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Tom's Corner - Don't use State Rep's tragic death to advance helmet agenda

State Representative Peter Pettalia from Presque Isle has died in a motorcycle accident. (Official photo)

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - The sad and ironic motorcycle death several days ago of State Representative Peter Pettalia has already inspired talk about Michigan's four year old law that allows people over the age of 20 to ride cycles without wearing a helmet.

Petallia, from Presque Isle, was a leading advocate for repeal of the state’s helmet law.

Tonight in Tom's Corner, Tom Van Howe says Pettalia’s death should not be used as a lever to inspire legislation to once again require the use of protective headgear.

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How far do we go in making laws to require people to protect themselves? That strikes me as the essential question.

A few years ago, my wife and I were on a Mexican beach when we spotted a young surfer, his wife and what appeared to be a year old baby boy. With great excitement, the surfer put the child between his legs and paddled out to find the right wave.

And then, there he was, riding the water, holding his son in his arms, coming back to the shore. The young wife greeted him with applause and collected the child who was waving and kicking his feet in excitement.

We were stunned. If that had happened in the states, we thought, the young mom and dad would have been arrested for child endangerment.

Not to suggest for a moment that it was a good idea to take that kid out on a surfboard, but we appeared to be the only ones stunned by it all. What we had just witnessed, we decided, was someone exercising his freedom--his right--to be really stupid.

The same, I think, goes for helmet laws.

What makes the death of Representative Pettalia ironic is that, although he was the strongest advocate for wind in the hair riding, he was wearing a helmet at the time of his accident. He was being smart. Doing the right thing.

Just because the law doesn't require riders to wear helmets doesn't suggest you shouldn't. It means you have the freedom to choose.

But numbers bear out the wisdom of wearing a helmet.

According to published reports, Spectrum Hospital says of 345 treated crash victims, ten percent of those who did not wear helmets died, compared to just three percent who did wear them.

Of those who died at the scene of the crash, the proportion of those not wearing helmets rose from 14 percent before the law was repealed to 68 percent after.

For reasons not entirely clear, people who don't wear helmets tend to consume more alcohol than those who do.

The average hospital costs for non-helmeted crash victims was nearly $30,000, compared with just over $20,000 for those who did wear them.

Riders who choose not to wear a helmet are supposed to have a separate $20,000 insurance policy to pay for their own recovery. But enforcement of that has not been a priority.

Last year there were 136 motorcycle deaths in Michigan, and more than half of them involved helmetless riders.

So, it is painfully clear that it is smart to wear a helmet. Helmets save lives. Helmets protect families from incredible grief. Helmets reduce the cost of recovery.

No rider sets out believing that he or she will soon be involved in a fatal collision. But deep down he or she knows full well that it could happen.

A choice is made. People exercise their freedom to make that decision for themselves.

The smartest option, obviously, is to wear headgear. But there are those who only ride to feel exhilarated by the wind in their hair. They know the risk. They know what choice they're making. They know every emergency doc in the country would say, "wear a helmet you idiot." But it’s a choice. Whether its smart or dumb, it's a choice.

Like that young surfer in Sayulita, Mexico. I hope he and his family are well. And I hope he, too, is making smarter choices.

In this corner, I'm Tom Van Howe.

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