St. Petersburg Times Online

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Bikers embrace freedom to ride without helmets

"It's the choice,'' says a biker cruising through Citrus County. "That's the whole thing of it.''

By BILL VARIAN

St. Petersburg Times, published July 17, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Floyd Harris is helmetless and on the road Friday in Crystal River.
CRYSTAL RIVER -- Floyd Harris rolls off his black Honda motorcycle, takes a few steps toward the front door at Grannie's Restaurant on U.S. 19 and then remembers something. 

Pulling a plastic comb from his jeans pocket, he gives his tousled gray mane a couple of quick strokes before he opens the door. Asked to describe what it's like to cruise the highway helmetless atop his bike, Harris says: "It's the feeling of freedom."

It has been two weeks since the law changed, allowing motorcycle riders older than 21 to go without a helmet, provided they have $10,000 in injury insurance. And whether they choose to go domed or undomed, bikers in Citrus County are greeting the change with a roar of approval that would muffle a Harley-Davidson.

With the option lies the true freedom, they say.

"It's the choice," said Roy Grom, a Clearwater biker, while passing through Citrus County last week. "That's the whole thing of it."

An informal survey last week of roadways in Citrus County suggested that a little better than half of bikers are exercising that new-found freedom. That leaves a goodly number still wearing their helmets.

 

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Grom, who was passing through Crystal River on Thursday on his way to Suwannee County for a fishing and camping expedition, was riding with friend Kenny Kovach, also of Clearwater. Grom, 59 and riding a 750cc Honda Shadow, was wearing his helmet; Kovach, 57 and atop a same-sized Yamaha Virago, was not. 

The difference: Grom was in an accident three months ago that left him with a broken collarbone, cracked ribs and road rash. So despite going helmetless in Europe for years, Grom has decided to wear a helmet for now, leaving the future open.

With such a story, one could argue that bikers should wear shoulder pads, too, Kovach joked.

"I just like feeling the wind blowing through what little hair I've got left," said Kovach, explaining why he was not wearing a helmet. "When your time's up, your time's up."

Like most bikers without a helmet interviewed last week, Kovach said he feels safer with the better hearing and peripheral vision that comes from going without. And like his partner, he says it should be a matter of choice.

Whether it's safer to go with or without a helmet remains a hot debate.

The amendment to the helmet law was tucked inside a broad, long-range transportation bill passed to Gov. Jeb Bush by legislators this spring. With the governor's approval, Florida repealed the more than three-decades-old restriction that made it illegal to ride without a helmet.

Previously, convinced that helmets made motorcycle-riding safer, Congress had linked federal transportation dollars to whether states had helmet laws. But that practice ended, and Florida now joins 28 other states that no longer require helmets.

Florida legislators approved the change over objections from the medical profession and some insurers, and despite studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that argue riding without a helmet is inherently more dangerous.

"I think anybody who climbs on a motorcycle without a helmet is really just asking for catastrophe," said Paul Reier, with the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida. "It takes milliseconds to turn your life around."

Among other findings, the NHTSA contends:

Riders without helmets are three times more likely to suffer brain injury than riders with helmets, and 40 percent more likely to die from head injuries.

Helmets are 67 percent effective in preventing brain injury.

Motorcycle helmets have saved nearly 70 lives and $90 million a year in Florida.

Dr. Bradley Ruben of Inverness, a family practitioner who worked in emergency medicine for years in South Florida, is most astounded by the required insurance amount. For the person who suffers a head injury in a motorcycle, the cost in long-term care, such as for physical and speech therapy, can run into the hundreds of thousands.

"The joke of this whole thing was that in order to ride a bike without a helmet, a person needed $10,000 worth of insurance," Dr. Ruben said. "The cost is going to be society's."

Indeed, NHTSA estimates that the average cost of long-term treatment for someone with a critical head injury is $300,000.

Standard medical insurance or HMO coverage meets the new state requirement, though bikers need to carry proof of their policy with them.

So far, only Progressive Insurance is offering $10,000 policies geared to bikers. Merri Chupko, vice president personal insurance claims for West Coast Insurance in Citrus County, said that agents have not received many requests for the policies to date.

"It's not much," she said. "I wish they had just left it alone."

Until now, motorcyclists haven't been required to carry any insurance. The $10,000 liability was based on figures amassed in 1996 by the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

The figures showed that the agency had spent $1.57-million in tax dollars for services to 403 motorcyclists who received brain or spinal cord injuries from 1992-96: about $3,900 per person. The insurance requirement more than covers the average motorcycle accident, said state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, the driving force behind the helmet-law amendment. She said that while some injuries do result in large costs, her research showed that a more typical biker injury for something such as a broken knee costs from $3,000 to $6,000.

"This says you will have even better coverage than we've had before," Argenziano said.

She admits she was a little skeptical when some constituents approached her about trying to repeal the motorcycle helmet law. But as a biker, she knew the unpleasantries that come with wearing a helmet: the limited sight, an inability to hear other traffic, not to mention the heat in Florida that can make you dizzy.

So she looked into the NHTSA studies and said she was astounded by what they didn't say. They sometimes included figures for mopeds, for instance, or grouped with head-injury numbers people who may have suffered other injuries, she said.

She found her own studies, including one by an engineer detailing the risk of spinal cord injury caused by helmets. A police group's look at motorcycle ticket-writers found some were going deaf because of the wind and noise channeled through the ear hole in their bike helmets.

Another study, by a motorcycle-riding doctor and circulated by the Motorcycle Riders Association of Washington, D.C., concluded some states without helmet laws reported a lower rate of injuries. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles' own numbers from 1998 and 1999 suggest a negligible difference in the rate of injury-causing accidents between helmet-wearing and helmet-free bikers. However, those numbers don't break down the number of head injuries and, because they were tallied while the helmet law was in effect, include a relatively small number of helmetless riders.

Why the fuss, then, from doctors?

"I just think it's an emotional issue," Argenziano said. "I can sit down with any doctor, and I guarantee you they haven't read half the stuff I have."

James Reichenbach, the Silver Springs based president of Florida's chapter of ABATE -- American Bikers Aimed Toward Education -- was one of the people supplying Argenziano with studies. He also testified in subcommittee hearings that the information he collected sometimes showed a greater risk of injury to people who wear helmets.

A Vietnam War veteran and bike rider for 38 years who has had his share of accidents, Reichenbach argued people should have a choice.

"I was in Vietnam and thought I fought for our freedoms," he said. "When I got home, we weren't getting them."

Most bikers in Citrus County aren't privy to the dueling studies. They are making their choices based on their own personal experiences and perception of safety.

"It should be up to you whether you want to wear a helmet or not," said Harris, before stepping into Grannie's. Up the road, Dennis Pharr, 45, pulled into a Crystal River gas station on his Harley-Davidson, a former Jacksonville police cruiser he bought at auction. He cited the same aesthetic and safety reasons as other bikers choosing to go without their helmets.

Still, he said, he's got a teenage son who rides a Harley as well, and remembers his own sometimes reckless bike-riding youth.

"He rides good, but he's a teenager," Pharr said. "So I kind of like that they did the 21-and-older part."

Pam Lafoe, a courthouse deputy for the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, has been riding for more than a decade, taking her Suzuki Intruder on sometimes long trips with her husband. She belongs to three bike-riding clubs, including the Blue Knights, an organization for law-enforcement officers that still requires its members to wear helmets at its functions.

Lafoe would wear one anyway, she said. A biker friend of hers died two years ago after crashing in New Hampshire at about 25 mph. He wasn't wearing a helmet.

"The way I feel is that everybody should be able to decide if they want to take the chance," Lafoe said. "Particularly at the slower speeds, I think you have a much greater chance of survival with a helmet."

Wiping out or being hit by a car is not the only concern of bikers. Fred Sparkman, a Crystal River barber, was riding his Harley in the Meadowcrest area Easter Sunday when a blue jay flew into his face. His head snapped back, hitting his passenger in the face, and he barely managed to keep the bike upright.

"It made a believer out of me," Sparkman said. "I'm glad everybody has a choice. I wear a helmet. That's my choice."

Argenziano took her own ride on her 1991 Honda Nighthawk the day after the new law went into effect, cruising northern Citrus County near Lake Rousseau. Naturally, she wore no helmet.

"I tell you, I could hear so much better," she said. "My peripheral vision was 10 times better.

"I felt like I was kind of back in America."