Opinion

Helmet law needed

For the third year in a row, motorcycle fatalities in South Carolina have topped 100. Despite the carnage, state lawmakers have no plans to introduce a mandatory helmet law when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

As of Nov. 25, 103 motorcycle deaths had occurred. Thankfully, that's down from 119 deaths during the same period in 2007, and fewer than the record total of 120 motorcycle deaths last year.

But South Carolina could be on track to surpass the 2006 tally of 106 deaths. Four weeks remain in the year, and an average of two motorcyclists a week are dying on state roads.

Historically, nearly 80 percent of those who die in motorcycle accidents are not wearing helmets.

Lawmakers appear likely to enact some sensible changes to state motorcycle laws. For example, a task force will recommend that the state stop granting unlimited extensions for beginners' motorcycle licenses.

That provision, with little more than a vision test, allows motorcycle owners to ride indefinitely without passing a test to show they know how to handle a two-wheeled vehicle. The inability of many novice riders to control heavier motorcycles properly has been a major contributor to fatalities, safety officials say.

In most cases, bikers contributed to their own deaths, either by driving under the influence, speeding or simply driving off the road into ditches and trees. Drivers in other vehicles typically cause about one in five motorcycle fatalities.

The leading cause of motorcycle fatalities is head injuries to helmet-less riders. In South Carolina last year, 78 percent of the 120 dead motorcycle riders weren't wearing helmets.

Safety experts estimate that more than a third of motorcycle deaths could be prevented with helmets. Military officials know that. That's why at military bases around the state, bikers are required to wear helmets even though state law does not require them for all motorcyclists.

State law requires helmets only for those younger than 21, and lawmakers concede that the political support for a broader helmet law is not there. The anti-helmet lobby is strong, and many lawmakers share the belief common among bikers that wearing helmets is a personal choice that should not be required by the state.

But the state has approved mandatory seat-belt laws -- which have succeeded in reducing auto fatalities and the severity of injuries. Most South Carolinians now willingly buckle up.

For those who aren't motorcycle owners who think this debate doesn't concern them, consider the inflation of insurance costs for all motorists because of motorcycle deaths and injuries.

If bikers bristle at helmet laws, are they any more likely to accept mandatory education and training programs or other requirements that might save lives? That seems doubtful.

If South Carolina is serious about wanting to reduce motorcycle deaths, it can do something about it by requiring riders to wear helmets.

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