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Sturgis Day 3

Sturgis Riders Vigorously Debate Helmet Laws.

The rally has a pretty low wuss ratio, at least if you're judging by the lack of helmets, which South Dakota doesn’t require for motorcyclists. Bandanas and do-rags are the headgear of choice, as far as I can see.

I admit I'm a little shocked by seeing bare heads hurtling down the highway. I'm convinced by pro-helmet statistics involving, oh, I don’t know, life versus death, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. The latter's Web site states that "approximately 80 percent of reported motorcycle crashes result in injury or death."

So why the debate about helmets—especially for those 50+, with all the worldly wisdom we have garnered in our years? Don’t we now exercise, watch our cholesterol, and maybe wear motorcycle helmets?

These seemingly sane, very nice people I've encountered at Sturgis don't! Is it that they see motorcycling as a lifestyle—even a philosophy—and not a sport? Is that why they don’t get protective gear? Do they equate Harleys with Cadillacs—big, heavy, and protective?

When I ask, what I hear most often is this: Wearing a helmet should be a personal choice. Take Norma and Phil Hohm, from Huron, S.D., who met through ABATE, A Brotherhood for Awareness, Training, and Education. It's a national group dedicated to the rights, image, and safety of motorcyclists.

Norma, 68, calls herself "pro-choice," and Phil, 63, adds that "choice" should not be mandated. "We're not against helmets—I wear them at times—but it should be your choice," he said. Instead, he emphasizes cautious driving and wearing protection, especially long pants. He lets me in on the news that some day soon, bikers might be pulling on inflatable pants and jackets that work like airbags.

Hitting the pavement with your head encased has the effect of "rocks sloshing in a bucket," said Ray Goodman, 48, from Nampa, Idaho. He and his wife Dawn, 50, are anti-helmet, and committed, cyclists who've been coming to Sturgis since 1998. When their grandson Tyler was a baby, Ray remembered, "He would hear a bike go by outside and say 'Harley!' It was one of his first words.

Mary Wommer, 50, is a radiology supervisor from Sisseton, S.D., who wears a helmet to work "because," she said, "short rides are when most accidents happen; you get complacent on the rides you do over and over."  Like many others I spoke with, she related that helmets are hot, heavy, and make it hard to see and hear. For her, defensive driving is more critical: "Ride like you're invisible," she advised.

Not surprisingly, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, whom I chatted with at the Mayor’s Ride on Monday, champions helmets.

"Motorcycling is a wonderful thing baby boomers can do as we approach retirement," she said. "But everyone should take a safety class and wear safety equipment. Your hair being messed up is nothing compared to your head on the pavement." She advises a U.S. Department of Transportation-certified helmet. See her wearing one in Day Three of our photo gallery, here.


The most daring person I've met this week is the most pro-helmet. Stunt rider Jason Pullen, who can ride a Harley on one wheel for a mile, says he can't understand people going on the highway without a helmet. He declared, "It scares the piss out of me!"

So readers: Where do you stand on the helmet issue? Join the discussion at the Riders U.S.A. Online Community Group.     

Tune in tomorrow: Watch for another '80s rock icon!

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