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Bikers may ride without helmets

Bush signs a bill that includes a measure to allow motorcyclists to have that freedom - as long as they have medical insurance.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY and BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 17, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- The phone was ringing when the most persuasive biker in Florida stepped inside his Silver Springs house on Friday afternoon.

"It was the governor," James "Doc" Reichenbach recalled an hour later.

"I said, "I'm waiting on pins and needles.' And he said, "I've signed the bill. You did a great job lobbying.' "

Eight years into his fight to allow motorcyclists to ride without helmets, after insisting that helmets can impede vision and hearing and even cause injuries, the shaggiest lobbyist in Tallahassee had defeated major insurance companies, the American Automobile Association and even a federal agency.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, allows bikers 21 and older to ride without helmets as long as they have $10,000 in medical insurance. Bikers currently are not required to have medical insurance, but they are required to wear helmets. Florida joins roughly 30 other states that have similar measures.

"It was a long time coming, but it's here," Reichenbach -- bearded, tattooed and inclined toward leather jackets -- said afterward.

After weeks of listening to arguments on both sides and wavering on his position, Gov. Jeb Bush signed the measure Friday as part of a larger transportation bill.

"Most important, I believe government oversteps its legitimate role when it excessively interferes with personal freedom," Bush said in a written statement. "That interference includes regulating an adult's decisions about his or her well-being if such decisions do not endanger the life of others. Reasonable adults should be trusted to make reasonable decisions."

"I like that people have choice," said Steve Deardorff, who sells motorcycles at Jim's Harley-Davidson of St. Petersburg. "In certain conditions, I'll still wear a helmet."

That includes his daily commute in the heavy traffic of U.S. 19 from Tarpon Springs to the dealership, a 30-mile trip, he said.

"I think everybody should have the right to say yea or nay," said Rollin Sutfin, presiding over a Friday night buffet for the Florida Gulf Coast Harley Owners Group, or HOG. "I prefer it without."

Many motorcyclists fear collisions with cars in traffic, when motorists often don't notice the smaller vehicles and merge into or turn in front of them, causing collisions.

So rides in the country or on the interstate, where there is less risk of that, will be when many say they will peel off their helmets.

"We head out to Lakeland or Brooksville on the weekends," said Craig Kahoe, in St. Petersburg. "Times like that I would go without a helmet."

"I will ride one time over the (Sunshine) Skyway without it," Kahoe's friend Tammie Wiggs said of her helmet. "That's my favorite."

Some riders dislike the mandatory $10,000 in insurance coverage that was a key element in getting the bill passed.

"I don't think I should give up a freedom to gain a freedom," Tom Deegan said. "It should have been our choice all along."

Reichenbach, president of the state chapter of ABATE, a motorcycle safety and advocacy group, said riders are planning special cruises for the first moment the measure becomes law.

"My phone's been ringing off the hook," he said. "Just about every one of my chapters has told me they're going to have a midnight ride."

But Reichenbach said much celebration is unlikely: "They're just going to go for a short ride and go home. They're not going to dance naked around a fire and throw helmets into a fire or anything like that. It's just a new law, man."

Signing the bill was a "tough call" for Bush, according to his communications director, Justin Sayfie. "He had difficulty reaching a decision because on the one hand there were issues of personal freedom ... and on the other hand there was a public safety issue."

Bush also risked losing $30-million in federal funds that could have been lost had he vetoed the bill, which is bundled with several unrelated provisions that ensure the federal money will go to state transportation projects.

AAA and some insurance companies lobbied hard against the bill, citing statistics showing that riders without helmets suffer severe head injuries. The costs for those injuries, according to State Farm lobbyist Vincent Rio, "ultimately will be paid for by everyone who goes to the hospital."

"We all pay the cost when someone else can't pay their medical bills," Rio said. "People who are not wearing helmets have more frequent and more severe head and brain stem injuries."

In his statement, in addition to citing the benefit of the new insurance requirement, Bush quoted statistics showing that "the average inpatient charge for motorcycle crash victims was just $1,200 higher for unhelmeted versus helmeted riders."

But those same statistics, compiled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration in 1996, include another category: The average cost of motorcycle accident head injuries in San Diego County, Calif., fell 32 percent from 1991 to 1992, from $53,875 to $36,744 -- after California enacted a law requiring helmets.

Kevin Bakewell, vice president of AAA Auto Club South in Tampa, said he was "very disappointed" the governor signed the bill. "I think maybe if it had stood on its own it would not have survived," he said. "I know that we're going to see a jump in motorcycle fatalities."

Reichenbach seemed to have statistics to counter all claims, and he made sure Bush had copies of everything this week. He said an increase in motorcycle fatalities in Texas after that state repealed helmet laws could be traced to increases in the number of riders.

"I can't say what's going to happen," he said. "None of us can. We're just going to have to wait and see."

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