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Following the Currents that Guide Florida's Future
Should Florida require motorcyclists to wear helmets?
Joe Saunders
Since 2000, Florida has been among a minority of states that do not require motorcyclists to wear helmets when riding. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control maintains the 2000 repeal of Florida's law requiring helmet use has cost the state both lives and money, in the form of medical costs for injuries that could have been avoided. The report has prompted renewed debate: Should Florida require motorcyclists to wear helmets?
Kevin Brunelle
Chief of Police, Winter Springs

Motorcycles, by their very design, are very hard to see if you are not always looking for them. Most drivers are not simply looking for the smaller vehicle traveling on the same roadway.

Given this extra danger, motorcycle safety should include the use of helmets. Let’s face the truth – every little bit of protection you can afford yourself may be the difference between life and death or serious bodily injury.

I, unfortunately, cannot speak about how many more individuals have died as a result of the repeal of the helmet law. As a first responder, however, I can testify to the difference at a crash scene as it relates to injuries received to the head.

No helmet made will protect you against being a foolish rider. Riding a motorcycle at breakneck speeds and weaving in and out of traffic like someone who has a death wish renders any helmet useless.

Without question, in the majority of accidents I have responded to involving motorcycles, the use of a helmet was the difference between harm and no harm to the rider. I’ll take the odds with a helmet any day.

I, too, have ridden without a helmet. But when I was hit on my personal motorcycle by a motorist making a left turn, and when I wrecked my police motorcycle, I was glad I had my helmet on. The moments after the crash is not the time to realize you should have been wearing your helmet.

It would be refreshing to see Florida once again require motorcyclist to wear helmets. But until then, give yourself a chance.

Wear your helmet.

Brunelle is a veteran motorcyle patrolman.


Darrin Brooks
State Legislative Trustee, ABATE of Florida

It seems to be very popular recently to point fingers at motorcyclists and shout, “If only they were forced to wear a helmet thousands of lives and billions of dollars would be saved each year.” Bolstered by a study here and a newspaper column there, many of the “I know what's best for you” crowd will try to rally others into forcing a small minority of our society into losing what precious bit of personal freedom we currently possess.

The eye of the recent motorcycle helmet hurricane revolves around a national study published by the federal Centers for Disease Control. This report by the CDC is a tad bit misleading. While helmets do give a slight advantage of surviving head injuries, motorcyclists want to make their own decision about when to wear a helmet. And statistics support that choice.

In the 2009 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's “Traffic Safety Facts-Motorcycles,” of the six states (Florida, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York) with the highest motorcyclists' fatalities, only two require all riders to wear helmets. However, of the six states with the lowest motorcyclist fatalities, only two require all motorcyclists to wear helmets.

The actual CDC report stated: “Percentages were suppressed for states with fewer than 10 fatalities involving motorcyclists who were not wearing helmets.” Using that low fatality criterion, only one state required universal helmet use.

A better figure would be fatality-per-motorcycle-registrations. In 2002, of the six states with the lowest ratios, only Vermont required all riders to wear helmets. Using that ratio as an indicator, for over a decade, the majority of states with the lowest fatality ratios allowed the rider to decide when to wear a helmet.

I offer these reports from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV).

The DHSMV gathers all traffic-related crash numbers and puts out a report each year. So using the CDC's same time frame, the DHSMV shows that motorcycle deaths in Florida actually decreased from 532 in 2008 to 383 in 2010 (2009 had 402 deaths) about a 28 percent decrease in deaths. But contrary to the CDC and NHTSA reports of the deaths, each year more people died wearing a safety helmet than without.

(These numbers are taken directly from the DHSMV yearly Traffic Crash Statistics Report which can be readily found at www.flhsmv.gov/html/safety.html)

Year: 2008: total deaths: 532; with helmet: 292; without helmet: 188; not stated: 52

Year: 2009: total deaths: 402; with helmet: 214; without helmet: 148; not stated: 40

Year: 2010: total deaths: 383; with helmet: 196; without helmet: 141; not stated: 46 (Note: Due to an editing error, an early version of this commentary included an incorrect figure for the "not stated" category.)

The fatalities-per-accident ratios have been very close, with some years favoring those who do not wear helmets. For 2010, the ratios were 4 percent for those wearing helmets and 4.5 percent for those who were not wearing helmets. If the helmet was as effective as non-riders believe, those ratios should be very different.

The CDC article is also misleading when it states that the economic cost of the deaths and injuries are passed on to the public. Currently on the NHSTA website is a Costs of Injuries Resulting from Motorcycle Crashes synopsis of other studies of medical costs between helmeted and non-helmeted motorcycle accident victims.

Of 11 studies, the differences range from almost the same to triple. The 1996 CODES Benefits of Safety Belts and Motorcycle Helmets actually had a chart between helmeted and non-helmeted motorcycle accident victims, with or without brain injuries, and the non-helmeted group had lower medical costs.

The CDC report includes projections of what would be saved both medically and with work-loss productivity if motorcycle accident victims were wearing a helmet. The costs are based on unpublished (non-verifiable) NHTSA data.

The report also leads you to believe that every motorcyclist is uninsured. However, a report titled Motorcycle Crash Trends in Florida presented in 2010 by the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at USF shows 91 percent of the 2009 hospitalizations in Florida for non-fatal injuries sustained in motorcycle traffic crashes had a payer source.

Some reports tout that the yearly economic impact of motorcycle crashes is $385 million. Compare it to the total annual economic cost of alcohol and drug use of $43,766,641,733 (with a B as in BILLION).

That stat is from the Annual Economic Impact of Alcohol and Drug Use in Florida report dated July 20, 2009. In comparison, the economic impact of motorcycle medical costs is 0.88 percent of the total annual cost of crashes involving alcohol and drugs, including jail time, legal, medical and other expenses.

ABATE of Florida, Inc., is not against wearing helmets. We are for safety awareness, education of everyone on the road, and the individual's right to choose.

For more information about ABATE (American Bikers Aimed Toward Education) of Florida, Inc., visit the group's website at www.abateflorida.com.



Joe Saunders

Well, there you have the basic sides in this argument.

Chief Brunelle's point is straightforward, and intuitive to most of us: Wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle will save lives.

Mr. Brooks' stance is equally straightforward, if not as intuitive: The statistics used to promote mandatory helmets, he says, don't make the argument on the grounds of humanitarianism (saving lives) or financial responsibility (recovery costs borne by the taxpayers rather than the bikers or their insurance companies).

So, who's right? It's not for me to say, but it is worth framing the debate in a larger question: To what degree is a society responsible for regulating the behavior of the adult individuals that make it up?

On the side favoring mandatory helmets, the argument comes down to the often-quoted -- and possibly apocryphal -- rescue worker featured in the debate over seat-belt laws from years past: “I never cut a corpse out of a seat belt.”

(I've never really bought the whole medical costs argument for two reasons: 1) The “you-have-the-freedom-to-ride-without-a-helmet-but-I-don't-want-to-pay-for-your-hospitalization” position has always come across as unseemly – a passive-aggressive kind of bossiness masquerading as stark utilitarianism; and 2) I've always had a kind of gut feeling that medical costs for people who wreck without helmets are probably less of a factor than funeral costs would be.)

On the side favoring bikers' freedom to choose, is well, basically, the freedom to choose. In other words, that adults have a right to choose how much danger they're willing to put themselves in and for what purpose – whether for a livelihood or a lifestyle.

Riding a motorcycle inherently risky, riding without a helmet is more so. But so is skydiving (where helmets are worn, but surely to little effect if something goes seriously wrong), bungee jumping (likewise) or myriad other things people do for recreation that could easily lead to a trip to the emergency room or morgue.

The bottom line comes down to this: At what point is enough enough to protect free adults from the consequences of their own decisions? What point is too much? And who, finally, is to decide?

The answers are pretty obvious:

It depends. It depends. And we are – as a society and an electorate.

In 2000, the Florida Legislature decided motorcylists are free to decide whether to wear a helmet or assume the risks of going without. In the 12 years since, I haven't seen a groundswell of democracy clamoring for that decision to be changed.

If you haven't either, but you think we need one, now's the time to start.


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by Dr. Radut.