The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

May 26, 2013

Motorcycle crash deaths on the rise

Wozniak: No push to reverse helmet law

PITTSBURGH — Since Pennsylvania lawmakers decided a decade ago to give motorcyclists the choice of whether to wear helmets or not, the number of deaths in motorcycle crashes has increased, but a legislator says he doesn’t see any momentum to reverse the decision.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review says that since 2003, the number of deaths in motorcycle crashes has increased

35 percent. Last year, 210 people died in motorcycle crashes, according to PennDOT. Only 100 of the victims wore helmets, while 104 did not; it’s unclear in the other six cases.

In 2003, state lawmakers approved and Gov. Ed Rendell signed a measure to allow motorcyclists to ride without helmets if they were 21 years or older and had two years of riding experience or had passed the state’s Motorcycle Safety Program.

Despite the increased mortality rate, Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont, who introduced the legislation, said he sees no movement toward reinstating the restriction.

“It was a 15-year battle to let those that ride decide. It would be just as agonizing to reverse it,” Wozniak said. “I don’t think the trend is there.”

This year’s riding season had a deadly start, with six fatal motorcycle crashes in western Pennsylvania since the beginning of May. Police report at least one victim wasn’t wearing a helmet.

“The helmet is not the panacea that everyone thinks it is,” said Charles Umbenhauer, a lobbyist for the group Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education of Pennsylvania that fought for the helmet law repeal.

He noted that motorcycle registrations have increased 53 percent since 2003, and more motorcycles means more crashes and more fatalities. Penn-

DOT records indicate 5.19 deaths per 10,000 motorcycle registrations in 2012 and 5.92 for 10,000 in 2003, the paper said.

Dr. David Okonkwo, clinical director of UPMC Presbyterian’s Brain Trauma Research Center, said riding without a helmet increases the chance of death or catastrophic head or neck injury. Dr. Anthony Fabio, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said head injuries from motorcycle crashes have increased significantly since 2003.

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, who has tried unsuccessfully each year since the repeal to reinstate the law, said he plans to call for a comprehensive study of the issue over the past decade.

He cites data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year estimating that a motorcycle death can cost $1.2 million and a serious injury $172,000, including medical expenses, the cost of emergency medical services, and lost wages and productivity.

“It’s not just the rider’s business,” Frankel said. “The rest of us suffer direct consequences from someone’s reckless and irresponsible behavior. Your personal choice is impacting my health care costs, my insurance premiums and my tax dollars.”

But a number of motorcyclists who wear helmets as well as those who don’t agree that the decision should be an individual choice, not a government mandate.

“Not all riders are going to make good choices, but when you start taking people’s individuality away from them and their abilities to make choices, you’re starting to get into an area where you’re infringing over people’s rights,” said Brad Headley, 58, of Garards Fort in Greene County, who said he wears a helmet on weekend rides.

But Paula Watson said crashes don’t only affect the riders involved. She said a helmet gave family members another 20 years with her father, Robert Bertges, when he was injured in a 1991 crash, but he was killed in August 2011 after hopping on someone’s bike for a test ride outside a Pittsburgh-area bar.

“Maybe they need to stop and think about the people they leave behind,” Watson said.

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