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Refueling debate over motorcycle helmets

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Greg Peck
November 29, 2013

It might be an odd time of year to debate the value of motorcycle helmets, but a new story and a study have prompted a handful of letters on the topic to The Gazette in recent days.

The first came from Rex Fritschi of Elkhorn. His letter cited a story in The Economist. That publication interviewed Dr. Lori Terryberry-Spohr from Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Neb. She said that while Nebraska requires helmets, neighboring Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota do not and hospital officials usually can guess which patients aren't from Nebraska. She says victims of motorcycle accidents who weren't wearing helmets typically run up $1.3 million in direct medical costs and that fewer than one-third of them ever work again.

The story also says “a study of helmet-shunning bikers admitted to one large hospital, cited by the Centers for Disease Control, found that taxpayers paid for 63 percent of their care."

The story says libertarians often demand: “Let those who ride decide.” This retort came from Jacqueline Gillan, who heads Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an insurer-funded lobby group: “Let those who pay have a say.”

I've received three letters in response to Fritschi's, all supporting motorcyclists' right to choose. We printed two, but I rejected one out of concern for accuracy. It claimed 40 percent of motorcyclists were “unendorsed” and that the state has too few personnel to help those riders wanting endorsements.

I rejected that letter after speaking with Jim Miller, the state Department of Transportation's deputy director of the bureau of field services.

Miller says an “endorsed” biker is one who has a license to ride or has a learner's permit.

Instead of more than 40 percent of motorcyclists being unendorsed, Miller says state statistics do show that almost 43 percent of fatalities involving motorcyclists were unendorsed last year. Those fatalities, however, include anyone involved in a crash involving a motorcycle. Those victims could be people riding with motorcycle operators or drivers of autos that were involved in accidents with motorcycles.

Miller also says he heard of only one complaint this year about lack of personnel available when someone was seeking an endorsement. That, he says, occurred in March, before the state offered endorsements, a season generally running April through October.

Regardless, the debate is on. “The focus should be on crash avoidance, not safer crashing,” Jeff Egler of Edgerton reasoned in a letter responding to Fritschi's. “Contrary to what many believe, a helmet is not a cure for fatalities and injuries.”

What's your take? Should the state, as Fritschi suggests, join others that require helmets because of costs to society and taxpayers for ongoing care of motorcyclists who suffer brain damage after crashing without helmets? Or should Wisconsin, home to Harley-Davidson, keep letting riders choose whether to use helmets, which bikers argue can be stiflingly hot and limit hearing and vision?

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.



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