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Data Show Helmets Save Lives of Motorcyclists

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Georgia motorcyclists seeking a repeal of the state's mandatory helmet law once again were sent away from the Gold Dome without the thrill of the wind whipping through their hair.

Their hopes were high this session, particularly after Gov. Sonny Perdue said in a well-publicized interview with Full Throttle, a motorcycling magazine, that he agreed "in principle" with helmet law opponents.

But it appears Perdue and state lawmakers were swayed by grim statistics from other states that have repealed their helmet laws since federal funding sanctions for states without them were lifted in 1995.

Kentucky, which repealed its helmet law in 1998, has seen its cycling fatalities rise from 6.4 per 10,000 registered riders to 8.8, a jump of 37.5 percent.

In Louisiana, which shed its helmets in 1999, the jump is even more striking. A fatality rate of 4.4 riders per 10,000 registered bikers spiked to 7.9 the next year, a hike of 79.5 percent.

Conversely, when California enacted a helmet law in 1992, fatalities dropped dramatically, from an average of 653 a year without a law to 279 with helmet requirements.

"The data is overwhelming," said Chuck Hurley, vice president for transportation safety for the National Safety Council. "The law saves lives."

Surveys show that when laws are repealed, riders shed their helmets. In Kentucky, for example, helmet use fell from 96 percent to 55 percent. Young riders, who in many cases still are required to use a helmet but don't, figure police will not single them out for tickets, said Richard Compton of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Motorcycle fatalities have jumped for five consecutive years nationwide, increasing by 50 percent since 1997, claiming 1,128 additional lives, according to federal statistics.

The trend lines show bigger engines and older riders. The average age of cyclists killed in crashes jumped from 29 in 1990 to 38 in 2002. More than one-sixth of the cyclists who were killed that year were 50 or older.

But cyclist groups such as ABATE, or American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, which lobbies annually for helmet law repeal in Georgia and elsewhere, remain unconvinced.

Steve Zimmer, executive director of ABATE of Ohio, was asked to the podium to react to helmet law statistics at a recent Lifesavers highway safety meeting in San Diego. That was unusual in itself, but ABATE activists attend such meetings and participate with the same passion they show in their lobbying efforts.

Zimmer said there are other measures that should be taken to protect cyclists, including better training for riders and improved education for motorists who habitually pull out in front of cyclists. "We are not against helmets," he said. "We are against helmet laws."

Zimmer said many riders flout helmet laws by wearing flimsy helmets that don't comply with federal standards. "They are putting something on their head just to comply with the law," Zimmer said.

He disputed claims that riders without helmets who get into crashes become burdens to the state, claiming most riders carry adequate insurance.

But no minds were changed.

"You can repeal helmet laws," said Hurley. "You can't repeal the laws of physics."

Joey Ledford's Lane Ranger column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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