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Are helmet laws needed?

Four of five recent fatalities caused, at least in part, by head trauma

Illustration by Alex T. Paschal/
Illustration by Alex T. Paschal/

STERLING – Since September, two people have died in motorcycle crashes in the Sauk Valley. For the year, according to preliminary numbers from the Illinois State Police, there have been five deaths.

None of the victims were wearing helmets, and four of the five deaths were caused, at least in part, by head trauma.

The most recent death, that of 21-year-old Brandon Kiro, happened on Oct. 8 in Sterling. Police say that Kiro was riding east on East Lynn Boulevard shortly after 10:30 p.m. when he lost control of his motorcycle, which skidded across the road before coming to a rest in the westbound lanes.

His preliminary cause of death, according to the Winnebago County coroner’s office, was multiple head trauma.

In September, 21-year-old Bryan Schrimpf was killed when a car hit him on East Lincolnway in Sterling.

Police say he was heading east on Lincolnway when a westbound Toyota Prius made a left turn in front of his motorcycle. He was taken by ambulance to CGH Medical Center, then flown to OSF St. Anthony in Rockford, where he later died.

His cause of death was made official last week: blunt trauma of the head, neck, and abdomen.

Mike Ball, 59, crashed south of Byron in July. His cause of death: blunt force trauma to the head, neck, and chest.

Logan Williamson, 20, too, died in July in Fulton. His cause of death: blunt force injuries to the trunk.

Rochelle’s Caleb Holder, 21, crashed in June in Rochelle. He died of blunt force trauma to the head, chest, and abdomen.

Whether any of their deaths could have been prevented by wearing a helmet is up for debate.

Of all 50 states, only three don’t have motorcycle helmet laws. Illinois is one of them; the two others are Iowa and New Hampshire. The remaining 47 have either universal or partial laws.

‘We are for right of choice’

ABATE of Illinois, or A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education, actively works to maintain that freedom for the state’s bikers.

State coordinator Mike Myers, a Rockford resident, has been riding motorcycles for the past 30 years, and he wears a helmet only when required by state law.

“We aren’t against helmets,” he said. “We are for right of choice. This is our America, free America, and we can have a right of choice.”

Myers said he went through 248 reports of crashes that resulted in fatalities, and that from what he saw, helmets weren’t always the answer. For him, the answer is awareness and rider education.

“Those are the two keys that are going to save lives,” he said. “In a low-speed event, the helmet would make a difference, but with higher speeds, a lot of other things come into play.”

ABATE produces two education programs: one geared toward general motorists, and another for motorcyclists.

Surgeons back helmet laws

On the other side of the argument, the American College of Surgeons actively supports universal motorcycle helmet laws.

According to an official statement, the college lists as its reasoning:

– Helmeted motorcycle riders have up to an 85 percent reduced incidence of severe, serious, and critical brain injuries compared with unhelmeted riders.

– Unhelmeted motorcyclists are more than three times as likely to suffer a brain injury when compared with helmeted motorcyclists.

– The average inpatient care costs for motorcyclists who suffer brain injury are more than twice the costs incurred by hospitalized motorcyclists without brain injury.

– A large portion of the economic burden of motorcycle crashes is borne by the public.

– When universal helmet laws are enacted, helmet use increases and fatalities and serious injuries decrease.

– When universal helmet laws are repealed, helmet use decreases and injuries and associated costs increase.

A 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seems to support those claims.

According to the CDC report, in 2010, 42 percent of motorcyclists who were fatally injured were unhelmeted. Helmets saved more than 1,500 riders’ lives, but about 700 more lives could have been saved if all riders had worn helmets in 2010, the report says.

A report published in the July 2012 Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons argues for a universal helmet law in Illinois. The report was written by Dr. Richard J. Fantus, a surgeon at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center.

“Does a law interfere with an individual’s personal freedom?” he writes. “The simple answer is yes, but no differently than impaired driving laws, cellphone use laws, seatbelt use laws, and quarantine laws for infectious diseases. The purpose of these laws is to provide for the nation’s well-being.”

Legislators oppose mandate

The matter of a motorcycle helmet law has come to a vote a number of times in the state Legislature, but it has been rejected every time. And while local legislators mostly support the use of motorcycle helmets, they also support riders’ freedom to choose.

“I think people should wear helmets when they ride motorcycles,” Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, said. “But I don’t think I support a law to require it. ... That’s an area where it comes down to personal responsibility. I don’t think it’s appropriate for government to mandate that.”

Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, agrees.

“My personal opinion is that anyone who doesn’t wear a motorcycle helmet when they’re riding a motorcycle is crazy,” Jacobs said. “My public opinion is if they want to ride without a helmet, that’s their business.

“There are risks in life; people choose to accept those risks, I certainly wouldn’t do it, but I understand those people who want the wind in their hair. ... I just don’t think it’s the state’s job to tell them to protect themselves.”

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