OFF THE WIRE
Should Illinois require helmets for kids on motorcycles?
Peter Lenz, center, died in 2010 at age 13 after falling off his bike and getting run over by another motorcycle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There are no laws that ban children from riding on motorcycles, and only certain states require the use of helmets.
Likewise, parents could face a $75 fine if they don’t secure their child in a properly fitting car safety seat.
Advertisement But allowing an 8-year-old to ride on a motorcycle going 45 mph without a helmet? Perfectly legal in Illinois.
Two recent crashes have put the issue in the forefront.
A 9-year-old girl was thrown from a motorcycle Aug. 27 in Ingleside when another vehicle hit the bike her father was driving. She wore a helmet, but her father did not and died.
A Sept. 10 collision in Gurnee injured a 7-year-old boy who was a passenger on a motorcycle driven by his mother. The boy, who was wearing a helmet, landed underneath another car.
Children’s advocacy groups say requiring helmets for minors or going to the extent of prohibiting kids from riding on motorcycles will save lives.
But what may seem like a simple safety issue isn’t.
Motorcyclist rights’ organizations argue that it’s a matter for parents to decide and the government has no business interfering in family decisions.
“No. 1, it’s not the government’s place to tell anyone what to wear,” said Greg Smith, public relations coordinator for the DuPage/Kane chapter of ABATE, or A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education.
Such schisms contributed to the quick demise of legislation in 2010 and in past years aiming to mandate helmets.
“Some people don’t understand the vulnerability of children or don’t care,” said Janette Fennell, president of KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit child-safety organization.
Secretary of State Jesse White intends to take up the fight again, a spokesman said.
“It’s common sense,” White press secretary Dave Druker said. “When someone makes a decision to use a motorcycle, they’re making that decision for themselves. (But) children don’t have any say. They should have every defense that they can.”
Nationwide, 187 children (ages 17 and younger) who were passengers on motorcycles died in crashes between 2000 and 2009, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows.
In Illinois, 613 children (ages 17 and younger) were injured while passengers on motorcycles involved in crashes in 2009, according to the most recent NHTSA statistics.
Children can emerge unscathed from car crashes, said pediatrician Elizabeth Powell, an emergency medicine physician at Children’s Memorial Hospital.
That’s not the case with motorcycles.
“The ones I’ve managed have been very significantly injured,” she said. “With motorcycle cases, there doesn’t tend to be a no-injury group.”
Most children just aren’t ready for motorcycles, explained Powell, who also works on injury prevention with the Elk Grove Village-based American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Developmentally, they’re not capable of holding on,” she said.
As for mandating helmets — it should be essential, Powell said.
“Head injury is clearly one of the most frequent results from motorcycle collisions and falls,” she said.
However, only 20 states and Washington, D.C., require all motorcycle riders to wear helmets, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a coalition of safety, health, insurance and consumer groups. Twenty-seven states have laws mandating helmet use for younger riders, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports.
Three states — Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire — have no helmet laws.
Whose life is it? Some existing helmet laws are endangered species.
In 2010, attempts were made to repeal helmet laws in nine states, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety vice president Henry Jasny said. This occurred despite the fact “deaths go up when you repeal your helmet law,” he said.
The group’s officials were not aware of any states banning children from riding on motorcycles, despite one recent well-publicized fatality involving Peter Lenz, a 13-year-old rider from Washington state killed during a youth circuit event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in March.
For riders such as Smith of Batavia, it’s a question of personal freedom.
“It’s the right of parents to regulate what their children have to wear. If they feel their child should wear a helmet, then the child should wear a helmet,” he said.
“The parents, if they are responsible, will do the responsible thing.
“I wear a helmet at all times and a reflective vest. But it’s my choice to do that, no matter if I’m riding in 90 degree weather or it’s 40 below,” Smith said.
Fellow motorcyclist Earl Hobbs of Rolling Meadows disagrees.
“I’d totally support the helmet law if they put one in,” said Hobbs, a member and former safety officer for Gold Wing Road Riders Association, a motorcycling enthusiasts group.
“When kids are on a bike, a helmet is the only protection a kid’s got for their head. Broken bones can be fixed, but not heads.”
A wipeout on Lake Shore Drive in 1977 made longtime motorcyclist state Sen. Donne Trotter a helmet proponent. He says his helmet saved his life.
“When you’re on a motorcycle and you hit something — you’re shot out like a missile,” Trotter said. “And the head of the missile is your head, and the chance of you having a head injury is just astronomical.”
Trotter has used his battered, bloody helmet as a visual aid when he’s unsuccessfully tried to push through legislation — most recently in 2010.
“Any excuse people make up — they make up to fight this,” said Trotter, a Chicago Democrat.
The anti-helmet lobby is extremely powerful, with riders donating both money and time to campaigns for political supporters.
In Illinois, ABATE political action committees have contributed more than $207,000 to state lawmakers.
Despite that history, White’s office intends to spearhead another helmet law attempt in early 2012.
“We’re going to give it the old college try,” Druker said.
Sen. Chris Lauzen, an Aurora Republican, said wearing helmets on motorcycles is the safest way to go, but he voted against the helmet bill Trotter sponsored in 2010.
“The question is — is that a decision for the government to make or for the rider to make?” he said. “State government has done such a poor job in areas where it’s directly responsible for the outcome — namely balancing the budget. There’s all these other areas where we put our fingers into people’s lives where it really isn’t essential.”
But in Lorrie Walker’s view, it’s up to lawmakers to help parents make the right decisions.
She is technical adviser for Safe Kids USA, a nonprofit group aimed at preventing childhood injuries.
“There are restrictions on rides at Disney World — why do something less for motorcycles?” Walker said.
“Sometimes parents need guidance. If there’s no law, they assume it’s safe.”