10 pm

Motorcycle check
Motorcycle-only safety checkpoints have revved up controversy among some lawmakers who say the inspections are another example of intrusive federal policies.

A measure inserted into the House transportation bill would bar the U.S. Department of Transportation from providing grants to local or state governments for such inspections.

The action grows out of a furor over checkpoints set up in Georgia last year and planned again this year under a $70,000 federal traffic safety grant.

The roadside checkpoints operate similar to the popular drunk-driving checkpoints. Law enforcement officials signal motorcyclists to pull over and then conduct on-the-spot safety inspections, checking on the condition of the bikes and whether drivers are properly licensed and complying with the state helmet law.

Similar checkpoints have been set up in New York.

But Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who pushed for the provision in the bill, assailed motorcycle-only checkpoints as "an intrusive governmental overreach."

"Motorcycle riders are right to be outraged at being singled out for safety inspections," Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) added in a statement.

Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, criticized the provision. The group describes itself on its website as a coalition of "consumer, health and safety groups and insurance companies and agents working together to make America's roads safer."

"What you see are the fingerprints of the anti-helmet people,'' Gillan said in an interview. "We're fighting efforts in state legislatures to repeal rider helmet laws. Now, what they're doing is attacking, in those states that require helmets, the ability of law enforcement to enforce the law.''

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman said that the agency's administrator David Strickland is concerned about the increasing proportion of fatalities among motorcyclists.

"If the argument is, well, you can't single us out by vehicle, we do,'' said Lt. Jim Halvorsen of the New York State Police. "When we do seat-belt checkpoints, we waive the motorcyclists through because they don't have seat belts. Both helmets and seatbelts are required safety devices."

Of approximately 27,000 motorcyclists that passed through their checkpoints last year, about 2,500 were stopped for closer inspection, Halvorsen said. Of those, 380 were ticketed for an illegal helmet. Six motorcyclists were arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. Forty-nine motorcyclists were ticketed for operating a motorcycle without the proper license class. A total of 1,665 tickets were issued.

In 2009, 4,462 motorcyclists were killed, a decrease of 16% from the previous year, according to the most recent figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Twenty-two percent of motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes in 2009 were riding without a valid motorcycle license at the time of the collision, compared with 12% of drivers of passenger vehicles involved in fatal crashes who lacked a valid license, according to the agency.

The American Motorcyclist Assn. believes that "strategies to promote motorcycle safety must be rooted in motorcycle crash prevention, and don't include arbitrarily pulling over riders and randomly subjecting them to roadside inspections," according to its vice president of government relations, former Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard.

Strickland, in a 2010 letter to the American Motorcyclist Assn., noted that of 225 motorcyclists inspected at one New York checkpoint, 11% were found to have unsafe tires, and 36%were not wearing helmets meeting state law.

A letter sent to the House Transportation Committee by the bipartisan group of lawmakers in support of the provision said that funds would be better spent on educational programs aimed at reducing motorcycle crashes

Both chambers of Congress are expected to consider their own versions of the transportation bill next week.

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--Richard Simon in Washington

PHOTO: A Laguna Beach police officer checks a motorcycle. Credit: Karen Tapia-Andersen / Los Angeles Times


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