Going helmetless

A motorcyclist opting not to wear a helmet heads to bike night Wednesday at Quaker Steak and Lube in Sharon. This summer marks five years since Pennsylvania repealed its requirement that all riders wear protective headgear.

Motorcyclists have about as many differing views of Pennsylvania’s right-to-choose helmet law as the style of bikes they ride.

This summer marks five years since the state repealed its motorcycle helmet requirement but that action didn’t end the debate over the question in the Keystone State.

Since the change, serious head injuries have risen among bikers in the state and some say its time lawmakers take a second look at their decision to repeal the rule.

“I think they should put it back in,” longtime motorcylist Bill Luongo, New Castle, said Wednesday at Quaker Steak and Lube’s bike night in Sharon.

“It’s the smart thing to do,” he said, noting he believes helmets save lives.

Gov. Ed Rendell signed the bill on July 6, 2003, that overturned the 35-year-old rule requiring helmets.

Overall motorcycle crash and injury rates have fallen since the repeal and the fatality rate has remained roughly constant, a report from the state Legislative Budget and Finance Committee said.

In the three years before the change, about six of every 10,000 registered motorcyclists in the state suffered serious head injuries. In the four years after, that number jumped to nine per 10,000 registrations.

State highway records show 225 people died in motorcycle crashes last year, an all-time high. Of the 4,716 motorcyclists involved in crashes last year, 57 percent were wearing helmets.

The report did not pinpoint how many fatalities or injuries resulted in head trauma directly related to the absence of a helmet.

“I think its a guy’s right to choose,” said Randy Friesse, East Liverpool, Ohio.

Friesse said he’s always worn a helmet, even as Ohio law has never required it.

Although head injuries are on the rise, the statistic may be a result of other factors beside the change in the helmet law, Rick Davidson, also of East Liverpool said.

Steady increases in gas prices the past few years have driven people to the more fuel-efficient bikes as a means to save money, he said.

The state has seen nearly a 70 percent boom in the number of bikes on its roadways since 2000.

“Of course your injuries increase as the number of riders increase,” said Davidson, who also added he wears a helmet to set an example for his 3-year-old son.

Helmets can create just as many injuries as they prevent, said motorcyclist Jim Sparks, of Hermitage.

Sparks said he’s been riding street bikes for almost 23 years and hasn’t worn a helmet since the state law changed.

Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — perhaps Western Pennsylvania’s most notable rider without a helmet — may have suffered far worse injuries in his 2006 accident in the city if he wore a helmet, Sparks said.

“The helmet would have cracked his neck,” Sparks said. “He would’ve been dead.”

Roethlisberger was thrown from his motorcycle into a car windshield and was bleeding from his head and throat when paramedics arrived, witnesses said.

Since then accident, the athlete said he would wear a helmet if he rode again.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.