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Freedom to forgo helmets worth higher risk, riders say

Veteran bikers in Florida acknowledge increased danger, especially for "rookie" riders, but value their right to choose.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN
Published June 20, 2006


With nearly 30 years of experience riding motorcycles, "Radical" Randy Akers doesn't need a study to tell him that crashes turn deadly when bikers don't wear helmets. Still, if you see him on the road, he probably won't be wearing one.

"There's nothing like the freedom of your hair blowing in the wind while you're watching the scenery," said Akers, 43, a Plant City resident and local motorcycle enthusiast and promoter.

"If I was to die tomorrow on my bike without a helmet, I know my friends would say: 'He went out the way he wanted to go.' "

Since Gov. Jeb Bush repealed the state's mandatory helmet law six years ago, one study after another has found that deaths have increased. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says motorcycle deaths in the state have increased 67 percent, from 259 in 2000 to 432 in 2004.

A recent Florida Today analysis of federal motorcycle crash statistics found "unhelmeted" deaths in Florida rose from 22 in 1998 and 1999, the years before the helmet law repeal, to 250 in 2004, the most recent year for which data were available.

Florida "is the poster child for why states shouldn't repeal helmet laws," said Jackie Gillan, the vice president of the nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

But records also show that motorcycle registrations have increased 87 percent in Florida over the same time period the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studied. Motorcycle riders say that as more inexperienced drivers hit the road, it's only natural to expect the number of fatal accidents to go up.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident last week showed the results of riding without a helmet. After colliding with a car, Roethlisberger underwent seven hours of surgery to repair a broken jaw and other facial bones.

Motorcycle advocates prefer to stress that the third-year quarterback was a relative motorcycle rookie. The quarterback will be issued $388 in fines and fees for riding without a license and not wearing a helmet.

After the Florida helmet law was repealed six years ago, several hundred bikers celebrated by riding to the top of the Sunshine Skyway. Akers said dozens flung their helmets over before continuing on "a nice evening ride."

Some riders have changed their views on helmets since then. Akers said he's open to requiring helmets for new riders, who are more likely to get into accidents. But he says longtime riders should be able to choose whether to wear helmets.

At stores, many riders buy a helmet when purchasing a motorcycle. Scott Zampach, 43, a salesman at Fletcher's Harley-Davidson in Clearwater, said many customers request helmets because they "realize that motorcycles can be dangerous."

Zampach of St. Petersburg gave up competitive racing after a bad crash - he says a helmet saved his life - and wears a helmet on long rides.

But he and his girlfriend still ride sometimes without helmets. They like to kiss and talk on the road, he said.

For many motorcycle riders, freedom and fun often trump safety. Ron Galletti of Valrico, who owns Born to Ride, which produces a television show and monthly magazine about motorcycles, says riders like "the freedom of having the choice."

"Of course a helmet's safer," said Galletti, 44. "But it's hot. It covers up your hearing ... your peripheral vision."

So what does he do on the road?

"Sometimes I wear a helmet," Galletti said. "And sometimes I don't."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or 727 893-8472.

[Last modified June 20, 2006, 06:36:55]


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