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Bill lets bikers doff their helmets

The bill has some officials worried that death tolls and health care costs will rise as a result of more head injuries.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- James "Doc" Reichenbach, an unkempt legislative warrior whose tattoos and black T-shirts contrast sharply with the suits and sheen of his fellow lobbyists, has spent eight years working to bring home one bill for the biker set.

This time, the top lobbyist for Florida motorcycle riders delivered.

After years of rejecting the idea, lawmakers on Wednesday approved Reichenbach's controversial plan to allow bikers 21 and older to ride the flat roads of Florida with the wind and sun in their hair -- and with their helmets at home.

"Education," Reichenbach said, is the reason he finally won. "I educated the legislators."

Under the plan, which Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to sign into law as part of a wide-ranging transportation package, Florida would join 26 other states that let adult motorcyclists ride without helmets. Like several other states, Florida would require that riders have at least $10,000 in personal injury insurance, an amount opponents say would do little to pay medical costs for head injuries that they believe will increase without helmets.

Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, failed earlier in the week when he tried to increase the required amount of insurance to $100,000. Campbell was the only senator to vote against the bill Wednesday.

"I think that it's going to maim and kill a lot of Floridians," he said after the vote. "And I think it's going to cost us a lot of money."

The battle over helmet laws has pitted Reichenbach and his platform of "personal freedom" against the powerful insurance industry, which worries that head injuries will increase without helmets, driving up health care costs.

"The medical costs associated with these brain injuries are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Diane Jones, a spokeswoman for AAA, which opposes the measure and plans to send a letter to Bush asking for his veto.

In 1995, Rep. John Thrasher, who now is House speaker, supported a bill to make bicycle helmets mandatory for children under 16 riding on certain roads and paths. Thrasher said then the bill would save lives, and other lawmakers argued it would keep health care costs down.

Thrasher spokeswoman Katie Baur said Thrasher "supports allowing people to choose whether they wear a helmet or not."

Bush Press Secretary Liz Hirst has said the governor would look closely at whether $10,000 is a fair insurance requirement but that he supports letting motorcyclists choose not to wear helmets. But Campbell said Bush is unlikely to veto the measure because it is part of the larger package.

Although Reichenbach has failed in the past to change the decades-old helmet law, this year he found favor with the Republican-controlled Legislature and its creed of less government, more personal responsibility. Reichenbach told lawmakers that helmets can impair vision and hearing, which can lead to accidents.

Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon, chairman of a Senate committee, said the issue "brings out the libertarian in me. We took a lot of testimony in committee, and to me the burden of proof was on the proponents to show why people should be forced to wear a helmet, and I just didn't believe they passed the test."

Lee, a Republican, said he believed riding without helmets may cause more motorcycle deaths, but that death does not increase health care costs the way severe head injuries can.

"I know it's a morbid way of looking at it . . . (but) the whole issue is about cost," he said.

Jones, the AAA spokeswoman, said bikers should look beyond themselves. "When your rights start to affect my pocketbook, my safety or have me watching my family members and friends die on the road, that's when you've crossed the line," she said.

In 1998, 209,818 motorcyclists were registered in Florida. Between 1986 and 1995, motorcycle deaths in Florida decreased from 244 to 190, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Sam Miller, vice president of the Florida Insurance Council, predicted the death figures would increase, as they have in Texas, which approved a similar measure three years ago. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that nearly $5-billion would be saved if all states required all riders to wear helmets. Reichenbach, who lives in Silver Springs, is making plans for a group cruise -- helmet-less -- late the night of June 30, the eve of the bill going into effect.

"We'll probably have a little run that night, past midnight," said the longtime biker, standing outside the House chamber, his belly distorting the words printed across his tight T-shirt: "Legislative Warrior."

Bradenton Rep. Mark Ogles, a Republican, walked past.

"Way to go!" Ogles said. "Eight years and you finally did it."

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Motorcycle facts

  • 180 people died in Florida motorcycle crashes in 1998, out of 4,224 vehicle fatalities.

  • There were 209,000 motorcycles registered in Florida in 1997, as compared to 7.3-million cars.

  • Nationally, motorcycle deaths made up 6 percent of all vehicle deaths in 1997, even though they account for less than 2 percent of all registered vehicles.

  • Helmets saved the lives of 490 motorcyclists in 1996, by one estimate.

  • Florida would become the 27th state to allow adult motorcyclists to ride without a helmet.

-- Sources: Florida Highway Patrol, National Safety Council

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