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Despite no helmet law, riders swear by gear

From the archive: This story is more than 10 years old.

Despite no helmet law, riders swear by gear

  • Timothy K Hamilton/Flickr

Andrew Seale, a 36-year-old Tucsonan, was struck by a silver Honda Civic while riding his motorcycle through the intersection of East Speedway Boulevard and North Wilmot Road shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday.

Seale was pronounced dead at a hospital.

He was not wearing a helmet. And not wearing a helmet is legal in Arizona.

Although it might not have made a difference in Seale's case — due to his internal injuries and weak heart — it might have for someone else, said Seale's mother, Carla Norton.

Drew, as he was known to his loved ones, came to Arizona after Norton moved to Tucson in 2008, she said.

He rode across country from Illinois on his motorcycle to see America. That was one of his dreams, she said.

"He always wanted to live in Arizona. He loved the weather and the people," Norton said.

Drew had a good sense of humor and was good with computers. He recently completed his associate's degree in computer science, she said.

In Arizona, riders need only wear a helmet if younger than 18.

Motorcyclists wearing helmets are 37 percent more likely to survive a crash than those who don't, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.

There is no proposed change of this law, although in 2009 motorcyclists accounted for 13 percent of all vehicle fatalities in Arizona. Of registered vehicles in the state, 2 percent are motorcycles, the Motor Vehicle Division said.

In 2009, riders not wearing helmets accounted for twice as many deaths as those who were wearing helmets.

Helmet laws

In 1967 the federal government required states to enact helmet laws to qualify for certain federal safety programs and highway construction funds.

Arizona adopted a universal helmet law in 1969, but in 1976, that was reduced to minors, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The helmet law is a sensitive issue in Arizona, Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, said in an interview.

There have been attempts to change the law, or to make it more comprehensive, but motorcyclists show up at the state Capitol to protest, he said.

Bobby Hartman has been part of the motorcycle lobby for 14 years, and has been riding for 20 years.

Hartman chooses not to wear a helmet.

It’s all about sharing the road, not the gear, she said in an interview.

Rising motorcycle fatalities are in direct relation to rising motorcycle registration, she said.

To lower motorcycle fatalities, drivers have to be educated about the rules of the road, Hartman said.

“They need to look more than once,” she said.

Making intersections safer would reduce deaths. “If every intersection had left turn on green only, that would safe lives,” she said.

“How can you reduce crashes by putting helmets on people," Hartman asked.

Although helmets may not reduce crashes, they reduce costs and time spent in the hospital, Heinz said.

As a physician he sees the current helmet law as a public health issue.

In 2008, the cost saved by motorcyclists wearing helmets was $67,999,401, and an additional $42,411,411 could have been saved if all riders would have worn helmets, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported.

Ron Arieli, president of TEAM Arizona, a motorcycle-training center that offers courses in motorcycle safety,  said arguments against helmet use are based on fiction, and helmets manufactured 30 years ago, Arieli said.

"I think it [helmet law] could actually pass, but it has to go in incremental steps," Heinz said. 

Tommy Hintz, a UA physicist, survived a high-speed impact because of a helmet, he said.

“I was going though a corner at high speed and misjudged the corner. I hit the pavement going about 140 mph,” Hintz said.

“If I wouldn’t have worn my helmet I would have died.”

Hintz suffered broken ribs. His collarbone, vertebrae, tailbone, and a few other bones were also broken, he said.

“The guy riding behind me couldn’t believe that I was OK.”

Although he doesn’t see a reason for a helmet law, Hintz does not ride a bike without one, and doesn’t ride with people who don’t wear helmets.

“It’s kind of watching a kid play with a loaded gun,” he said.

Many riders say that if you ride you will go down — it's only a matter of time, Hintz said.

"We recently had two calls about motorcycle crashes," said Adam Goldberg, a spokesman for the Northwest Fire District and firefighter of 25 years. "One rider was wearing a helmet, the other rider wasn't."

The rider who was wearing a helmet sustained road rash, but his head was OK and he was alive. The other rider was unconscious and later died, Goldberg said.

Injuries if a helmet is not worn increase significantly, he added. “They are often fatal or critical.”

Number of unhelmeted riders killed in crashes

Year Crashes Deaths % helmeted killed % unhelmeted killed
2009 156,904 2,958 3.35% 6.93%
2008 149,794 3,531 4.17% 4.22%
2007 137,400 3,464 3.93% 4.45%
2006 124,438 3,3333.91% 5.34%
2005 107,741 2,867 5.22% 5.08%
2004 98,253 2,6534.05% 5.32%
2003 88,916 2,402 3.77% 6.36%
2002 81,331 2,299 3.2% 5.14%
2001 77,103 2,0443.17% 4.63%
2000 71,389 2,138 4.3% 4.1%
1999 64,711 2,065 2.36% 4.43%

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