Hard lessons

June 20, 2006

Last year, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was not shy about telling reporters that he saw nothing wrong with riding his motorcycle without wearing a helmet. It's a matter of choice, he told a TV interviewer, and he correctly noted that Pennsylvania doesn't require it. Last week, however, the football star announced that if he ever rides a motorcycle again, it will be with a helmet on his head.

Suffering a concussion, a broken jaw, two missing teeth and other broken facial bones will have that effect on a person.

Police in Pittsburgh announced yesterday that Mr. Roethlisberger will be cited for not wearing a helmet and not having a motorcycle license as a result of his accident one week ago. The former is a bit of a technicality - only licensed motorcycle drivers can ride without a helmet in Pennsylvania. Nationwide, just 20 states require anyone riding a motorcycle to wear a helmet. Maryland is one of them, but the law has recently been under assault.

Each year, the law's opponents show up in Annapolis seeking to overturn the mandatory helmet requirement. A House bill to do just that attracted more than 50 co-sponsors this year. Supporters argue - just as a pre-accident Ben Roethlisberger did - that individual riders can make that choice responsibly. But helmet-optional states tend to suffer far more motorcycle-related serious injuries and deaths. And when those injuries happen, there are broad consequences.

More than 4,000 motorcycle riders were killed on the nation's roads last year. That's about 9 percent of all traffic fatalities even though motorcycles account for only about 0.4 percent of all the vehicle miles traveled. States that repeal helmet laws help lead the trend. In Florida, motorcycle deaths have increased at least 67 percent since a mandatory helmet law was repealed six years ago.

The problem is that when helmets are optional, a lot of riders don't wear them. And then the rest of society is stuck paying for that choice - for brain injuries that require hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical treatment, for disability benefits and long-term nursing care. Mr. Roethlisberger is fortunate to be around to have a change of heart.

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