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AAA urges motorcyclists to wear helmets ahead of Daytona Bike Week

When four Broward County friends rev up their engines and head north this weekend for Daytona Beach's annual Bike Week celebration, they will be looking for what Sunrise businessman Gary Lasky calls "the natural high" of the open road on a motorcycle.

"We just love to get together and ride," said Lasky, 57. "It is just nice to get out of Dodge for a few days with your buddies."

But Lasky and his pals will also be looking to cut down on the dangers of making the trip on a vehicle with a fatality rate that is six times higher than the fatality rate for a passenger car, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Safety gear is extremely important," said Lasky. "Boots, gloves, pants and helmets. We ride with a guy who likes to ride without a helmet, and we remind him: 'It's your head.'"

In Florida — which leads the nation in the number of motorcycle fatalities — the death rate has more than doubled since the repeal of the state's mandatory helmet law in 2000, said the auto club AAA.

"While helmet usage is a controversial issue among riders — bottom line they save lives," said Karen Morgan, AAA public policy manager, in a press release issued Wednesday.

While 32 percent of Florida motorcyclists do not think they should be required to wear a helmet when riding, according to a survey of 228 Florida motorcycle owners released by AAA on Wednesday, a majority of riders say they do wear some form of safety gear, Morgan said.

In Florida, one out of seven riders shuns helmets, according to AAA.

Lasky said he understands that some riders find helmets restrictive, or think they diminish the wind-in-your-face thrill of biking. But the risks of death or injury are too high to ignore, he said.

"In general, you've got to have 20 sets of eyes out there," said Lasky, who runs a food brokerage business and rides a Harley-Davidson Street Glide. "You have be extremely cautious, wear protective gear and be patient. If you're on a motorcycle and rushing to get somewhere, you are asking for trouble."

In 2013 — the most recent year for which figures are available — there were 4,668 motorcyclists killed in traffic crashes in the U.S., according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report released in 2015. That represented 14 percent of all traffic fatalities even though motorcyclists accounted for only 0.7 percent of all vehicle miles traveled, researchers found.

In other words, per mile traveled, motorcycle fatalities occurred 26 times more frequently than passenger car fatalities, according to the NHTSA report.

Motorcycle helmets saved 1,630 lives in 2013, according to the NHTSA. If all motorcyclists had worn helmets, 715 more lives would have been saved, analysts concluded.

With 467 deaths, Florida had more fatalities than any other state in 2013. That number may be explained in part by the state's population — the third highest in the U.S. — and a climate that makes riding in the Sunshine State a year-round activity.

Of those Florida deaths, 29 percent of riders were found to be legally drunk, with blood alcohol levels of .08 or higher.

For the 75th Anniversary Bike Week, which begins Friday and runs through March 13, some 500,000 visitors are expected in Volusia County, according to tourism officials.

To trauma program manager Kevin Captain at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach, that means "a very busy week for us. We usually see more than one month's worth of trauma scrunched into a 10-day period."

To prepare, Captain said the hospital stockpiles more blood and increases staff. "We usually expect motorcycle related injuries [during Bike Week] and because Florida is a no-helmet state, many are head injuries," said Captain.

A registered nurse, Captain said he is a fan of helmets. "I am a former rider myself, and I appreciate the sense of freedom [riding without a helmet might bring]," he said. "Yet in my experience, the biggest difference between life and death or being left in a vegetative state is a helmet."

Also planning to be on the road to Daytona Beach is Liz Petrov, assistant service manager at Harley-Davidson of Palm Beach. Petrov, 50, has been riding motorcycles for most of her life, she said, and nearly died three years ago after being run down by a car on a back road in New York.

"I am a big believer in full-face helmets [with visor or face shield]," she said. "Make sure your bike is safe, check the tires and battery.

"You always have to be looking, to be aware of who's around you," said Petrov. "Never leave yourself boxed in and leave enough room so you have an exit plan. And assume that other drivers don't know you're anywhere near them."

mwclary@tribune.com

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