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Motorcyclists taking sides in Muskegon over helmet use

April 10, 2010

Motorcyclists taking sides in Muskegon over helmet use

By Heather Lynn Peters | Muskegon Chronicle

It’s a traditional rite of spring in Michigan.(editorial comments italicized in red)

Motorcycles get shined up and removed from winter hibernation in the garage. And another bill starts moving through the legislature to ban the state’s motorcycle helmet law.

Michigan is one of 20 states that (illegally) requires helmets for all riders. Neighboring states Ohio, Indiana and Illinois do not.

For many local motorcyclists, feeling the wind in their hair — or at least having the option to do so — is far more important than abiding by the state’s (illegal) mandatory helmet law.

“It’s a two-edged sword,” said Muskegon Motorcycle Club Road Captain Rick Perrault. “There are pros and cons to both aspects. There is the freedom-of-choice side and the safety side.”

Perrault admits he doesn’t like wearing a helmet and only does when riding in Michigan because it’s the law.

“Personally I wouldn’t wear a helmet when I travel out of the state of Michigan. In Florida, when I go there for Bike Time, I don’t wear one. It’s maybe just the change of not having to wear one,” he said.

“It’s almost like you feel like you’re getting away with something.”

A legislative bill currently before state lawmakers would allow (age discrimination) people 21 or over to ride without a helmet, provided they have (insurance industry extortion) $20,000 in insurance for first-party medical costs.

The bill is a variation on a repeal measure that comes before the Legislature nearly every year. It has made its way through the House and is set to go before the Senate.

Live to Ride, Ride to Live’

For Jimmy and Deni Hunter, of Muskegon Township, wearing a helmet is the only way they will get on a bike. The Hunters are members of a group called SMARTER, which promotes safe motorcycle riding and opposes efforts to repeal the mandatory helmet law.

Jimmy Hunter is recovering from a severe brain injury he sustained in a May 23, 2009, motorcycle accident. The 56-year-old local musician, of 5932 E. Apple, said wearing a full-face helmet saved his life that day.

However, that doesn’t mean Hunter feels helmets should be forced upon everyone.

“If I hadn’t had my helmet on, I’d be dead. There’s no question. I’d be a stain on Apple Avenue,” he said. “But as far as people who don’t want to wear helmets, I guess that’s a personal decision. You can’t make them want to wear a helmet.”

Jimmy’s opinion on helmet law is this: For first-time riders, helmets should be required. After a few years of experience, then leave it up to the person riding the motorcycle whether they want to wear a helmet.

“It would bother me if the state didn’t have a helmet law because I worry about the guy who is just starting, who has no experience,” he said. “But after a few years, if they don’t want to wear a helmet, then God rest their soul. If they get hurt, that was their choice.”

His wife, Deni Hunter, feels a little stronger about the issue.

Deni said wearing a helmet is like wearing a seat belt: They provide protection, but don’t always save a life or keep severe injuries from occurring. Still, she says, they’re “just a part of the sport.” (riding a motorcycle is no more a sport than driving a tractor, a car, a truck)

“They make people wear safety equipment for a reason. There is safety equipment when you ride in a boat, or jump out of an airplane (apple and orange argument). There is safety equipment that is very necessary to be a smart motorcyclist, ” she said. “They don’t give football players the option to wear shoulder pads and helmets. It’s a matter of being logical and sensible.” (based upon this logic, people taking a shower should have a mandatory helmet law governing them because more people have head and brain injuries in the shower than on motorcycles)

Riding a motorcycle without a helmet is a risk Deni said she isn’t willing to take.

“I wholeheartedly agree with, ‘Live to Ride, Ride to Live.’ But ride to live. To live you need to take the proper safety precautions,” she said.

Paul “Snake” Miller, the local ABATE chapter’s coordinator, said his philosophy is all about “adult choice.”

For years Miller opted not to ride without a helmet.

“I’ve got 65 tickets to prove it,” he said. “It used to be worth it, but now I usually wear a helmet because I have to. I have been riding without a helmet in many states … and never had an accident in 34 years, knock on wood.”

Miller views helmets as a nuisance and claims they limit the rider’s ability to see and hear what’s going on around them.

In an e-mail to a Chronicle reporter, Miller added: “Helmets are heavy. …They are hot and they block your peripheral vision and block hearing.

“If you truly look at the design of a helmet, and especially the chin strap, they go under your chin. In a frontal accident, when that 7-pound helmet (nobody wears a seven pound helmet) turns into over 200 pounds in a split second, it will snap your neck,” he said.

For the most part, Miller said he just wants riders to have a choice.

Many people who support repealing the helmet law will wear a helmet anyway, he said.

“Studies show in states that have adult choice, 65 percent of people still wear their helmets,” he said.

Viewpoints vary greatly among those in the motorcycle community. But for Perrault, it’s hard to stand on just one side of the issue.

“I never really felt unsafe not wearing one. But then again, if the weather is (bad) in other states, I will wear a helmet,” he said.

Perrault said there are statistics backing both sides, which makes the issue even more confusing.

“You can go to statistics on either side. But you can do that on any issue,” he said. “Really, it’s just a choice. It’s true that most helmets people wear aren’t Michigan Department of Transportation approved and most are just wearing something on their head to get passed (sic) the police.”

NHTSA touts statistics

It’s no surprise that law enforcement officials want to see the law stick.

Muskegon County Sheriff Dean Roesler said as a paramedic and a police officer, he has personally dealt with victims of motorcycle accidents who chose not to wear a helmet.

“The amount of devastation that a head injury causes is indescribable unless you’ve dealt directly with them,” Roesler said. “A proper-fitting, legal helmet provides a high-level of protection against those devastating results.”(opinion, not necessarily fact)

Roesler said not wearing a helmet to make a point shouldn’t come before common sense. (many people do not wear a helmet by choice and not to make a point)

Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that a rider not wearing a helmet is 40 percent more likely to suffer a fatal head injury than a rider who is wearing one. (conjecture)

NHTSA estimates that between 1984 and 2006 nearly 20,000 lives were saved by the use of motorcycle helmets. (prove that the impacts were fatal)

“There is no question in my mind that helmets, much like seat belts, serve their intended purpose,” Roesler said. (if seat belts and helmets are similar, why are there more head injuries in personally owned 4 wheel vehicles than on motorcycles?)

Some say motorcycle crashes already place a disproportionate burden on the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association (MCCA), the statewide pot of money that pays for high-cost traffic injuries. (in the case of multiple vehicle crashes, the majority of cases show the the driver of the OV was at fault and not the motorcyclist)

Motorcyclists pay for 1.7 percent of the MCCA fund. (these figures are misleading because most Michigan motorcyclists also pay for their cars, trucks, and SUV)But they account for 6.7 percent of the claims, statistics show. (the claims against the drivers of OVs faulted are still charged against the motorcyclist in these statistics) Proponents of helmets say if the helmet law ends, insurance premiums will go up, because injuries will be more severe. (actually, if fatalities go up, the insurance benefits paid out reduce because death is cheaper to the insurance industry than long term care)

E-mail Heather Lynn Peters hpeters@muskegonchronicle.com

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