2012-04-12 / Local & State

Motorcycle Deaths Up Since Pa. Relaxed Helmet Law

By Mike Urban

READING, Pa. (AP) – John Leinbach knows he might have died if he had not been wearing a helmet when he crashed his motorcycle years ago.

The Oley man and his motorcycle slammed into a car after its drunk driver pulled in front of him. He flew off his bike and slid along the pavement, his head scraping the ground.

The impact flattened one side of his helmet.

“I probably would have been in bad shape without it,” said Leinbach, 55.

But while Leinbach knows it's dangerous to ride without a helmet, he still does sometimes.

Pennsylvania law gives him that choice, so he goes helmetless during short rides on hot days.

That means Leinbach is like a lot of motorcycle riders in Berks County: They realize that wearing a helmet makes riding safer but still want it to be their option.

So now that it's spring, more riders will be out on local roads and many won't wear helmets, despite the added risks.

Pennsylvania changed its 35-year-old mandatory helmet law in September 2003, allowing experienced riders 21 and older to ride helmetless. Passengers 21 and older can do likewise.

While motorcycle deaths barely rose statewide the first year after the change, they jumped from 158 in 2004 to 205 the next year, and there have been more than 200 motorcycle fatalities in most years since, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation statistics show that helmeted cyclists accounted for 58 percent of motorcycle crash victims in Pennsylvania in 2010, and helmetless riders only 38 percent. Information on helmets was not available in 4 percent of the accidents.

Yet those without helmets accounted for 56 percent of the deaths, and helmeted riders only 43 percent, Penn- DOT said.

While PennDOT doesn't take a stance on whether cyclists should wear helmets, they advise wearing helmets approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation and recommend three-quarter or full-face helmets.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say helmets save lives, reducing the risk of head injury by 69 percent. An unhelmeted rider is 40 percent more likely to die from a head injury than someone wearing a helmet, meaning helmets saved more than 1,800 lives in 2008, but could have saved 800 more if all riders had worn helmets, according to the CDC.

Kellee Younker of Fleetwood cringes to think what would have happened to her if she hadn’t been wearing a helmet when a school bus forced her motorcycle off the West Shore Bypass three weeks ago. Her bike went down and she broke her collarbone, meaning her right arm's been in a sling ever since. Her head also bounced off the hard ground, so her injuries could have been far worse.

“I don’t ride without a helmet,” said Younker, 22, who sells merchandise at Classic Harley-Davidson in Bern Township.

Bill Wildman of Sinking Spring, on the other hand, doesn’t even own a helmet.

“They’re too uncomfortable,” said Wildman, 43.

But he stopped into Classic Harley this week to buy a helmet for his 11-year-old daughter, Chloe, and tried on a few himself. He’s considering buying one for longer rides, acknowledging they make riding safer.

Like Wildman, the Read- ing Motorcycle Club applauded the helmet law change, said club President Bobby Evans. Most of the club's nearly 1,300 members don't wear helmets when they ride, he said.

Evans, too, took off his helmet after the law changed, but recently started wearing one again after he saw two bad motorcycle crashes, including a fatal crash locally.

“Seeing him (the victim) lying there bleeding really left a lasting image with me,” he said. “On a motorcycle you are really at the mercy of everyone else, and helmets really protect your head.”

At least two club members have died in recent years in crashes they likely would have survived if they had been wearing helmets, he said.

Coroner Dennis J. Hess said even a low-speed crash can be fatal if a helmetless rider strikes his head.

Hess rode a motorcycle for decades, and even taught motorcycle riding to Reading police officers, but has since quit riding and sold his bike. He saw too many motorcycle injuries and deaths as a police officer and coroner to ignore the dangers of riding, he said.

“ On the roads it just looked like everyone was aiming for me,” he said. “I couldn’t enjoy the rides anymore.”

While Hess understands why so many cyclists do like riding, he wishes the state would have never legalized helmetless riding.

“You have to wear a seat belt,” he said. “Why in God’s name do they give you a choice about a motorcycle helmet?”

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