Freedom, safety steer helmet debate

Adult motorcyclists make own choices about life-saving gear


Brahm Bechtold rides a Harley-Davidson cruiser, a bike he says is made for taking it easy and enjoying the scenery.

He and his wife and passenger, Dagmar, say new motorcyclists should wear helmets, but they feel safe without them because they take it slow.

“The wind’s in your hair, you’re having fun and just kind of putting along. It’s nothing fast, no tight turns, it’s a lot slower, just enjoying the scenery,” said Bechtold, a Lone Tree resident who has been riding for 20 years. “I’m not looking to cut those corners or do that high acceleration.”

In Colorado, where adults are not legally required to wear a helmet, emotions over whether to do so are riding high on both sides as the number of motorcyclist deaths increases. Those who wear them cite safety, while riders who don’t say it’s a matter of personal freedom.

“You should definitely wear a helmet, but I don’t,” Bechtold said. “It’s my personal choice.”

But the Bechtolds also know firsthand the risks of riding. Brahm Bechtold said a friend died about two years ago on her motorcycle when a car hit her from behind and she was thrown from the bike. He doesn’t think she was wearing a helmet.

Head injury is the leading cause of death for motorcyclists, and nearly two-thirds of the motorcyclists killed statewide in 2014 were not wearing a helmet, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

‘Riskier to be on two wheels’

Helmets are nearly 40 percent effective in preventing motorcycle-crash deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. But they are not mandatory gear for adults in most of the country.

State law specifies that only riders 17 and younger are required to wear helmets, making Colorado one of 28 states with an age-specific helmet requirement. All riders must wear helmets in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Only three states — Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire — have no helmet requirements at all.

Motorcycle accident fatalities in the state have increased sharply in the last three years. According to CDOT, an all-time high of 105 people died in motorcycle crashes in 2015, up 11.7 percent from 2014 and 20 percent higher than 2013. The 2015 data is preliminary and it’s not entirely clear why fatalities are up, but it’s likely that impaired driving, speeding and not wearing a helmet are factors, a CDOT spokesman said.

To this point in 2016, there have been 58 motorcycle-crash deaths in Colorado, up 14 percent from this time in 2015, CDOT announced July 22. Of those killed, 34 — including at least three people in the south metro area — were not wearing helmets.

Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says helmets can make a difference in preventing many motorcycle-crash deaths.

“It’s riskier to be on two wheels than on four,” Rader said. “Wearing a helmet is the single most important thing a rider can do to reduce their risk of serious head injury or death in a crash. Helmets are very effective in preventing death.”

Chris Kozuch, of Castle Rock, agrees with Rader.

Kozuch is a motorcycle patrolman and leads the accident reconstruction team for the Parker Police Department. He rides a motorcycle on the job and rode one for pleasure until the birth of his son last year. He says he has always worn a helmet, on duty or off.

“You’re more vulnerable on a motorcycle than you are in a car, that’s something that has to be taken into consideration,” Kozuch said. “Being a motorcycle rider personally, I wear the helmet for safety because I have a family and I have to be as safe as I can.”

Kozuch added that faster, lighter performance bikes, also referred to as “sport bikes,” accelerate quickly and have more sensitive steering, leading to situations that riders sometimes can’t control.

“Motorcycles can do three things very well: they can accelerate very well, they can turn very well and they can brake very well, just not all three of them at once,” he said. “A wild animal or even gravel in the roadway can cause that motorcycle to start acting in a way that you’re not expecting. And if you’re not ready for it, it can have very bad consequences.”

The most ‘fragile part of the body’

Tommy Van Swearingen rides a performance bike and says he likes the speed and responsive controls.

He also likes his helmet.

“I’ve got a great physical therapist. He can fix everything I’ve got, except for one thing. If I hurt my head, he can’t fix that. It’s the most fragile part of the body,” said Van Swearingen, a Littleton resident. “Having crashed a few times and seeing what it’s done to my helmet, it just solidifies the belief that it’s the most important part of my gear.”

Van Swearingen has been riding for 30 years and says all of his friends who ride also wear helmets. Van Swearingen works with parts manager Doug Vickery at a motorcycle shop in Aurora. Vickery asked that the name of the shop not be used because helmet use is such a personal issue he didn’t want to offend any customers.

Vickery is a Larkspur resident and retired professional American Motorcycle Association racer. He still rides a sport bike, but he’s traded the racetrack for the road. He once crashed on a bike at 160 mph, in addition to being hit by cars on two separate occasions. He says he “always” wears a helmet, just as his parents and his son do.

“I feel naked without one,” Vickery said. “Even if I had a cruiser bike, I’d wear a helmet … Safety equipment is everything.”

But Vickery said, as important to him as helmets are, “if someone doesn’t want to wear one, I support their freedom to choose.”

For Englewood biker Steve Hall, not wearing a helmet is all about “getting the full effect” of seeing and hearing everything around him as he rides.

“They’re just uncomfortable,” he said. “I just like the freedom. The wind in your hair ... A helmet is heavy, it’s cumbersome and you’re missing the full effect. You can’t hear what’s going on around you. Even with your mirrors and everything, it’s not the same as just being able to turn your head and see what’s there.”

Everyone’s responsibility

Brahm Bechtold says other drivers are a more dangerous variable than whether or not he’s wearing a helmet.

“You have to watch everyone around you,” he said. “We do the speed limit and it’s relatively safe, but there’s always the problem of the people who are going to cut you off. You really have to watch how you ride because not everyone is concerned about motorcycles here in Colorado.”

Kozuch, the police officer, agrees about the importance of awareness: “I think at the end of the day it’s the responsibility of everybody that’s on the road, whether you’re on the motorcycle or a bicycle or in a car, to watch the roadway for everybody that’s around you.”

CDOT recently announced a safety campaign that will last through Labor Day. It is placing messages on social media, at gas stations and on radio stations asking motorists to “look twice for motorcycles.”

Hall has a Harley-Davidson cruiser and has been riding for more than 20 years. He wore helmets when he rode dirt bikes as a boy but says he’s never worn a helmet on the road. He was in an accident several years ago and suffered a slew of broken bones, but the incident didn’t change his mind on the subject of helmets. He hasn’t been in any accidents since, and he credits his careful technique and awareness of other drivers for that.

He respects the decision of others to wear a helmet, but it’s not for him.

“You ride your way,” he said. “I’ll ride my way.”


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