Stateline Story

Cycle Safety Is Second-Class

In Illinois and Iowa, motorists can get tickets for not wearing seat belts. In Connecticut, they are prohibited from talking on cell phones. And in New Hampshire, motorists can be fined if they are involved in an accident while applying makeup or eating.

But if you are an adult motorcyclist in these states, you do not have to wear a helmet.

The laws of these four states illustrate a national dichotomy in traffic regulations: While most states have increased safety requirements for automobile drivers and passengers over the past 20 years, including requiring the use of seatbelts and improved driver training, motorcycle safety rules, and especially helmet laws, have been relaxed or remain static.

States have an interest in regulating motorcycle safety because taxpayers could end up paying for the medical bills of underinsured or uninsured riders, said Melissa Savage of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Recent events in Pennsylvania and Michigan have intensified the debate about whether motorcyclists, in the name of personal freedom, should have the right to increase their risk of injury or death. In Pennsylvania, which repealed its helmet law in 2003, Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, was not wearing a helmet when his motorcycle collided with a car on June 12. Roethlisberger, who also had no motorcycle license, suffered a concussion and underwent seven hours of surgery to repair broken jaw bones and several broken and chipped teeth.

In Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) — ignoring intense lobbying — vetoed a bill June 23 to repeal the state's helmet requirement.

"The governor believes that personal freedom ends at someone else's bumper," said spokeswoman Liz Boyd.

That leaves Michigan as one of the 20 states that require all motorcyclists to wear helmets. Twenty five 25 states, including Pennsylvania, require helmets only for younger riders. Four states - Colorado, Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire — do not require motorcycle helmets.

Since 1997, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Texas all have rolled back their helmet laws to cover only younger riders. Louisiana bucked the tide two years ago and enacted a universal helmet law.

But every state except New Hampshire now requires drivers to wear seat belts, and half the states have so-called "primary" laws allowing police to issue tickets solely for not buckling up. In 24 states, a ticket for not wearing a seat belt can be given only in conjunction with another traffic violation.

Those laws are the result of a two-decade shift in public policy. In the 1980s, auto manufacturers began lobbying states to pass seatbelt use laws as part of a deal to prevent a federal requirement to install airbags, explained Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association . Under federal rules, car makers have been required to install seatbelts in all cars since the late 1960s.

But over the same period a well-organized anti-helmet lobby has been very effective at convincing many states to loosen rules for bikers, said Russ Rader a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The effects of divergent auto and cycle policies are reflected in highway crash statistics. "Motorcycle crash deaths are the only area of traffic safety going in the wrong direction, " Rader said.

While deaths from automobile accidents in 2005 are only slightly higher than in 1997, motorcyclist fatalities have increased for eight straight years and more than doubled over that period, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which says a motorcyclist is 32 times more likely to die in a crash than someone in a car.

The government figures also point to a clear connection between weak helmet laws and increased fatalities and injuries. For example, the number of motorcyclists admitted to hospitals jumped 40 percent in 30 months after Florida repealed its helmet law in 2002, according to NHTSA. The increase in fatalities was 75 percent higher than the national average for two years following the repeal and deaths of minor riders skyrocketed 188 percent, even though riders under 21 were still covered by the law.

In addition, annual costs to treat head injuries more than doubled to $44 million and nearly a quarter of that amount had to be covered by public or charitable sources, NHTSA found. While Florida law required bikers to carry $10,000 insurance, only a quarter of those injured had hospital expenses less than that amount.

A recent legislative study in Pennsylvania found that head injuries in motorcycle accidents have more than doubled since the state's helmet law was rolled back in 2003. Helmetless riders accounted for more than 60 percent of those head injuries.

Part of the problem is an increase in older, less-experienced riders on the roads, said Ray Ochs, director of rider training systems for the nonprofit Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which is supported by major motorcycle manufacturers.

Twenty states require a rider training program for minors and 13 states have a graduated motorcycle license, restricting when cyclists can ride, on what kind of roads or whether they can have passengers, according to the foundation.

But another issue is that both lawmakers and riders tend to think of motorcycles as recreational vehicles or as a hobby and may not follow other safety laws, Ochs said. "It's a matter of respect ... people are not serious-minded about it," he said.

In 2004, 24 percent of motorcyclists involved in fatal crashes were riding without a valid license, compared to 12 percent of auto drivers in fatal crashes, according to NHTSA. And motorcycle riders involved in fatal crashes also were more likely to have a blood-alcohol content of .08 or higher.