Motorcycle deaths rise after repeal of Fla. helmet laws
By Melanie Payne
Published by news-press.com on October 18, 2005
• Tracy Seymour of Fort Myers rides away from Cape Coral's Bike Night on S.E. 47th Terrace on her 1996 Harley Heritage Softail on Oct. 8. She says she always wears her helmet when she is traveling on the interstate, but on local roads, she usually does not. "It restricts your freedom that comes with it," she says. Todd Stubing/The News-Press
One way to increase the number of people who die in motorcycle accidents is to get rid of mandatory helmet laws.
That happened on July 1, 2000, when Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law a bill that essentially made helmets optional for motorcyclists over age 21.
Five years later, motorcycle deaths in the state and Lee County are escalating.
Traffic deaths involving motorcycles account for more than 10 percent of Lee County's 122 fatalities this year although motorcycles make up only 4 percent of passenger vehicles registered in the county.
Of the 13 motorcycle deaths, police say only three riders wore helmets. In one case, it's not known whether the rider had a helmet.
"Every state we look at the pattern is the same," said Rae Tyson, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "People stop wearing helmets and more people get killed."
Tyson's agency recently examined Florida information and concluded motorcyclists' death rates went up 55 percent after the repeal of the helmet law.
"We believe helmets are an effective way to reduce injury and death," Tyson said, "but it's the state's responsibility to get people to use them."
When a similar report came out about Louisiana, the Legislature reinstated helmet laws, Tyson said.
Florida legislators aren't moving to do the same.
On the federal level, bills to require states to have mandatory helmet laws or lose highway money have failed to gain steam.
That was how it worked in the 1970s until states started to repeal their helmet laws, said Judie Stone, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
"States that repealed it saw a huge increase in motorcycle deaths and then saw (the numbers) go back down again after reinstating a mandatory helmet law," Stone said.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 19 states require motorcyclists to wear helmets. Only three have no requirements: Colorado, Illinois and Iowa.
Cyclists say other factors, not just helmets, account for the high percentage of riders killed on the road.
They say the rise in popularity of motorcycles among baby boomers such as Norma Eveland translates into more accidents.
"You have a lot more motorcyclists out on the road who are very inexperienced," said Eveland, executive director of the March of Dimes Southwest Coast division.
Eveland, who has been riding for only four years, wears her helmet most of the time, she said.
"I'm beginning to feel that I should wear one. It's foolish not to have one on," she said.
But part of the experience of riding a motorcycle is the sense of freedom it gives, she said. "And there's something about a helmet that squelches that experience."
Riders should have a choice, she said, especially since the value of a helmet is debatable.
"In a lot of the accidents, even if they had a helmet on, it doesn't save them," Eveland said. "And sometimes I think even with a helmet I might not want to live. I don't want to be lying in a bed with a feeding tube."