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Bikers hail helmet law repeal

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000


TAMPA -- When John Morell pulled into the parking lot of the Ybor City Brewery on Saturday afternoon, he was helmet-free and proud on his shiny Harley-Davidson Deuce.

Saturday was the first day Morell and other motorcyclists around the state could ride legally without helmets.

Many did.

The overall mood at the brewery was subdued about the repeal of the 31-year-old helmet law that has frustrated bikers for years. But Morell had a smile on his face -- and mussed hair from his bareheaded ride. "I woke up today knowing I didn't have to wear my helmet," said the 52-year-old Carrollwood resident. "I couldn't get it off fast enough."

Gov. Jeb Bush signed the bill two weeks ago ending the longstanding mandatory helmet law. Now, cyclists 21 or older may ride helmetless if they have $10,000 of injury insurance.

To most of the bikers attending Saturday's outdoor beer festival and bike show in Ybor City, the timing of the law taking effect -- the July Fourth weekend -- couldn't have been more appropriate.

It's about freedom, they said, the choice to strap on a helmet or leave it behind. Several riders, in fact, said they will continue to wear helmets in congested areas.

"What everyone has been fighting to have is choice," said Bob Bourassa, director of the Sunshine Chapter of the Harley Owners Group, or HOG. "The bottom line is people should have choice."

Many doctors and insurers fought to keep the mandatory-helmet law, saying without it, more cyclists would die or be severely injured in accidents. And, they said, taxes and premiums would increase to cover medical costs of injured bikers.

But biker-rights groups dismiss that notion; accidents usually involve inexperienced cyclists or careless drivers.

Plus, helmets are hot, heavy and "you can't hear a thing," Bourassa said.

"It's a personal thing," said Vic Spence, who said he was riding motorcycles long before helmets were required. "It's like whether you wear underwear or not. It should be our choice, not the government's."

Fifty-seven-year-old Buster Edwards, a Tampa biker for six years, has totaled two bikes and rolled another. In 1996, a truck pulled in front of him and he hit its bumper. His bike turned over and his helmeted head hit the ground.

Paramedics laughed when they saw the spot where Edwards' helmet had been nicked in the accident. It was the same place where he had placed a sticker reading: "Helmet Laws Suck."

"It helped me," Edwards admitted. "But it's about the right to choose."

Morell said he hopes that inexperienced and young bikers continue to wear helmets. But he plans to shuck his most of the time when he's not going to be around a lot of cars. But his wife, Pam, plans to keep her helmet on at all times.

"I just feel safer," she said. "If I'm going 60-70 mph and I have a helmet on, I feel at least I have a chance."

So what about her husband's choice to forgo a helmet?

"Well," Mrs. Morell said, "I'm not crazy about it."

- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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