The Collier County Sheriff’s Office reported that six motorcyclists died on Collier streets last year, but that hasn’t encouraged some to protect themselves. All it would take is simple: wear a helmet.
More than eight years ago, after hearing bikers argue for years that their right to privacy was being violated, the Florida Legislature overturned a 30-year-old law mandating motorcycle riders wear helmets.
That ruling has turned one fight into another. First, it was a biker’s fight for freedom. Now, it is quickly turning into a doctor’s fight for safety.
“And we’ve been fighting ever since to turn it back,” said Dr. Karan Gill, a trauma surgeon and head of the trauma department at Sacred Heart Emergency and Trauma Center. “Not wearing a helmet is lethal in any crash.”
Earlier this year, Sacred Heart reported an increase in patients involved in motorcycle accidents. The hospital is the leading trauma medical center in the Panhandle, administering to patients from as far as Panama City and Mobile, Ala.
More than 70 motorcycle accident victims had been seen at the hospital in January alone, compared to 35 in 2007. Of January’s patients, 44 were serious and one died.
Hospital staff expects this number to increase as more consumers buy bikes for their fuel efficiency.
“It’s a 70-percent increase,” Gill said. “And there’re a range of injuries, from spinal cord, abdominal, to a ruptured spleen, broken pelvis and lost limbs.”
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, wearing the right helmet can reduce the risk of head injury by up to 85 percent.
“To me, it’s common sense to make an individual wear a helmet,” Gill said.
When the law was reversed, the legislature added a requirement that all bikers have at least $10,000 worth of bodily damage insurance — a figure that doesn’t come close to the cost of lifetime care if needed due to an accident, Gill said.
“If it’s a serious enough injury, the cost falls to the taxpayers,” he said.
State Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, served on the transportation committee and was well aware of the helmet issue.
“Ultimately, it’s one of those laws that if someone wants to take their own life into their hands, as long as it’s not endangering someone else, we can’t step in,” Baker said. “If we made laws based on the cost to society, we’d do away with a lot of freedoms.”
Gill is also the vice chairman of the Committee on Trauma in Florida. He and several other trauma surgeons in the state have been working diligently to reverse the law, yet Baker has said with the current economic climate, the legislature’s main focus is to fix the budget shortfalls.
“Most motorcyclists are happy with the law,” he said. “Maybe more inspection is needed into the cost, but in the end, it’s a choice they make and we respect that.”