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Since repeal of mandatory helmet law: More deaths, fewer helmets

Written by Ed Mahon/The York Daily Record | Jan 8, 2018 6:53 AM
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John Kruger, an Adams County resident and a former EMT, believes he's choosing the safer option by riding without a helmet. Kruger says he's more likely to avoid an accident and better able to react if someone does hit him. (Photo: Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record)

(Undated) -- Martin Causer gave a warning. 

"People will die because of this legislation," he said on the House floor in 2003. "I urge my colleagues to vote for safety."

At the time, state lawmakers were debating whether to make it legal for people 21 or older to ride a motorcycle without a helmet in Pennsylvania.

Causer, a Republican state representative from a rural area in northern Pennsylvania, had experience as a volunteer EMT. He told lawmakers he had seen brains splattered on roads after motorcycle crashes, and he had seen people saved by helmets.

But Causer failed. Lawmakers made helmets optional for many.

Since then, more people have died in motorcycle crashes. The number of motorcyclists killed each year in Pennsylvania increased, on average, more than 60 percent, according to a USA Today Network analysis of deaths since 1997. 

And from 2004 -- the law's first full year in effect -- through 2016, about half of the nearly 2,600 motorcycle riders who died in Pennsylvania crashes weren't wearing a helmet.

Pennsylvania is one of 31 states that do not require helmets for all riders. Sean Heisey, York Daily Record

 

But, at the same time, the number of motorcycles on the road has also risen sharply. In fact, the number of registered motorcycles increased at a higher rate than the number of motorcycle deaths.

If you're the type of person who thinks riders should wear a helmet, you can blame the 2003 law for those deaths. If you're not, you can blame the increase in deaths on the increase in riders, or other factors, such as more distracted driving by people in cars.

The debate over helmet laws is, in many ways, a debate over how much freedom a person should have to do something that experts say is dangerous.

Helmet-law supporters generally make this argument:

The ground is hard. Other vehicles are hard, too. If you are going at a high rate of speed and your head hits those things without protection, you are more likely to die or suffer a serious head injury. Family members suffer. So does society, especially if your insurance doesn't keep up with medical costs.

Helmet-law supporters point to research that backs up that position, including a 2008 study by University of Pittsburgh researchers. That study found that head-injury deaths from motorcycle crashes increased by 66 percent after Pennsylvania repealed the helmet requirement.

The arguments for helmet-less laws generally fall into two groups.

In group one, people say adults make all kinds of risky or bad decisions, such as smoking cigarettes or eating fried food, and it's not government's job to stop that. 

Group two says riding without a helmet isn't really as risky as you think. They think not wearing a helmet lets them be more aware on the road and helps them avoid accidents. 

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Helmet deaths vs. no-helmet deaths (Photo: Sean Heisey, York Daily Record)

And despite the increase in motorcycle deaths, there are no signs from Harrisburg that lawmakers will make helmets mandatory for all riders any time soon. So these potentially life-and-death decisions come down to individual riders.

About the legislation, data and reporting

In 2003, Pennsylvania made it legal for people 21 or older to ride motorcycle without a helmet, as long as they have been licensed to ride a motorcycle for at least two full calendar years or completed an approved motorcycle rider safety course. 

If riders don't have to wear a helmet, then their passengers 21 or older are also exempt.

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Southcentral Pa. motorcycle fatalaties (Photo: Sean Heisey, York Daily Record)

The USA Today Network looked at motorcycle crash and fatality statistics in the years before and after the 2003 law to get a picture of its impact.

For crash statistics, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation includes multiple vehicles under the definition of "motorcycle," such as regular motorcycles, mo-peds and motorized tricycles.

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record

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