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David Russell should be remembered for weakening helmet law

Published Apr. 8, 2014

David Russell, now serving his final term as a Hernando County commissioner, helped repeal the state's universal, mandatory motorcycle helmet law way back in 2000, during his second session as a state representative.

People haven't forgotten.

"It's the thing that revisits me more than anything else I did in the Legislature," he said.

That's because this issue fell right into the middle of a national debate that never goes away — the one about how big and how intrusive government should be.

Also, the results have been dramatic enough for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a 2013 report on the dangers of motorcycle riding as many more states followed pioneers such as Texas and Florida in weakening or eliminating helmet laws.

Eight more states might join them this year, according to a graphic illustrating this trend ( published last week by the New York Times.

In Florida, motorcycle fatalities tripled from the late 1990s to 2006, after which such deaths started to decline due to the recession and, in 2008, stricter training requirements for riders.

But in recent years, the number of rider deaths in Florida has started to climb again, to 457 in 2012, according to the state Department of Transportation.

More than half of those killed were not wearing helmets. Dr. Chanyoung Lee, a senior researcher at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, said that percentage would be even higher except that the class of rider most likely to wear helmets, the riders of the sports bike — a.k.a. crotch rockets — are also the most likely to crash.

Yes, it's true that there are many more riders now than before the repeal of the helmet law, but not enough to explain the rise in carnage on our roads.

Since 2000, the number of fatal crashes per registered motorcycle has increased by 21 percent, according to the state-funded website, "suggesting motorcyclists without helmets are more likely to suffer serious and fatal injuries."

That's hardly surprising, of course, unless you're an advocate of helmet-free riding — or at least the freedom to ride without helmets.

Which Russell still is.

He tried to explain away the increased deaths by chalking them up to the increasing number of riders.

He also maintained that helmets can sometimes cause neck injuries, which might be true but doesn't change the fact that, overall, riding with a helmet is clearly safer.

Mostly, though, he said that the decision to wear a helmet should be up to those who have to strap one on, or not.

"I just felt it was a personal freedom, personal issue," he said.

" 'Let those who ride decide.' That's the old slogan."

It's almost universally accepted, this argument.

But I don't think it holds much water, considering that the amount of insurance required to ride helmet-free, $10,000, isn't nearly enough to keep some treatment costs from being absorbed by hospitals and/or the public.

"There's a joke that it's enough to get the (medical) helicopter to take off, but not enough to land," Lee said.

So as Russell prepares to leave elected office, this old law is a big part of his legacy. And we shouldn't forget.