Motorcycle helmet debate in Utah: Freedom vs safety

Motorcyclist dies after striking mattress on I-15

Published: Tuesday, June 5 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Dennis Clark looks at helmets at Harley-Davidson in South Salt Lake, Tuesday, June 5, 2012. Clark says, "You could break an arm and get it fixed. You break a head and you're dead." At right is Harley Davidson employee Amy Chournos. At center back is Clark's son, Dennis Clark Jr.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Read more: Unsecured load kills motorcyclist; UHP says debris on the road too common

SALT LAKE CITY — A 46-year-old motorcyclist from Brigham City was killed Monday night when he crashed after hitting a mattress that was discarded on I-15.

The accident marked the eighth motorcycle fatality in Utah this year, compared to five during the same period last year, according to the Utah Highway Safety Office.

The victim from Monday night, Royce Munns, was not wearing a helmet. While wearing a helmet generally increases the chances of survival in all motorcycle accidents, Utah Highway Patrol Cpl. Todd Johnson said he did not know in this particular case if a helmet would have made a difference.

But the recent increase in motorcycle accidents is giving renewed fuel to a familiar debate in Utah: Should the state have a mandatory helmet law?

Those on each side seem to be as evenly split as the statistics themselves on whether helmet usage should be mandatory and whether it's the most effective way to save lives.

"It impairs your vision and it impairs your hearing and it fatigues you," James Parker, a service manager at Harley-Davidson Buell, said. "If you go riding 500 miles in a day and you have that helmet all day long, you're getting tired."

But Mike Cowdell, 56, a former motorcycle officer for 20 years who now teachers rider courses at Harley, said a motorcycle simply doesn't offer the same protection as a car or truck.

"I am a firm believer that nobody ever has been killed because they wore a helmet. It's the other way around," he said.

"Honestly, we would sell a lot more helmets if it was legislated. But I just don't think everything has to be legislated," said Heidi Timmons, 55, co-owner of the shop. "I think we have laws that protect our children I think that is important. But over 18 we should be old enough to make our own decisions."

Of the eight motorcycle fatalities so far in 2012, four victims were wearing helmets and four were not, according to the Utah Highway Safety Office.

The statistics were just as evenly split last year. Of the five motorcycle fatalities through the first five months of 2011 in Utah, three riders were wearing helmets while two were not.

While both sides of the debate are in agreement that improving motorcycle safety is in everyone's best interest, the way to achieve that goal is a continuing point of contention.

On one side, those who favor helmets to protect motorcycle riders argue that even careful riders can't control when a car might pull out in front of them. On the other side, those who want the freedom to decide for themselves whether a helmet is best for them argue that more education is needed to prevent accidents from happening in the first place.

Currently, anyone 17 and younger in Utah is required to wear a helmet while driving or riding a motorcycle. Several attempts by state lawmakers since the 1990s to pass mandatory helmet laws have ended in defeat. Although the debate has cooled in recent years, there are lawmakers who still believe Utah needs such a law.

There are currently three states in the nation that do no have any sort of motorcycle helmet law: Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia require helmet usage for all motorcycle riders.

Utah is one of 18 states that requires helmets only for those under 18. One state (Delaware) requires helmets for those under 19 and eight states mandate helmet-usage for riders under 21. Florida has a law that allows those 21 and older to ride without a helmet if they have at least a $10,000 medical insurance policy.

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