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Riding without a helmet?

If Gov. Jeb Bush signs legislation repealing Florida's helmet law, bikers will be deciding whether or not to ride bareheaded.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 2000


Jeff Carpinski has been in his share of motorcycle crashes. Once, his Harley peeled the bed of a pickup truck like a sardine can.

He rides without a helmet. He's convinced it's safer.

"You lose vision and hearing with a helmet. It's so hot in the summer, you get lightheaded," the Largo motorcycle activist says. "People who ride helmetless pay more attention and ride slower."

Bob Jones doesn't buy those arguments. He grew up riding cycles and raced on them for years. Now he's a motorcycle officer for the St. Petersburg police, and he has seen riders who hit the pavement bareheaded.

Jones owns a very expensive helmet.

"I would never fathom riding without one," he said. "I know what can happen to your skull."

Gov. Jeb Bush has a decision to make. With a stroke of his pen, Florida motorcyclists could soon ride legally without helmets. Depending on whom you ask, this would be either a terrible mistake or a move long past due.

Motorcycle-rights groups say wearing a helmet should be a personal choice. They got Florida lawmakers to pass a bill that would let riders 21 or older go helmetless if they have $10,000 of injury insurance.

Critics call it the "right-to-die" bill. They say its only benefit will be a steady supply of organ donors. They warn that everyone else will end up paying higher taxes and insurance premiums to cover motorcycle riders' emergency-room bills and rehabilitation.

The governor will either veto the bill or let it become law. He has received about 500 letters and e-mails, about 65 percent from the bill's supporters and 35 percent from opponents. The critics worry that Bush is unlikely to veto the measure because it has been tucked into a wide-ranging transportation bill.

Let those who ride decide?

Across the country, the tide is turning against mandatory helmet laws.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, all but three states passed such laws after Congress threatened to take away their federal highway money if they didn't.

Congress changed its mind a decade later. One by one, states began repealing their laws. Florida is one of 23 states that still require helmets for all motorcyclists.

Doctors, insurance companies and safety advocates are appalled that Florida appears ready to revoke its helmet law.

"I think more people are going to die," said Dr. Steven G. Epstein, a trauma surgeon at Bayfront Medical Center who has treated hundreds of motorcyclists over the past 14 years.

"Very often, the helmet will be cracked and the patient will be awake," Epstein said. Other times, the helmet comes off before the head hits the ground, and the rider is in a coma. "They can no longer feed or dress themselves. They become wards of the state, where you and I pay for it."

Do helmets save lives or hinder riders? The question is hotly debated.

Motorcycle-rights groups like ABATE, American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, say helmets interfere with hearing and peripheral vision, and their rigid edges cause neck injuries -- arguments that are disputed by government studies.

ABATE thinks helmet laws are discriminatory. Many more car drivers than bikers die of head injuries. If safety is really the issue, ABATE asks, why aren't auto drivers forced to wear helmets?

Ricardo Martinez has an answer for that: Motorcyclists aren't like car drivers. They're more like eggs outside the carton.

Martinez runs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a government agency that, among other things, champions helmet laws. (see box) The NHTSA says motorcycle deaths dropped dramatically in seven states that brought back their helmet laws since 1989; deaths fell more than 30 percent in California, Louisiana and Oregon. Bikers say motorcycle registrations dropped in those states because of the annoying laws, which explains any drop in deaths.

Bikers say most of the states with the worst motorcycle death rates are helmet-law states, while most of the states with the lowest death rates don't have helmet laws.

The NHTSA counters that the states with the worst death rates are warm ones with longer riding seasons, while the states with the fewest deaths per rider are cold-weather states.

Death and taxes

Bill Sandonato has a rare perspective on repealing Florida's helmet law.

"I hate to say it, but it's probably going to be really good for our business," he said. "I'd like to be out of business."

His business is rehabilitation. He's president of Abilities of Florida, a Clearwater-based, non-profit agency for the disabled. Someone with a severe head injury may go from an emergency room to a rehab hospital and then to Abilities of Florida and, with luck, home.

What insurance doesn't pay for, the state does.

"Often, these folks are going to wind up becoming burdens to the tax system," Sandonato said. "If we don't do our best to protect folks from themselves, we'll reap the results of that."

Bikers bristle at the suggestion they'll be a burden on society. But critics think the helmet bill's $10,000 insurance requirement is a joke -- ridiculously inadequate when the long-term cost of a critical head injury averages $300,000.

Progressive Insurance, which may be the only Florida company offering $10,000 worth of personal injury coverage for motorcyclists, is getting inundated with calls.

Carl Wagenfohr won't be calling -- ever.

The Clearwater motorcyclist wants Bush to veto this bill. Wagenfohr wears a helmet and worries that, down the line, Florida will broaden its law and force helmeted riders to buy costly insurance policies.

"I've been able to avoid getting run off the road by all the rotten drivers in the state of Florida," Wagenfohr said. "I don't want the governor and the Legislature to run me off the road."

If helmets become optional, both sides will take up the debate again in the future. Doctors and insurers will try to get the helmet law reinstated. Motorcycle-rights groups will lobby to get the $10,000 insurance requirement dropped, which just happened in Kentucky.

Carpinski, the ABATE leader from Largo, will keep riding helmetless.

"The ride is much better," he said. "People with helmets get a false sense of security. They're enclosed in their own little world."

Jones, the motorcycle cop, will keep his helmet. He's seen the aftermath of the classic motorcycle accident -- a car driver turns left in front of an oncoming cycle he doesn't see. The rider hits the car, vaults over it and bounces off pavement.

Jones says police are getting a barrage of phone calls asking, "Can I not wear my helmet yet?"

The bill has yet to reach the governor's desk. Once it does, he has 15 days to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

Bush supports letting riders choose not to wear helmets, but he'll look at whether $10,000 is a fair insurance requirement. If it becomes law, it goes into effect July 1.

One person who wrote Bush asking him to kill the bill was Dr. Robert Tober, president of the Florida College of Emergency Physicians. Tober has treated helmetless riders who crashed, and he didn't mince words.

He compared the effect to dropping a cantaloupe out a car window and watching it splatter.

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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