Lawmakers divided on revisiting helmet law
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HARRISBURG -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle crash Monday sparked debate among football fans and bikers alike about whether a stricter helmet law would have diminished the Super Bowl star's injuries.
It also ignited discussion in the halls of the Capitol about whether to reverse 2003 legislation that exempted most adult motorcyclists from wearing helmets.
State Rep. Anthony Melio, D-Bucks, wants to revisit the issue.
Mr. Roethlisberger has said "he does not wear a helmet because it's not state law, but if there were a law he would definitely wear one. That's a very telling statement," said Mr. Melio, who voted against the 2003 change.
"We need to initiate programs to keep helmets on motorcyclists," he said. "Wearing a helmet is simple and it could save your life."
There is no move in the Senate to reconsider the helmet law, said Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills.
"Accidents happen every day across Pennsylvania and the U.S.," said Mr. Costa. "Although this [one involved] a high-profile celebrity, I don't think it will push the Legislature to repeal the existing law that makes helmet use optional. I don't think we will revisit the issue."
Current state law allows bikers 21 and older to ride bareheaded if they have at least two years' riding experience or have taken a rider education course.
The Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education, or ABATE, wants to keep it that way.
"It's about freedom of choice," said Jeff Harris, president of ABATE's Beaver County chapter.
"Helmets are a piece of safety equipment that, under the right circumstances, can protect you," he said. "There's been talk about whether helmets might contribute to neck injuries, but there hasn't been a conclusive study."
Gov. Ed Rendell, who signed the 2003 legislation that relaxed helmet-wearing requirements, remains firm that adult bikers like Mr. Harris and Mr. Roethlisberger should have that choice.
Government should allow individuals to make many personal choices, from smoking cigarettes to drinking alcohol to driving motorcycles, without interference, he said.
"Ben Roethlisberger is a very smart, intelligent guy, and he made a decision for himself," Mr. Rendell said during a public appearance in Sewickley. "Government has the responsibility to tell people about the facts and then let them make the choices."
Twenty states require all motorcyclists to wear helmets, while another 27, including Pennsylvania, require them only for certain riders, like teenagers or those without health insurance, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Those kinds of laws are useless, said Diane Wigle, chief of the administration's safety countermeasure division.
"There's no way for a law enforcement officer to know if you're under 21 when they see you for 30 seconds as you're riding by," Ms. Wigle said. "And they have no way to know if you have two years' experience or if you've taken a rider training course."
In the last seven years, seven states, including Pennsylvania, have repealed or relaxed helmet laws.
The Michigan Legislature voted to do the same last week, but Gov. Jennifer Granholm promised a veto. She announced her planned veto yesterday after hearing about the Roethlisberger accident, but said she would have done so anyway.
In 2004, 158 people died in motorcycle crashes on Pennsylvania roads, including 75 riders with helmets and 76 riders without helmets, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The agency estimates that 46 lives were saved by helmets in Pennsylvania that year and that an additional 30 riders could have survived if they had been wearing helmets.
"There's no excuse not to wear a helmet. It's your only form of protection in a motorcycle crash," Ms. Wigle said. "Ben Roethlisberger is exceptionally lucky."
First Published June 14, 2006 12:00 am