By Dan DeWitt
St. Petersburg Times
TAMPA Many motorcyclists said the repeal of the helmet
law would make riding a more liberating experience.
It's also more dangerous, a new study says.
Motorcycle fatalities in Florida rose by about 42 percent
in the 18 months after the new law went into effect on July
1, 2000, according to a state-funded study by the University
of South Florida.
While the number of riders also climbed rapidly during that
time, it did not keep pace with the number of deaths.
study also found that injuries have become more serious and
more expensive to treat as the rate of helmet use dipped to
about half of all riders. The average hospital costs for non-helmeted
riders is many times the $10,000 insurance they are required
The study did not directly tie the increased fatalities to
the change in the law, mostly because it could not be determined
how many of the deaths were caused by head trauma, said Patricia
Turner, the senior researcher who wrote the report.
Also, she said, her analysis did not chart other factors
that can contribute to fatalities, including riders' speed
and alcohol use.
"We're just looking at what the trends are," she
said. "And more and more people riding without a helmet
could lead to more people dying."
As the final version of the report becomes available this
week, it may revive the political fight over the repeal of
the helmet law.
James Reichenbach, president of ABATE of Florida, lobbied
to repeal the helmet law in 2000, arguing riders over 21 should
have the right to choose, and that the impact on road safety
would be negligible.
He says that has proven to be the case.
Fatalities have increased only because motorcycle use skyrocketed,
he said, and the number of fatalities per mile traveled actually
dipped 5.2 percent in the year after the law was changed.
"Their studies are so far off, it's amazing," said
Reichenbach. "Patty Turner is so anti-motorcycle it's
State Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, one of the sponsors
of the bill that repealed the helmet law, said he had not
seen the report. But he, like Reichenbach, cited state statistics
showing fatalities had actually decreased when compared to
"It's the choice of the rider at this point," said
Russell, chairman of the House transportation committee. "But
if (the USF findings) are black and white, if it's clear there
is a significant increase in fatalities, I want to look at
Turner said the report was not intended to support either
side of the helmet debate.
She originally proposed it in 2002 to update a 1998 study
that tracked the percentage of helmet use in Florida.
When the state Department of Transportation commissioned
the $119,000 study, it asked for other information, including
the rates of injuries, fatalities and treatment costs.
Turner's study also addressed fatalities per miles traveled,
which is difficult to measure accurately, she said.
She found this rate increased by 13.8 percent after the law
The study's findings confirm what doctors and nurses have
found across the state, said Dr. Lawrence Lottenberg, director
of trauma surgery at Shands at the University of Florida at
But fatalities are "just a small aspect" of the
total effects of the law, he said.
Some non-helmeted riders "wind up with devastating head
injuries that take them out of the work life and out of the
lives of their families," he said.
And the insurance requirement, he said, does not come close
to covering medical bills.
"The $10,000 is used up in the first 30 minutes of life-threatening
trauma care," he said.
Hospitals around the state reported the average cost of treatment
for non-helmeted riders was $34,021 to $55,055, according
to the USF study. That is about $10,000 more than for riders
who were wearing helmets.
Trauma surgeons and nurses were some of the most vocal opponents
of repealing the helmet law.
Although it is no longer a top priority, they will urge lawmakers
this year to reinstate the law.
"It is certainly a burden on our trauma centers,"
Turner's report does not recommend a new helmet law.
Instead, she said, the state should try to get more conclusive
information about the effects of riding without a helmet and
other causes of the increased fatalities.
"We have to look at why we have these rising fatality
rates," she said.