Helmets continue to divide riders

Educational programs are crucial to keeping motorcycle and ATV operators safe while on two or four wheels, but riders are split on whether helmets and safety gear can minimize the effects of a crash.

Safety equipment does not always change the outcome of a crash, but it can be the difference between moderate and serious injury, said Steve Seltzer, owner of Steve Seltzer Powersports in Altoona.

Nationally, the number of motorcycle deaths more than doubled between 1997 and 2011, according to a recent Governors Highway Safety Administration report. There were more than 5,000 motorcycle fatalities in the United States in 2012.

“The right gear will make all the difference in the world,” Seltzer said. “You just have to be careful.”

But the decision to wear a helmet lies with the motorcycle operator, said Charles Umbenhauer, a lobbyist for the Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education.

“We’re not telling anybody not to wear a helmet,” Umbenhauer said, adding the decision to wear or not to wear protective gear while operating a motorcycle should be left up to adults who are properly licensed to ride.

Recent fatalities from motorcycle and ATV accidents have left area communities searching for answers on how to better protect riders.

Last week, a Mineral Point man was killed and a woman injured after crashing an ATV in Cambria Township. Neither individual was wearing a helmet.

In May, a 15-year-old Northern Bedford High School student was killed while racing his ATV at the Bedford County Dirt Racers track near New Enterprise. The boy was wearing a helmet at the time of the crash.

Parents need to make sure their children are supervised while riding off-road dirt bikes or ATVs, Seltzer said.

And warning labels about a rider’s age, size and skill level should be obeyed at all times for the rider’s safety, he said.

Seltzer said ATV riders can practice their skills in the ATV Safety Institute’s ATV rider course. The program is similar to Pennsylvania’s Basic Rider Course for motorcycle riders and teaches ATV riders about safety equipment, proper riding techniques and vehicle safety.

ATV Safety Institute officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

In 2012, there were 210 motorcycle fatalities on Pennsylvania roads. Of those, 100 riders were wearing helmets, 104 were not, and 6 were unknown, Umbenhauer said.

“The thing that disturbs me about how they keep those statistics, the 104 that were killed that were not wearing helmets, that doesn’t mean that’s how they died,” Umbenhauer said. “Motorcycle accidents are pretty intense happenings and a lot of things are going on.”

Blunt force trauma, bleeding and other factors all contribute to the trauma a rider suffers during a crash, Umbenhauer said.

Umbenhauer pointed to a recent study which showed motorcycle deaths have increased 35 percent since the helmet law was modified in 2003.

“That’s a true statement,” Umbenhauer said. “But you have to take into consideration that since that time frame, 2003, motorcycle registrations are up by 53 percent.”

“You have twice as many motorcycles on the highway than you did in 2003. You actually have lower fatalities.”

ABATE is a lobbyist group for on-road motorcycles, and not ATV or dirt bike riders, Umbenhauer said.

Alcohol and speed are critical factors in both ATV and motorcycle crashes, both riders said.

“So many accidents have alcohol as a factor,” Seltzer said. “It’s a shame. You just see time and time again where that’s an issue.”

ATV riders who drink are also at a higher risk of accidents, Seltzer said.

“Twenty-nine percent of fatal motorcycle crashes involved a motorcycle rider who was alcohol impaired, 21 percent were speed related,” Umbenhauer said. “So right there you have two factors that are in complete control of the operator of the motorcycle.”

ATV and motorcycle riders need to practice their skills with rider safety courses and know their limits while riding, Seltzer said.

“You just have to be careful,” Seltzer said. “To me, it’s all about managing the risk … and you need to do everything you can to put the risks in your favor.”

Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.