Motorcycle activists set sights on helmet law

Special to The Times

California motorcycle activists were hoping they might win support from one of the state's top motorcycle enthusiasts -- Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger -- in their effort to repeal the state's strict helmet law.

Since 1991, state law has required all motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Although previous efforts to modify the law have failed, some riding advocates thought they might have a better chance with a motorcyclist as governor.

"Arnold is a rider" and a real motorcycle fan, said Jean Hughes, legislative director for the California arm of ABATE, American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, an influential motorcyclist rights organization.

But it appears unlikely that Schwarzenegger would support a law to allow riding without protective headgear. Schwarzenegger spokesman H.D. Palmer says that the governor-elect supports the state's current helmet law and notes that when Schwarzenegger rides his motorcycle, he wears a helmet.

Still, in January opponents of the current helmet law plan to reintroduce a bill in the state Assembly that would allow motorcycle riders 21 and older to ride without helmets.

It's worth noting that as motorcycle fatalities increased nationwide in 2002, various attempts to repeal state laws requiring all riders and passengers to wear helmets have come under increasing fire from safety advocacy groups.

Last year, California had 323 motorcycle fatalities, or about nine per 1 million residents. Among other large states, Florida had 319 deaths (about 19 per million) and Texas recorded 247 (11.5 per million).

Studies by the U.S. Department of Transportation also indicate that motorcycle deaths and head injuries rise when states repeal strict helmet laws.

Helmets do save lives and can prevent serious head injuries, say doctors and safety experts. Requiring all riders to wear helmets also reduces the medical costs for those injured, many of whom may require long-term care, said Judi Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety in Washington. According to her group, many motorcyclists are uninsured or underinsured, resulting in public funds being used to cover medical bills.

Dr. Marc Evensen, director of the Acute Rehabilitation Unit at UC Irvine Medical Center, warns that motorcyclists who don't wear helmets can suffer significant brain damage requiring months or years of care.

"Motorcycles are dangerous pieces of machinery," he said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported that motorcycle deaths increased by 100% in Louisiana and more than 50% in Kentucky after those states repealed mandatory helmet laws.

Motorcyclist rights groups have disputed NHTSA's findings. The Motorcycle Riders' Foundation, for one, says the agency's studies are skewed to its bias against riders.

"We don't ever say people should not wear a helmet. We believe it is a personal choice," said Teri Stobbs, a spokeswoman for the motorcycle foundation.

Many riding enthusiasts argue that most accidents are caused by inattentive drivers of four-wheel vehicles who pull out in front of motorcycles or say they don't see the bikes coming.

And many fatalities involve internal injuries that have nothing to do with whether the riders were wearing helmets, Stobbs said.

NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson, who says he has been riding motorcycles for more than 35 years, concedes that some of the increase in motorcycle deaths could stem from a significant rise in the number of cyclists on the road.

Nevertheless, he noted, the increase in fatalities in Louisiana and Kentucky still outpaced the national average.

"The fact is if you are on a motorcycle and equipped with a helmet, you have a better chance of survival," Tyson said.

Counters Hughes of ABATE: "What it really comes down to is freedom of choice.... I've seen helmets save lives. I've seen them snap people's necks."


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