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Published: Tuesday, 4/10/2007

Safety first on bikes

FOR many Americans, there remains a mystique to riding a motorcycle. Think of the iconic images of Marlon Brando or Dennis Hopper astride their bikes, the very personification of rebels. Even in these days of more CEOs than outlaws riding expensive bikes, the call of the open road means a sense of freedom, the wind in riders hair.

But the idea espoused by many riders that wearing a helmet is somehow an abridgment of personal rights is outmoded and dangerous.

Yet fewer than half of the states require helmets for all riders; a further 27 require helmets only for younger riders, while three have no helmet law. Michigan requires that all riders wear a helmet; in Ohio, only younger riders must wear one.

But almost a year after Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger s motorcycle accident in which he was not wearing a helmet, the push is on in several states to make putting on a helmet part of the pre-ride ritual.

It makes sense. Wearing a helmet isn t a matter of personal freedom, as the anti-helmet lobby would frame it. Government regularly enacts safety legislation to protect us all. It s the same principle that requires babies be in car seats, that drivers and passengers of automobiles wear seat belts.

These measures save lives, and we would have thought that any rider would have been in favor of that. But bikers groups have opposed stricter helmet laws.

Statistics of helmet usage and motorcycle fatalities tell the grim tale. As the percentage of riders wearing helmets declined from 71 percent in 2000 to 51 percent on 2006, motorcycle fatalities increased from 2,116 in 1997 to 4,553 in 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Between 1997 and 2004, while ridership grew, the fatality rate almost doubled, according to NHTSA.

Motorcyclists have been notably successful in the past in opposing efforts to toughen helmet requirements, and to roll back existing rules, but today there seems to be a recognition that the climate is changing. And that is a welcome development.

Laws cannot protect all of us from all eventualities. We cannot live our lives wrapped in a protective blanket, afraid to indulge in any potentially dangerous activity.

But we can take prudent steps to minimize the harm if an unforeseen, unavoidable accident occurs.

That includes wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle.

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