By THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
May 28, 2006
One federal analysis concludes that nearly 700 lives could have been saved in one year alone if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.
Yet motorcyclists have become so passionately opposed to mandatory helmet laws that they've formed powerful state and national lobbies, persuaded Congress to muzzle federal highway safety experts and convinced lawmakers in 30 states to roll back their statutes.
Nine of the 10 states with the worst motorcycle death rates don't require adults to wear helmets, according to the Scripps Howard study of records provided by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
Six states, including Florida and Texas, have relaxed their laws since 1997. Motorcycle fatalities quickly went up in all of them. Lawmakers in eight other states are considering rolling back their laws this year.
Helmets spoil the ride for many motorcycle enthusiasts. They say they love the feeling of freedom as the wind whips in their hair. Those killed in wrecks are overwhelmingly white and disproportionately middle-aged and divorced men, according to federal death records.
People on both sides of the issue say men trying to recapture the joys of their youth are spurring the anti-helmet movement.
"I ride without a helmet every chance I get. It's hard to explain the feeling," said Noel LaPorte, a full-time lobbyist in Lansing, Mich., who is in final negotiations with Gov. Jennifer Granholm over a bill making helmets optional for adults. "The feeling is so much freer and more enjoyable."
Helmet use is at an all-time low. Last year, only 48 percent of the nation's riders wore headgear that met U.S. Department of Transportation standards.
"If we really wanted to stop highway deaths, why not make the speed limit 20 mph and force everyone to drive Volvos?" asked Tim Burchett, a Republican state senator from Knoxville, Tenn., who for years has sponsored a helmet-rollback bill. "It's a freedom issue, man. This is still America!"
Nationwide, motorcycle deaths have risen from 2,116 in 1997 to 4,008 in 2004. That increase comes at a time when highway deaths generally are declining because of improved auto safety standards and wider use of seatbelts. There has been a 40 percent increase in the number of registered motorcycles during this period, although the total number of miles driven on motorcycles has declined slightly.
When Texas relaxed its helmet law in 1997, motorcycle fatalities rose from 115 the year before the rollback to 285 in 2004. Deaths in Florida rose from 177 in 1999 (the year before state lawmakers rolled back the law) to 432 in 2004. Motorcycle deaths increased by 145 percent in these two states, significantly above the national average.
The per capita rate of motorcycle fatalities in 2004 was 41 percent greater in states that do not require helmets for adult motorcyclists, according to the Scripps Howard study of 2004 federal accident data. Seven of the 10 states with the lowest death rates have mandatory, universal helmet laws.
Motorcyclists scoff at such findings. "Statistics don't lie, just statisticians," Burchett said. "You can make statistics say just about anything you want."
Bikers are especially dismissive of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which recently issued a study of 2004 motorcycle fatalities that concluded 670 deaths would have been avoided if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.
Many motorcyclists accuse the federal agency of conspiring against them.
"They do nothing but infringe on the rights of motorcyclists. They twist their statistics to meet their needs," said James "Poet" Sisco, president of Louisiana's largest cyclist group called American Bikers Active Towards Education or ABATE. "They're a federal organization and the federal government wants to take away the rights of motorcyclists."
Federal statisticians defend their findings that motorcycle accident deaths increase when states stop mandating helmet use.
"I do understand about the joys of riding. My first husband owned a motorcycle dealership, so I rode on the back of a motorcycle for years," said Linda Cosgrove, chief of behavioral technology research at the highway safety administration. "The wind is in your hair and it is a lot of fun."
But the statistics paint an accurate picture, she said.
"The states have been repealing the universal helmet laws. Whenever a state does that, the observed rate of helmet use drops in half almost immediately and motorcycle fatalities and injuries skyrocket," Cosgrove said.
The federal government in 1967 began requiring states to enact mandatory helmet laws to qualify for highway construction funds, and 47 states and the District of Columbia passed such legislation by 1975. But Congress, responding to complaints when the Department of Transportation prepared to take action against non-complying states, revoked the authority to withhold federal funds in 1976.
Motorcycle enthusiasts then began lobbying state legislatures to roll back the helmet laws for adult riders, and 26 states have done that. Four other states don't require adults or children to wear helmets. Louisiana rolled back its law in 1999 but, concerned by the rising death rate, reversed itself and made helmets mandatory again in 2004.
Why would state lawmakers ignore federal statistics to support a potentially fatal law change?
"Many of the supporters of repealing the helmet laws are very effective. They are very well educated and well funded. And they have a single issue," Cosgrove said. "They present this not as a safety issue, but as a matter of states rights and individual freedom. They are very good. I wish they were on our side."
Also helping the anti-helmet cause is the absence of a well-organized opposition. No major interest group has challenged the motorcyclists. A few public health organizations and emergency-room physicians have gone to the microphones during legislative committee hearings to complain of the medical expenses created by motorcycle accidents. But the political passion clearly rests with the anti-helmet forces.
And motorcycle groups have been able to sideline their most effective opponent, the federal government's safety experts who've been tracking the rising death toll.
"They (safety officials) had been going to individual states that did not have a helmet law and lobbying state legislatures into signing one into law," said Jeff Hennie, vice president and chief lobbyist for the Motorcycle Riders Foundation. "Congress thought that was a horrible use of federal money."
The Motorcycle Riders Foundation - which spent $1.6 million to lobby Congress on a variety of issues during the last eight years - convinced federal lawmakers to ban any lobbying by national traffic safety officials in defense of helmet laws. The anti-lobby ban was inserted in a massive 1998 transportation-spending bill.
"This has been pretty frustrating for us," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. "We are allowed to stay active on issues like auto seatbelts. But on helmet laws, we've had to sit back and watch the motorcycle fatalities go up for eight straight years."
The nation's largest cycling organization, the 278,000-member American Motorcyclist Association, also has been lobbying in favor of rolling back helmet laws for adult riders, even though it also encourages its members to wear helmets.
"Motorcycling fatalities are up nationwide. That's what concerns us," said American Motorcyclist Association spokesman Tom Lindsay. "We encourage helmet use, but neither helmets nor helmet laws can prevent crashes."
Manufacturing groups like the Motorcycle Industry Council and Harley-Davidson also recommend that cyclists wear helmets, but neither has taken positions against rollbacks of mandatory helmet laws.
"We don't spend, and have not spent, any money for or against helmet laws," said the industry council's Mike Mount. "We've taken a position in favor of helmet laws in the past, but we've never spent any money to support that position."
Motorcyclist groups, instead, have adopted a position that the rising death rate of cyclists is a mystery that should be studied. They convinced Congress last year to authorize a new study of motorcycle mortality by the Oklahoma Transportation Center based at Oklahoma State University.
"Although there has been no shortage of speculation, no one truly knows why fatalities are on the increase," said Lindsay. "That's why securing federal funding for a comprehensive nationwide crash study was a victory for American motorcyclists. We expect it to tell us more about the causes of crashes, giving us the information we need to create the most effective solutions."
Meanwhile, the campaign to repeal mandatory helmet laws continues in the 21 states that still have them. Anti-helmet advocates point to Michigan as one of their best chances for a rollback.
"Helmets are irritating when you are riding. And they are uncomfortable in the summer when you start sweating into them," said state Rep. Tom Casperson, who has passed an anti-helmet law several times in the state House and helped win passage in the state Senate in March.
And what of federal estimates that hundreds of deaths could be prevented each year by wearing helmets?
"I just don't believe those statistics," Casperson said. "The federal government is pulling the numbers out and making them say whatever they want to."
The Michigan chapter of ABATE created a political action committee that raised $113,170 from its supporters. So far, the group has given $46,620 in direct campaign donations to House and Senate candidates. It has also hired lobbyists like LaPorte to take their case in final negotiations with Granholm.
"It doesn't sound so crazy when you get the facts. It may be counter intuitive, but you aren't necessarily safer wearing a helmet, which really only protect people in collisions of 13- or 14-mph," said LaPorte. "And we are the only state in the Great Lakes region with a helmet law."
Advocates of a helmet rollback say Michigan is losing $1 billion a year because anti-helmet motorcyclists avoid the Wolverine State when touring around Lake Michigan. That position prompted the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association to support the bill on the grounds that motorcyclists were avoiding taverns along the state's borders.
Safety advocates admit they are astonished by the passion that helmet laws have generated among motorcyclists, creating an almost irresistible political wave that's hard to counter with federal highway statistics.
"A lot of members of the state legislatures around the country ride motorcycles. They just want to do what they want to do," said Florida Rep. Irving Slosberg, a Democrat from Boca Raton. "I don't ride a motorcycle myself, so I just don't get it. What is the big attraction to riding a motorcycle without a helmet?"
Slosberg, who lost a daughter in a car crash, said he takes highway fatality statistics seriously and will try to reinstitute a mandatory helmet law in Florida. But he's not overly confident of success.
"People just don't care about safety. And these guys have a pretty good lobby," he said.
Contact Thomas Hargrove at HargroveT(at)shns.com
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