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Coming to a Head : Safety: Foes of the motorcycle helmet law signed by the governor vow to continue the fight. They are angry and defiant.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The way Edmund Tafoya sees it, Gov. Pete Wilson’s signing of a law that requires motorcycle riders to wear helmets was a declaration of war, and he is in no mood to surrender.

“Nobody’s going to make me put on a brain bucket,” said Tafoya, 37, seated on his Harley outside an El Sereno hangout where weekend bikers rub shoulders with the more rough-hewn members of the Mongols and Vegas. “If a cop pulls me over, I’ll refuse to sign the ticket.”

A few miles away, from a hospital bed where he is recovering from a broken hip and wrist resulting from a motorcycle crash, 19-year-old John Heltsley used a different tone to express the same sentiment.

“I don’t like the law,” the soft-spoken college student said. “People ought to be able to choose.”

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Sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver on a Pasadena street and knocked unconscious after his new speed bike careened into a concrete wall, Heltsley says he is lucky to be alive and may owe his survival to the helmet he wore.

But like many bikers, he opposes the new law on principle.

“You tell smokers they shouldn’t smoke, not that they can’t,” he said. “In the same way people shouldn’t be forced to wear a motorcycle helmet.”

While safety advocates hailed the measure signed Monday as long overdue, motorcycle enthusiasts who have long fought for the right to ride with the wind whistling in their ears reacted with anger and defiance.

“I feel like Wilson double-crossed us, and I voted for the man,” said Pete Baker, a Harley rider who said he moved to Los Angeles from Texas last year primarily to escape that state’s recently enacted helmet law.

The California measure, which becomes law Jan. 1, makes California the 24th state to require helmets for motorcycle drivers and passengers. If the experience of other states provides a clue, the law will save lives, but it won’t end the debate on whether helmet use should be mandatory.

“Every year the statistics prove that our (helmet law) is a great benefit,” said Janice Collins, an official with the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission. “But that doesn’t keep the anti-helmet lobby from trying to chip away at it in the Legislature and I doubt it ever will.”

In 1982, Louisiana became the first state to re-enact a helmet law after an earlier one was repealed. Since then, motorcycle fatalities there have declined by almost one-third, she said.

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Ditto that success for Oregon (33%), Nebraska (32%) and Texas (23%), all of which have enacted helmet laws in the last three years and where safety officials have joined the chorus of those in other states extolling the virtues of helmets.

Experts say it is no secret why laws that require helmets for all motorcycle riders have greatly reduced deaths and injuries. An unhelmeted rider is 40% more likely to be killed and 15% more likely to be seriously injured than a helmeted rider, they say.

“It’s no coincidence that doctors characterize trauma in motorcycle crashes as the worst trauma outside of a war combat zone,” said Peter Fassnacht, an official with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, a nonprofit industry group.

Surveys in states where helmets are optional reveal that about 55% of bikers choose to wear them, compared to 95% compliance in states where they are mandatory.

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But surveys also show that nearly two-thirds of motorcycle enthusiasts oppose being forced to wear them.

“Politicians tend to get theatrical in describing opponents of helmet laws as only the burly guys with tattoos on their arms, but the fact is there is widespread resistance out there to being forced to wear a helmet,” said Robert Rasor, an official with the 190,000-member American Motorcyclist Assn.

Veronica Hootman, 25, a San Bernardino housewife who belongs to the Victory Riders of the Inland Empire, a Christian biker group, counts herself among the majority on the issue.

“My husband and I are avid helmet wearers, so the law won’t affect us, but if people want to be stupid and not wear them, I believe they should have that right,” she said.

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Only three states--Colorado, Illinois and Iowa--have no helmet requirements. Twenty-three states, including, until now, California, have limited laws that require helmets for riders below a certain age, usually 18. In California, it is 15 1/2.

Critics say that such laws do little to encourage helmet use and are therefore little better than no law at all. They say that anti-helmet lobbyists are largely to blame.

Indeed, some exemptions that lawmakers have managed to include in state regulations are almost laughable.

In Delaware, for example, adult bikers are required to have helmets in their possession, but not on their heads. Helmets aren’t required on roads in Utah where the speed limit is less than 35 m.p.h., even though safety experts say the average pre-crash speed in motorcycle accidents is 28 m.p.h. Rhode Island makes passengers wear helmets, but not drivers. In Texas, a rider can obtain a special 10-day exemption from wearing a helmet for medical reasons.

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“I get calls from people who want to know if arthritis qualifies,” Texas safety official Linda Cox said. “If you’d let them, some riders would go for doctor’s excuses the rest of their lives.”

One biker who is pleased that California is about to join the ranks of states with stricter helmet enforcement is David R. Thom, a researcher at USC who helped write the book on helmet safety.

In a novel experiment, he and his colleagues rushed to more than 900 motorcycle accidents in the Los Angeles area from 1975 to 1980 to gather helmets worn by accident victims for testing at USC’s Head Protection Research Laboratory.

The result was a 425-page study for the Department of Transportation that concluded what many parents whose sons have been smitten by the motorcycle bug suspected all along: helmets save lives.

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“The problem is that everybody thinks it won’t happen to them,” Thom said. “A lot of unhelmeted riders exhibit a certain air of invincibility.”

Safety officials say that the new breed of high-speed racing motorcycles from Japan that have flooded the U.S. market in recent years has contributed to the danger involving younger riders.

Often referred to as “pocket rockets,” the speedy imports have become the motorcycle of choice among 18- to- 24-year-old men, the people that safety experts say are most likely to be involved in crashes.

Cullen Nicholls, 21, who had never been on a motorcycle before, hopped on a friend’s pocket rocket two years ago--without a helmet. In a coma for a week and hospitalized for three months after the bike spun out of control and slammed into a curb near the USC campus, he is deaf in one ear and has partial memory loss.

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But even Nicholls, a student at North Carolina State University, confesses misgivings about the new helmet law.

“I’m the first to say I should have been wearing a helmet, and I’d never make the same mistake twice. But if I get on a bike, the choice should be mine,” he said.

Others, such as Toby Rosner, 75, take a different tack in opposing the law.

“I don’t believe in them,” said Rosner, a member of the “helmets are unsafe” school of thought. “They mess up your peripheral vision and you can’t hear in them.”

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A lifelong biker, Rosner has become something of a folk hero to retirees and Hells Angels alike for his relentless efforts to ward off mandatory helmet use in the state. He helped organize massive letter-writing campaigns in 1987 and 1989, when the Legislature passed helmet laws that were vetoed by former Gov. George Deukmejian.

“It isn’t over yet and we aren’t going to give up,” he said. “There are still courts to go to and lawmakers to talk to.”

Helmet Use Nationwide

Here is a look at the requirements across the nation for helmet use by motorcyclists, as of March, 1991. California’s new law, which becomes effective Jan. 1, will place it in the first category.

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REQUIRED FOR ALL RIDERS

Alabama, Arkansas, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Puerto Rico, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia

NOT REQUIRED

Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Rhode Island*

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USE REQUIRED UNDER SPECIFIC AGE (OFTEN 18)

Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware**, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maine****, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio***, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming

* Passengers required to wear helmets.

** Riders under 19 must wear helmets and helmets must be in possession of other riders even though use is not required.

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*** First-year novices also must wear helmet.

**** Required only under 15 years of age, for novices and holders of learner’s permits.

SOURCE: Motorcycle Safety Foundation


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