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JEFFERSON CITY - Safety advocates cheered Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday for vetoing a bill that would have repealed Missouri's helmet requirement law for motorcyclists.

"In terms of lives and of dollars, the cost of repealing Missouri's helmet law simply would have been too high," Nixon said. "By keeping Missouri's helmet law intact, we will save numerous lives, while also saving Missouri taxpayers millions of dollars in increased health care costs."

This year marked the second time Missouri motorcycle enthusiasts were successful in passing such a repeal through the Legislature, only to be stymied by the veto of a Democratic governor. In 1993, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan vetoed a similar bill.

Pete Rahn, director of the state Department of Transportation, had been lobbying Nixon hard to veto the bill. In a news conference last month, Rahn pointed to a survey that said Missourians overwhelmingly want motorcyclists to wear helmets. Rahn said repealing the law would lead to deaths, based on highway statistics that show riders without helmets are more likely to die.

"He has saved lives today," Rahn said of Nixon, calling his veto "courageous and compassionate."

Nixon's decision came the same day the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that while overall traffic deaths are declining, motorcycle-related deaths are up.

"Motorcyclist fatalities continued their 11-year increase, reaching 5,290 in 2008, accounting for 14 percent of the total fatalities," the report says. "Data from previous years has shown that while motorcycle registrations have increased, the increase in motorcyclist fatalities has increased more steeply."

Until Thursday, Nixon's stance on the issue had been hard to gauge.

The governor disputed statements from advocates for the law who said that he had given them assurances he would let the measure become law. But Nixon also chided Rahn for spending public money to lobby against the bill. Rahn's actions caused Nixon to veto $33,000 in MoDOT's budget, the same amount of federal money the Transportation Department spent on the survey.

In the end, Nixon ended up on Rahn's side.

And that left members of the Freedom of the Road Riders, the motorcycle group that has led the push for the helmet repeal, feeling jilted.

"I talked to the governor's office last week," said Rick Gish, president of the Franklin County Local 42 chapter of the motorcycle group. "They assured me that it was going to ride. I'm very disappointed. We fought hard for this for several years."

Gish said Nixon told members of his group that he would neither veto the bill nor sign it, but let it sit on his desk until it became law. Nixon disputed that characterization.

The bill passed easily in the Senate, 23-6, but had a tighter margin in the House, 93-65, meaning lawmakers might have a tough time overturning Nixon's veto when they return to session in September. Lawmakers who favored the bill said it wasn't government's job to protect motorcycle riders from themselves.

The law would have allowed motorcyclists to choose whether to wear helmets when on most Missouri roads except for interstate highways, where helmets still would be required.

Although Nixon chided Rahn for spending public money to lobby him on the issue, he cited some of the same figures Rahn used in arguing that repealing the helmet law would be a bad decision. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he pointed out, says that wearing helmets reduces the likelihood of a fatality by 37 percent. Nixon specifically pointed to statistics that show Florida's motorcycle-related deaths spiked after that state repealed its helmet law.

Nixon also listed the increased costs of caring for motorcyclists injured while not wearing helmets as one of the reasons he vetoed the bill.

Jonathan Adkins, communications director for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said he hoped Nixon's veto would have an effect on other states facing similar decisions.

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LOCAL REACTION

Motorcyclists in the St. Louis area expressed a variety of opinions on the issue.

Kurt Brueckmann, 49, of St. Louis, said he always will wear a helmet regardless of the law. "The occupation I'm in - a firefighter - I err on the side of safety," he said. "You might hit your head on a curb and a helmet could save you."

Charlie Brown, 50, of Arnold, said he wears a helmet but believes people should have a choice. "I think if you're going to run down to the store or something like that, you might not want to wear a helmet."

Jim Steinbach, 53, St. Louis said: "If you choose to wear one, fine. It shouldn't be a law. Personally, I prefer not to. ... Sometimes I feel like wearing one, and I will wear one."

Kenny Fessler, 61, Jerseyville, said: "There's no doubt ... wearing a helmet can save your life, but I don't think the government can legislate safety. I mean high heel shoes can be dangerous, but I don't think they should be able to outlaw that."