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Older Riders Add to Rise In Motorcycle Fatalities

In fact, older riders have spearheaded a push to eliminate or weaken mandatory helmet laws in states that have them, which safety groups say has directly led to the increase in motorcycle fatalities.

Showalter, the Florida cyclist, was not wearing a helmet when he was killed in a collision with a car. Though his mother says doctors told her a helmet might not have saved her son, Margit Showalter can't help approaching motorcyclists in parking lots to urge them to cover up.

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Living Dangerously Motorcycle deaths are rising at a time when fewer states require all riders to wear helmets.
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Florida repealed its mandatory motorcycle helmet law in 2000 under pressure from cycle enthusiasts, capping a 30-year trend in which most of the states that once required such safety equipment made helmets voluntary. Today only the District and 20 states, including Virginia and Maryland, mandate motorcycle helmets.

"When we lived in Maryland [in the 1980s], he wore a helmet," Showalter said. "We tell little kids, when they ride their tricycles, to wear a helmet. But we're letting a motorcycle that drives on a main road with Hummers and trucks go without it? To me, I have a problem with that."

But many motorcycle enthusiasts argue that personal freedom is central to their love of cycling and that governments shouldn't tell them how to take care of themselves. "Personal choice is what we want," said Jim Cannon, 45, of Richmond, head of the Virginia Coalition of Motorcyclists. "In my case, I feel a lot more aware without a helmet. I feel unencumbered. Truth be known, I'm probably a safer rider without a helmet."

Cannon worked on legislation to repeal Virginia's mandatory helmet law during this year's General Assembly session. Though the effort failed, he said the keys to improving motorcycle safety lie in better training -- both for riders and for car and truck drivers, who sometimes aren't paying enough attention to see cyclists.

The reason fatalities rise in states that repeal helmet laws, he said, is that motorcycle ridership increases. With more bikes on the road, there are bound to be more accidents, he said.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research arm of the auto insurance industry, disagrees. "Motorcyclists are at risk because they don't have the protection that's built into cars, SUVs and pickups," said institute Chief Operating Officer Adrian Lund. "There's one thing that would help all motorcyclists of all ages, and that's to get universal helmet laws in all states."

NHTSA's preliminary 2004 statistics, which will be finalized later this year, say that motorcycles accounted for more than 9 percent of the 42,800 total fatalities last year. In 1997, motorcycles accounted for 5 percent of all fatalities.


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