Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Number of motorcycle deaths should lead to more helmet laws - from Dallas-Star Paper

biker car crash
On a trip to Fort Worth’s main post office a couple of months ago, I noticed the traffic on Interstate 35W North moving very slowly on this “expressway,” especially for a Saturday afternoon.

Rather than get angry, I blamed myself for not remembering all the construction that’s been there for months. At least the return trip would be quicker, I thought as I dropped off my mail.

But in less than 10 minutes something happened that also had brought the southbound lanes almost to a standstill, a situation I didn’t realize until I was already on the entrance ramp with no way to avoid the massive jam.

This time I was about to get angry until I saw the flashing lights of emergency vehicles ahead and realized that there had been an accident. As my car inched along and got closer to the scene, I was not prepared for what I saw.

On the side of the highway was a wrecked motorcycle, and a short distance away lay a covered body, with only a man’s shoes exposed. An ambulance was leaving with its lights flashing, causing me to believe that perhaps a motorist had been injured as well.

I learned later that afternoon that only the motorcycle had been involved in the crash that killed a 44-year-old Haltom City man and critically injured his female passenger. Neither the driver nor the passenger wore a helmet, police said. I’ve long been concerned about the number of motorcycle fatalities in this state and nationwide each year, but the problem became more real for me after I viewed that awful sight.

In March, there were four motorcycle fatalities in Fort Worth in one week, and on Sunday a 24-year-old Cleburne man was killed when he was thrown from his motorcycle as he tried to make a turn.

While other traffic deaths have been on the decline, motorcycle fatalities have been rising in Texas, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Although down slightly last year to 460 people killed compared with 488 in 2011, annual motorcycle deaths in the state have increased 56 percent since 2004.

Nationally there were about 4,550 deaths in 2012, doubling the amount in the mid-1990s, USA Todayreported. The number of fatalities, as well as serious head injuries, began to rise significantly as states repealed or relaxed their laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Texas had such a law but changed it in 1997 from mandating helmet use for all riders to requiring helmets for those under 21 and those who have not completed a rider education course or secured a minimum of $10,000 in medical insurance coverage. Then in 1990 Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill that removed the minimum amount of insurance coverage.

Helmet use decreased significantly after those laws were passed, placing more riders in danger of being killed or gravely injured. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, during the first full year after the weakening of the Texas helmet law in 1997, “deaths jumped 31 percent compared to the year prior to repealing its law.”

The CDC says helmets reduce the risk of death by 37 percent and the risk of head injury by 69 percent. In 2010, the U.S. saved $3 billion because of helmet use and could have saved $1.4 billion more had all motorcyclists worn helmets.

Some people are calling for national laws to address the problem, but I won’t go that far.

I do think individual states, and particularly Texas, should pass laws requiring helmet use by all riders — drivers and passengers.

At the same time we must continue to educate the rest of the population about motorcycle safety, including reminding motorists to be on the lookout for those riding two-wheel vehicles.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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