Will Wisconsin ever mandate helmets for motorcyclists?

May 3, 2013
Motorcycle enthusiasts Steve Little of Fond du Lac rides a Triumph motorcycle on country roads in Fond du Lac county. / Photo illustration Patrick Flood/The Reporter Medi
Tom O'Mera, motorcycle program coordinator for Moraine Park Technical College. / Patrick Flood / The Reporter Media

Fatal crash statistics

Over the past 10 years, statistics show that only 1 in 4 motorcyclists involved in a fatality were wearing a helmet at the time of the crash.
Year, fatals, percentage without helmets
2003, 100, 74 percent
2004, 80, 75 percent
2005, 92, 75 percent
2006, 93, 74 percent
2007, 110, 66 percent
2008, 88, 76 percent
2009, 84, 62 percent
2010, 104, 74 percent
2011, 85, 92 percent
2012, 116, 74 percent
Source: Wisconsin Department of Transportation

Safety tips for riders

When you ride your motorcycle, follow these tips to stay safe:
• Always wear a DOT-approved helmet.
• Never ride your motorcycle after drinking. Alcohol greatly impairs your ability to safely operate a motorcycle.
• Don’t let friends ride impaired. Take their keys away.
• Wear protective clothing that provides some level of injury protection. Upper body clothing should also include bright colors or reflective materials, so that other motorists can more easily see you.
• Avoid tailgating.
• Maintain a safe speed and exercise caution when traveling over slippery surfaces or gravel.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Cost of freedom

Last year marked one of the deadliest in three decades for Wisconsin motorcycle riders and the vast majority of those who were killed were not wearing a helmet. A three-part special report from the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team examines the lack of movement in the state to enact a mandatory helmet law and what’s being done to improve rider safety.
Today, May 5: Despite the recent spike in motorcycle deaths, there appears to be no movement to enact a mandatory helmet law in Wisconsin, leaving state officials scrambling to find ways to lower the death toll and reduce instances of traumatic brain injuries.
Coming Monday, May 6: Two years ago, Doreen Tesch went for a ride on her boyfriend’s motorcycle. A truck barreled through a stop sign and struck their motorcycle. Her last minute decision to wear a helmet probably saved her life.
Sunday, May 12: One politically connected group remains a vigilant force preventing state lawmakers from revisiting the notion of a mandatory helmet law.

Scott Perzentka of Oshkosh relates the story of his motorcycle crash in 2003 that almost killed him. / Patrick Flood / The Reporter Media
Scott Perzentka of Oshkosh before his motorcycle crash in 2003 that almost killed him. / Submitted photo
Scott Perzentka of Oshkosh after the motorcycle crash in 2003 that almost killed him. / Submitted photo


Despite nearly losing his life in a motorcycle crash 10 years ago, Scott Perzentka still believes helmets aren’t the answer to reducing motorcycle fatalities.

The Oshkosh man suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2003 after his motorcycle slammed into a 10-ton semi truck that turned in front of him on the Frontage Road near the Planeview Travel Plaza. Perzentka, who was not wearing a helmet, was heading home to get a jump on the long Fourth of July weekend.

“The crash wouldn’t have happened in the first place if the driver of the semi had been paying attention,” said Perzentka, who gave up riding for good in 2004. “I rode out to the crash site on the one-year anniversary of my accident. But I gave up riding motorcycles the day my son was born. It was a hard decision, but my son is too important and I don’t trust all the distracted drivers on the road. People just aren’t aware of motorcycles out there on the roads.”

Wisconsin by-ways have become a dangerous place for motorcyclists. Last year turned out to be one of the deadliest in three decades for Wisconsin motorcyclists, with 116 people dying in crashes, up from 85 in 2011. This deadly toll was only surpassed in 1980 with 123 fatalities. Over the past five years, statistics show that just one in four riders killed in crashes was wearing a helmet. Motorcyclists aged 46 or older accounted for about 60 percent of the motorcyclists killed last year.

To date, 19 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory helmet laws while 28 states — including Wisconsin — have partial helmet laws with only younger and newer riders being required to wear a helmet.

Three states — Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire — have no helmet law on the books. A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that partial helmet laws do not motivate riders to wear helmets. States with partial helmet laws and states without helmet laws experience little difference in helmet use.

With no growing momentum in the Wisconsin Legislature to enact a mandatory helmet law, state officials are trying a different approach to reduce fatalities and serious injury: a renewed emphasis on rider safety.


Reversing a deadly trend

It’s important to target the aging demographic of motorcyclists who are more prone to be involved in a fatal crash, said Greg Patzer, manager of the Wisconsin Motorcycle Safety Program, part of the Department of Transportation. The average age of fatality victims has increased from 30 in 1992 to 48 in 2012.

“There’s more older riders out there on the road today. Some of them haven’t ridden for years and their skills and reflexes aren’t what they used to be,” Patzer said. “One of the things that many seasoned or returning riders don’t consider is that the physical and mental skills involved in riding a motorcycle are perishable.”

Patzer said it’s a challenge to get older riders to attend rider education classes to improve their skills.

“If they’ve never taken a rider education course and they’ve survived out there this long, what impetus is there in their mind to take a refresher course?” Patzer said.

The state of Wisconsin requires anyone driving a motorcycle to carry a Class M motorcycle license or motorcycle instruction permit. To earn that Class M endorsement on a driver’s license, applicants must either pass a Wisconsin Department of Transportation administered motorcycle skills test or provide a waiver showing completion of a WisDOT approved rider course.

While many motorcycle groups support mandatory safety courses for beginning or inexperienced riders, David Charlebois says seasoned riders should be exempt.

Charlebois, president of ABATE of Wisconsin, said many motorcyclists were driving long before the state required a Class M endorsement when the state enacted its universal helmet law in 1968. ABATE of Wisconsin is a motorcycle rights and grassroots lobbying organization that led to the repeal of Wisconsin’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law in 1978.

“Why should they have to spend $250 on a basic rider’s course and then licensing fees if you’ve been riding since you were young and have logged thousands of miles?” Charlebois said.

Patzer estimates that more than 513,000 operators carry a Class M endorsement.

“There’s still plenty of riders out there without an endorsement,” Patzer said. “This is a problem in the state of Wisconsin because 40 percent of our motorcycle fatalities on an annual basis involve riders that are either improperly endorsed or not endorsed at all.”

High-risk activity

In his 21 years of teaching motorcycle safety at Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, Thomas O’Meara III has mentored students ages 15 to 84.

“I can’t tell you how many students have come back and told me that without the training they received in class, they wouldn’t have known what to do in certain situations out on the road,” the 70-year-old O’Meara said. “A lot of the older riders are surprised at how much motorcycles have changed since they rode in their teens. These machines are a whole different world now; they’re heavier, more powerful and the acceleration rates are way out there.”

O’Meara is quick to point out to students that riding a motorcycle is a high-risk activity in which operators are far more likely to die than any other form of transportation.

Less than half of Wisconsin motorcyclists wear a helmet, O’Meara said. On average, states with a mandatory helmet law save three times more riders’ lives per 100,000 registered motorcyclists per year compared to states with partial helmet laws, according to NHTSA.

“I’m not going to tell a student that they have to wear a helmet. But I am going to give them information and the research and let them weigh the risk and make their decision,” O’Meara said. “They have to make that decision wisely and understand that their decision touches a lot of other entities.”

Helmets not perfect solution

Even though numerous studies show that helmets mitigate head injuries and save lives, attempts to bring back a mandatory helmet law in Wisconsin have failed twice since the law was repealed in 1978. While many motorcycle advocacy groups endorse the use of helmets, they also oppose mandatory helmet laws as infringements on personal liberties and their right to assume the risk of riding without a helmet.

Riders who opt not to wear helmets also say the headgear isn’t the ideal solution that safety officials would have the public believe.

“We believe in working towards real solutions and not just wearing plastic on the head,” said Tony Sanfelipo, founder of ABATE of Wisconsin, who led the grassroots effort to repeal the state’s mandatory helmet law in 1978.

Sanfelipo who also investigates motorcycle crashes for a Milwaukee law firm, says the government’s fatality studies are skewed to push a helmet-use agenda on motorcyclists.

He said wearing a helmet should be a personal choice and that data from safety testing of helmets is imprecise at best.

“When they say that 35 percent or so of victims could have been saved if they had only been wearing a helmet, that is ridiculous. It’s just a numbers game,” Sanfelipo said. “After a crash of over 25 mph, I think it’s a coin toss whether or not a helmet helps or hurts you.”

Since 1974, all motorcycle helmets are required to meet the DOT standard of protection a helmet must afford each wearer.

“These helmets are tested for impact at speeds up to 13 to 17 mph. When you think of a motorcycle crash, this isn’t realistic,” Sanfelipo said. “We’ve asked them to test helmets using crash test dummies with sensors but they won’t do it because no helmet would ever pass that test.”

Charlebois says helmets can’t protect against the most common injury sustained by riders — upper chest trauma. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in December 2004 found riders were more likely to fracture a limb than sustain a head injury.

“The leading cause of motorcycle injury and death is upper chest trauma — no helmet can prevent that,” Charlebois said.

Changing attitudes

Instead of fighting an uphill battle for enacting a mandatory helmet law in the state Legislature, Patzer said WisDOT continues to reach out to motorcyclists with its newly launched mobile training facility, called THE REF (Transportable High-End Rider Education Facility). The 42-foot-long mobile unit will cross the state this year visiting various functions to encourage both riders and non-riders to learn more about sharing the road, crash avoidance and environmental awareness.

“If we can get to the motorcycle community and affect attitudes, behavior choices and decision-making, we stand a much better chance of saving lives than pounding our fists on the desk saying there’s got to be a helmet law,” Patzer said. “Hopefully this will have a positive influence on all roadway users that will go a long way in not only reducing motorcycle crashes and fatalities, but reducing motor vehicle crashes as well.”

Lori Thiel, motorcycle enthusiast and co-owner of Open Road Harley-Davidson of Fond du Lac, said she was among the legion of riders who chose not to wear a helmet when she began riding nearly 10 years ago. But through the years, crashes involving motorcyclists have changed her mind. She and her partner, Pete Johnson, are big proponents of helmets.

“I think people have this mentality that you’re invincible,” Thiel said. “I guess when you’re closer to it and you see the risk, you can still have fun and take some of the risk out of the equation by wearing a helmet. In the end, everyone is an adult and has to make their own decisions.”

Source: Wisconsin Department of Transportation

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