Countywide : Cycle Death Rate Steady in County

While motorcycle deaths in California dropped sharply this year, thanks to a new mandatory helmet law, there has been no change in fatalities in Orange County, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Statewide, fatalities dropped 32% through June, from 225 to 152, according to the CHP.

In Orange County, there were 15 deaths resulting from motorcycle accidents for the first six months of this year, the same as in 1991.

"It's a shame that the numbers (in Orange County) haven't gone down, but obviously the numbers are going down considerably elsewhere in the state," said Steve Kohler, a CHP spokesman in Sacramento.

The statewide drop suggests that overall, the controversial law requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets may be working, officials said.

Enacted last year over the protests of many groups of motorcycle riders, the law mandates that riders and passengers wear federally approved helmets whenever they are riding on public streets. California is one of 23 states, in addition to the District of Columbia, with the requirement.

"Certainly, when the law is in effect, we notice a significant increase in helmet use. The significant increase helps riders protect themselves," said Peter Fassnacht, vice president of safety programs for Motorcycle Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes safe motorcycle practices.

Many riders still claim that the law impinges upon their freedom of choice. They say that the helmet is a liability and that it is hot and heavy.

"The helmet law has gotten a lot of people to park their motorcycles," said Paul Lax, state director of ABATE of California, an organization that supports motorcycle training and safety programs.

"We believe in individual freedom of choice," Lax said. "What I wear has no effect on anyone else. It's as relevant as wearing a kilt."

Lax said that for the first time in the 24 years since he began riding motorcycles, he had an accident in June. He says that the accident was partly due to his wearing a helmet, which cut down on his reaction time, and that his neck injuries were worse because of the heavy helmet.

Lax's group claims to have data supporting the conclusion that states having no helmet laws experience lower fatality rates than states that have them.

"It's kind of self-evident that the law doesn't work. Why are people dying at a faster rate?" Lax said.

Most motorcycle safety groups recommend that motorcyclists wear a helmet.

"Whether or not there's a law, we recommend that they wear a helmet," Fassnacht said.

Motorcycle Deaths Decline Statewide

During the first six months of the year the number of motorcyclists killed statewide declined by about one-third to 152. In Orange County, however, this year's 15 deaths exactly match 1991's January-June period. Before 1992, fatalities had been declining in both California and the county. Motorcycle Fatalities Orange County '91: 25 Statewide '91: 512 Source: California Highway Patrol Researched by MINERVA CANTO and APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times

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