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Even motorcyclists favor tougher safety helmet laws

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: August 23, 2006

Nearly half of adults admit they have ridden or driven motorcycles without wearing helmets, but a new poll found they now overwhelmingly want state governments to make helmet use mandatory.

Despite public opinion, 30 state legislatures have rolled back mandatory helmet laws in recent years due to lobbying by motorcycle-advocacy groups.

Participants in the poll of 1,010 U.S. adults by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University were told: "Dozens of states have repealed laws that once required adult motorcyclists to wear safety helmets. Federal safety officials say helmets save lives. But many motorcyclists say helmets are actually more dangerous and make riding motorcycles less enjoyable. Do you think states should require motorcyclists to wear helmets, or should wearing helmets be voluntary?"

Seventy-one percent said helmet use should be required, while 26 percent said helmets should be voluntary and 3 percent were undecided.

Forty-five percent of those in the survey said they have driven motorcycles and 43 percent admitted they drove a motorcycle or have ridden as a passenger without wearing a helmet. Still, a clear majority of all these riders said helmets should be required.

Federal officials who urge wider use of helmets hailed the survey findings.

"This is something that state legislators should take a look at," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. "It suggests that the general public recognizes the value of wearing a helmet. And we can say with absolute certainty that when you wear a helmet, you increase the likelihood of surviving a crash."

Motorcycling groups had a different reaction.

"It isn't clear why these people (in the poll) answered the way that they did," said Tom Lindsay, a spokesman for the 280,000-member American Motorcyclist Association. "Our supporters continue to ask that we advocate for the freedom to let adult motorcyclists decide whether or not to wear a helmet."

Lindsay said it is an "under-informed oversimplification" to blame the declining use of helmets for the rising number of motorcycle-related deaths. But he said his group is "very concerned" that federal statistics released this week show motorcycle deaths in 2005 rose to 4,553, a 13 percent increase over 2004. Motorcyclists now account for more than 10 percent of all highway deaths, the highest percentage on record.

"We are looking for answers. That is why we want a comprehensive motorcycle-crash study to begin to find out what is going on," Lindsay said.

The poll found that more than 60 percent of people who have driven motorcycles or who have ridden without helmets say they want state lawmakers to mandate helmet use in the future. Currently, only 20 states and the District of Columbia have such laws.

The issue got increased scrutiny in June after Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers suffered serious head injuries and broken bones when his high-powered Suzuki Hayabusa collided with a Chrysler New Yorker on a Pittsburgh street.

"If I ever ride again, it certainly will be with a helmet," Roethlisberger said three days after the accident.

Scripps released a study in May that found the rate of motorcycle deaths in 2004 was 41 percent greater in states without helmet laws than in states that require helmets.

In June, the Michigan Legislature passed a repeal of its helmet law, but Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed it. "The evidence is clear," Granholm said. "Motorcycle helmets save lives and reduce serious injury. States that have repealed this safety standard have experienced significantly increased fatality rates."

This week, a study funded by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported that motorcycle-accident victims in states without helmet laws were also 41 percent more likely to suffer "severe, disabling brain injury."

The survey found that mandatory helmet laws have broad support among almost all demographic groups. Eighty-one percent of women and 61 percent of men support them, as do people of different age, racial, political and educational groups.

The only group identified in the survey that opposes helmet laws is white men who identify themselves as "strong Republicans." Fifty percent favored making helmet use voluntary and 44 percent wanted a mandatory law, with 6 percent undecided.

The survey was conducted by telephone July 6-24 at the Scripps Survey Research Center under a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.