The number of injured motorcyclists taken to St. E's doubled between 2000 and 2004.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
Dr. Sergio Segarra didn't need to see many motorcycle accident victims to decide that riders should wear helmets.
"All you have to do is treat one ... and deal with the family to see what a tragedy it is," says Segarra, who is director of emergency medicine at Sharon Regional Health System.
USA Today recently reported that motorcycle deaths are rising nationwide, while passenger car fatalities have declined. That has led to renewed discussion about mandatory helmet laws.
Though motorcycle deaths rose 7.9 percent nationally in 2004, they declined in Ohio last year (128, compared to 136 in 2003) and were virtually unchanged in Pennsylvania (156 vs. 157 in 2003).
Twenty states and the District of Columbia have mandatory helmet laws. Pennsylvania had a mandatory rule for 35 years until July 2003, when Gov. Ed Rendell repealed it.
Today, motorcyclists age 21 and older aren't required to wear helmets if they have at least two years of riding experience or pass a state-sanctioned safety course.
Ohio's helmet provisions apply only to motorcyclists who have had licenses for one year or less, riders age 17 and younger and all passengers of the aforementioned drivers.
A mandatory helmet law in Florida was repealed in 2000. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a report on that state's motorcycle fatality rate before and after the law changed. From 1997-99, there were 515 deaths. From 2001-03, 933 deaths occurred.
"Their statistics are just frightening," Segarra said of the Florida data.
Locally, St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown has treated 76 motorcycle accident victims this year as of Aug. 23. Seven of those patients died. At least four of them were not wearing helmets, said Anne Moss, coordinator of the hospital's trauma program.
The number of injured motorcyclists taken to St. Elizabeth has risen in four of the last five years, from 47 in 2000 to 99 in 2004.
Moss noted that state law changed in late 2002, requiring paramedics and hospitals to route critically injured patients to trauma centers. That also may account for the increase, she said.
Nonetheless, Moss is a proponent of helmets.
"I think people should be required to wear a helmet. I do believe they save lives," Moss said.
So far this summer, Sharon Regional hasn't seen a significant increase in motorcycle accidents, Segarra said. The hospital has treated three critically injured motorcyclists whose primary injury was head trauma, he noted. One died. One was transferred to another trauma center, so that person's fate is unknown.
The American College of Emergency Physicians has been tracking motorcycle accidents in Pennsylvania since the helmet law changed, Segarra said.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day 2004, 49 percent of motorcycle accident victims who didn't wear helmets suffered traumatic head injuries. Of patients who did wear helmets, 16 percent had head trauma.
State legislators have agreed to re-evaluate the new helmet law in 2006, Segarra said.
Opponents say helmet laws reduce motorcycle riding, which in turn reduces motorcycle deaths. Opponents also say improperly worn helmets contribute to neck injuries. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says there is "no credible evidence" to support the latter contention.
Merry Nemeth, coordinator of the local tri-county chapter of Women on Wheels motorcycle club, finds another problem with helmet laws. Riders in those states must wear helmets that meet National Department of Transportation safety standards and are so labeled. The Snell Foundation, an independent testing firm, also gauges helmet safety.
There is little enforcement of these standards, however, so riders have purchased helmets that, despite labels, actually aren't DOT- or Snell-approved, she said.
Making a choice
Nemeth has heard other riders say that helmets are inhibitive or that they restrict vision or hearing. "It doesn't bother me ... It's the same as a blind spot in a car," she said.
Nemeth wears her helmet because that's how she learned to ride, she said. Her husband doesn't wear a helmet when he's near home, but he will strap it on when they take motorcycle vacations.
"I respect his choice, and he respects mine," she said.
Health care professionals say helmet use shouldn't be a personal decision. Public safety must be considered, and the cost of treating patients with major head injuries is "astronomical," Segarra said.
"We all end up paying in higher health care costs," Moss said.
Motorcycle deaths may be increasing, but so are motorcycle sales, Nemeth noted. The number of new motorcycle purchases has risen steadily, from 278,000 in 1992 to more than 1 million in 2003, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.
Nemeth believes in wearing helmets -- "Chances are, it'll help" in an accident, she said -- but notes that, like seat belts in other vehicles, they won't save every life.