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Deaths climb after repeal of Florida helmet law

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.

The 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 to carry.

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 not funny."

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 David Russell, R-Brooksville, one of the sponsors of the bill that repealed the helmet law, said he had not seen the report.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 ridership.

"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 it further."

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 changed.

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 Gainesville.

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," he said.

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.