Lack of helmet laws means safety falls on riders

State has seen motorcycle fatalities increase in past few years

McHenry County Harley Owners Group member Norm Poisson listens to Director Jim Grant speak Friday during the monthly meeting in Woodstock.
McHenry County Harley Owners Group member Norm Poisson listens to Director Jim Grant speak Friday during the monthly meeting in Woodstock.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Motorcyclists can be hard headed but not always in the best of ways.

As one of the growing number of states that do not have helmet laws, Illinois has seen motorcycle fatalities increase in the past few years along with states that have repealed helmet laws. Motorcycle crash deaths increased to 155 in 2013 from 148 in 2012 when the total accounted for more than 15 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities despite motorcycles accounting for roughly 4 percent of all vehicle registrations in Illinois.

Out of the 148 motorcycle fatalities, 78 percent of the riders did not wear a helmet.

The absence of helmets has been linked to fatal motorcycle crashes in trends seen around the country. Texas and Arkansas both saw a significant increase in motorcycle fatalities after repealing laws in 1997, and Florida’s motorcycle fatality rate went from roughly 13 percent of all motor vehicle deaths in 2000 when a helmet law was first repealed to nearly 30 percent of all vehicle deaths in 2012.

McHenry County ranked seventh in Illinois with five motorcycle fatalities in 2012. The county had four in 2013 and none early on in 2014.

Terry Redman, manager of motorcycle safety training for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said helmets are a crucial safety feature in riding but do not address the biggest issues among motorcyclists.

“Wearing a helmet if you’re going 110 mph and hit a dump truck won’t help you,” Redman said. “There are too many people riding at a high rate of speed and a lot of it has to with riding drunk or high.”

Scott Haas, project coordinator with the Motorcycle Safety Project at Northern Illinois University, agreed with Redman and said the drug and alcohol culture in the motorcycle world causes the most safety problems.

But through the free safety and training classes Haas’ organization offers throughout northern Illinois including at McHenry County College, he said riders can learn about all the equipment, including helmets, that will give them a higher chance of survival in the event of a crash or wipeout.

“We absolutely promote helmet use but we can’t enforce it,” Haas said. “It is important for riders to take all the safety precautions they can because unlike cars, motorcycles are not designed for occupant survivability.”

Haas said he is encouraged about progress in motorcycle safety, having trained 5,600 people in the region last year and 725 people already this year in the first four weeks. But like motor vehicle safety policies, Haas said it could take a while to see the results of the outreach and education.

Helmets are required at the Woodstock Harley-Davidson training courses, along with full-fingered gloves, boots that cover the ankles and all the gear to make riders safe as possible. While the dealership can require the gear during the course, instructor Jeff Carlsen said it is up to each individual person when it comes to their own rides.

The same rebellious spirit that has led to drug and alcohol issues in the motorcycle community also causes the desire to have the freedom to choose whether to wear a helmet, Carlsen said.

“I wear one when I ride but I can’t tell someone to do the same,” Carlsen said. “It’s an experience of freedom, and it’s a completely personal choice. They don’t want the government intruding in that experience.”

Redman said it also is important the other commuters on the road take motorcycle safety seriously. Of the 155 fatalities in 2013, he said half were caused by the motorcyclist and the other half caused by drivers.

With the weather getting warmer, more and more motorcyclists will fill the roads.

“One of our mottos is look twice, save a life,” Redman said. “After a long winter where drivers haven’t seen motorcycles in a while, there is going to be a lot of them on the roads.”

For more information about free motorcycle safety training, visit www.startseeingmotorcycles.org.

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