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Motorcycle deaths in Pennsylvania climb in 10 years since repeal of helmet law

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 11:58 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Paula Watson, 48 of Peters Township and her brother Steve Bertges, 43 of Mount Washington lost their father in a motorcycle crash in Aug. 2011. Watson holds a family photograph of her father Robert 'Bobby' Bertges at age 20 in the Air Force.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Helmets sit on the shelf of Three Rivers Harley Davison in Glenshaw on May 21, 2013.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Hybrid helmets, or half helmets, are available at Three Rivers Harley Davison. Pennsylvania repealed it's helmet law ten years ago. Since then, improvements have still been made in helmet strength and effectiveness.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
Three quarter helmets sit on the shelf of Three Rivers Harley Davison in Glenshaw on May 21, 2013.
Gwen Titley | Tribune-Review
A full helmet, considered the safest to wear when riding a motorcycle, sits on the shelf of Three Rivers Harley Davison on May 21, 2013.
Paula Watson, 48 of Peters Township lost her father in a motorcycle crash in Aug. 2011. Watson at age two with her father Robert 'Bobby' Bertges pictured in a family photograph.
A family photograph of Robert 'Bobby' Bertges (on left).

Robert Bertges always wore a helmet while riding his motorcycle.

The Mt. Washington man survived a horrific crash in 1991. He slid into oncoming traffic, cracked his helmet and lost an eye, said his daughter, Paula Watson. The helmet, she said, gave his family 20 more years with Bertges.

But in August 2011, Bertges, 67, hopped on someone's bike to take it for a test ride outside a Mt. Washington bar. As he took off, the motorcycle kicked up and threw him off the back. He was not wearing a helmet. An autopsy showed Bertges died from head and neck injuries and did not mention alcohol in his system, said Watson, 48, of McMurray.

“Yes, he made the choice to get on that bike without a helmet. But if he didn't have that option, then it would have been a different story,” she said. “It's sort of been a hard pill for me to swallow.”

Ten years ago, Pennsylvania lawmakers gave motorcyclists the choice to wear helmets or not. The state Senate passed the bill on June 16; the House voted in July and Gov. Ed Rendell signed the law that month. By September, motorcyclists could ride without helmets if they were 21 years old or older and had two years of riding experience or had passed the state's Motorcycle Safety Program.

“It was a 15-year battle to let those that ride decide. It would be just as agonizing to reverse it,” said Sen. John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, who introduced the legislation. “I don't think the trend is there.”

The 2013 motorcycle season started deadly. Since the beginning of May, six motorcyclists in Western Pennsylvania died in crashes. At least one was not wearing a helmet, according to police reports.

“The helmet is not the panacea that everyone thinks it is,” said Charles Umbenhauer, a lobbyist for the Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education of Pennsylvania who fought for the helmet law repeal.

Since 2003, deaths in motorcycle crashes increased 35 percent. In 2012, 210 people died in motorcycle crashes, according to PennDOT statistics. Of those killed, 100 wore helmets; 104 did not. Information isn't known for six deaths.

Registrations have skyrocketed 53 percent since 2003. More motorcycles mean more crashes and more fatalities, Umbenhauer said. PennDOT records show 5.19 deaths per 10,000 motorcycle registrations in 2012 and 5.92 for 10,000 in 2003.

Riding without a helmet increases the chance of death or a catastrophic head or neck injury, said Dr. David Okonkwo, clinical director of UPMC Presbyterian's Brain Trauma Research Center. Dr. Anthony Fabio, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and the director of the Consortium for Injury Research & Community Action, said head injuries from motorcycle crashes jumped significantly since 2003.

Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, plans to introduce a bill directing a comprehensive study of the issue over the past decade. Each year since the helmet law's repeal, Frankel tried to reinstate the law — “an effort in futility,” he said.

Taking into account medical expenses, the cost of emergency medical services and lost wages and productivity, a motorcycle death can cost $1.2 million and a serious injury can cost $172,000, Frankel said, citing data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiled in 2012.

“The public needs to have a clear view of this, as do motorcycle riders,” Frankel said. “It's not just the rider's business. The rest of us suffer direct consequences from someone's reckless and irresponsible behavior. Your personal choice is impacting my health care costs, my insurance premiums and my tax dollars.”

Motorcyclists who wear helmets and those who don't both say it should be an individual choice, not a government mandate.

“I believe I have the right to make that decision myself, as to what sort of safety gear I will use,” said Len Young, 55, of Monroeville, who does not wear a helmet when he rides.

Brad Headley, 58, of Garads Fort in Greene County, wears a helmet when he rides on weekends with the Southern Cruisers Riding Club in Washington and Greene counties.

“Not all riders are going to make good choices, but when you start taking people's individuality away from them and their abilities to make choices, you're starting to get into an area where you're infringing over people's rights,” he said.

Watson, who still struggles with emotions from her father's death, wants motorcyclists to think about loved ones when choosing.

“Maybe they need to stop and think about the people they leave behind,” she said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or

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