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Motorcycle helmet law advocates say rising Florida deaths prove need

Florida is emerging as a national poster child for helmet laws because motorcyclist deaths increased after the state repealed its law in 2000.
Published Apr. 20, 2014

Mandatory motorcycle helmet laws are at the end of the road in Florida, despite a sharp rise in cycling deaths. Florida repealed its helmet law in 2000, and virtually no one in Tallahassee is talking about bringing it back.

But beyond its borders, Florida is emerging as a national poster child for mandatory helmet laws.

Safety advocates recently used Florida's example to help beat back attempts to repeal helmet laws in Louisiana, Nebraska, Tennessee and Vermont. The same legislative fight is raging in five other states.

"The first time I looked at Florida's data, it was hard to believe. That's a lot of deaths," said Karen Morgan, who oversees lobbyists in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee as the public policy manager for AAA Auto Club South. "That's our main argument against repealing helmet laws in these other places. It's helpful to show that eliminating these laws will have consequences."

In the three years before Florida relaxed its helmet law, the state averaged 160 motorcycle deaths per year.

In 2001 after the law changed, helmet use plummeted, motorcycle registrations rose and the annual death toll jumped to 246.

By 2006, it had reached an all-time high of 550.

After Florida enacted a mandatory motorcycle training law, deaths dropped for three straight years from 2008 to 2010. (Registrations also dipped when the economy soured.)

Now fatalities are creeping back up, according to data compiled by the state. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, Florida motorcycle deaths totaled 382, 452 and 457, respectively.

Meanwhile, Florida statistics show a disturbing new trend: Older motorcycle riders are getting back in the saddle and dying in increasing numbers.

"When you make safety optional, people won't take steps to protect themselves. That's human nature," said Lynne McChristian of the Insurance Information Institute in Tampa.

Florida allows riders who are 21 or older to go without helmets if they have $10,000 of personal injury insurance coverage.

Across the country, the tide is turning against stricter universal helmet laws.

Beginning in the mid 1960s, all but three states passed such laws after Congress threatened to take away their federal highway money if they didn't.

Congress changed its position a decade later. One by one, states began repealing their laws.

By 1997, 26 states had universal helmet laws. Today only 19 do. This year, nine of them have been considering weakening those laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In recent weeks, helmet laws survived challenges in four states. The fight is ongoing in Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, New York and Washington.

Motorcycle activists are lobbying legislators, squaring off against trauma doctors and insurance groups who are arguing the other side. Safety advocates point to rising death rates in Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which relaxed helmet laws in 2000, 2003 and 2012, respectively.

"All those states that repealed their helmet laws had an increase in injuries and fatalities. There are larger numbers in Florida, where there's a longer riding season," said Heather Drake, who oversees lobbyists for AAA in 13 states. "We drive home the safety argument: You don't need to repeat their mistakes."

Motorcycle groups like ABATE, American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, fought to get rid of Florida's universal helmet law for eight years before succeeding. ABATE lobbyist James "Doc" Reichenbach led the effort.

"Deaths went up because registrations went up. Motorcycle registrations jumped when I got that thing passed," Reichenbach said. "If you get 20,000 more motorcycles, you get more deaths."

Others will debate that point. Andreas Muller, a University of Arkansas professor who studied the effect of relaxing Florida's helmet law, found that it resulted in more deaths even after adjusting for a rise in registrations.

The vast majority of riders escape harm. In Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties, a quarter-million people have motorcycle endorsements on their licenses, meaning they've passed a training course.

In 2012 in that four-county area, 1,680 motorcycle crashes resulted in 1,564 injuries and 78 deaths, according to the state.

Young men account for most of those. But Chanyoung Lee, a researcher at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, found that as baby boomers retire and take up motorcycling as a hobby, more older riders are dying.

Between 2005 and 2007, bikers 55 to 64 accounted for 10.3 percent of Florida motorcycle deaths. Between 2009 and 2011, that number was 16.6 percent. For bikers ages 45 to 54, the percentage rose from 17.8 to 19.9.

"We call them 'born again bikers.' The kids are out of the house and the wife says, 'You can have that motorcycle you've always wanted,' " said Lane Craven, a motorcycle instructor for the Suncoast Safety Council in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

"Seasoned riders don't take as many risks," he said. "But the reflexes go, the eyesight goes."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.

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