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Lack of helmet laws means safety left up to riders

State has seen motorcycle fatalities increase in past few years

DeKALB – Colin Matthews has four motorcycle helmets, but he won’t be wearing one unless it’s cold, raining, or his mother is visiting.

After riding a motorcycle for 45 years, the DeKalb resident said although he might hop on his bike without a helmet, he’d be quick to tell a young rider to wear one.

“I spend money on boots, I wear a jacket, I protect everything from the neck down, but I don’t wear a helmet,” Matthews said. “Does that make me a fool? Yeah, it does.”

As one of the growing number of states that do not have helmet laws, Illinois has seen motorcycle fatalities increase in the past few years along with states that have repealed helmet laws, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. Motorcycle crash deaths statewide increased to 155 in 2013 from 148 in 2012.

In 2012, motorcycles were about 4 percent of the registered vehicles in Illinois but were involved in more than 15 percent of the motor vehicle fatalities, according to IDOT. Out of 148 motorcycle fatalities in 2012, 78 percent of the riders who died were not wearing a helmet.

The absence of helmets has been linked to fatal motorcycle crashes in trends seen around the country, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which is part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Texas and Arkansas both saw significant increases in motorcycle fatalities after repealing laws in 1997, and Florida’s motorcycle fatality rate went from roughly 13 percent of all motor vehicle deaths in 2000 when a helmet law was first repealed to nearly 30 percent of all vehicle deaths in 2012.

DeKalb County did not have any motorcycle fatalities in 2012, according to IDOT. So far in 2014 there have been none, while there was one in 2013, none in 2011 and three in 2010.

Terry Redman, manager of motorcycle safety training for IDOT, said helmets are a crucial safety feature in riding but do not address the biggest issues among motorcyclists.

“Wearing a helmet if you’re going 110 mph and hit a dump truck won’t help you,” he said. “There are too many people riding at a high rate of speed and a lot of it has to with riding drunk or high.”

Scott Haas, project coordinator with the Motorcycle Safety Project at Northern Illinois University, agreed with Redman and said the drug and alcohol culture in the motorcycle world causes the most safety problems.

But through the free safety and training classes Haas’ organization offers throughout northern Illinois, riders can learn about all the equipment, including helmets, that will give them a higher chance of survival in the event of a crash or wipeout, Haas said.

“We absolutely promote helmet use but we can’t enforce it,” Haas said. “It is important for riders to take all the safety precautions they can because unlike cars, motorcycles are not designed for occupant survivability.”

Haas said he is encouraged by progress in motorcycle safety, having trained 5,600 people in the region last year and 725 people already this year in the first four weeks. But like motor vehicle safety policies, Haas said it could take awhile to see the results of the outreach and education.

Helmets come highly recommended at DeKalb Harley-Davidson, as do gloves, boots and other protective gear that will make the rider feel safer. The business also hosts safe riding workshops.

But general manager Rob Bonner said its not up to him if the riders choose to wear helmets when they hit the streets.

“We know the importance of safety,” Bonner said. “I want to make sure they have every safety device under the sun, but we definitely believe in the freedom to wear one if you want to.”

Redman said it also is important the other commuters on the road take motorcycle safety seriously. Of the 155 fatalities in 2013, he said half were caused by the motorcyclist and the other half caused by drivers.

With the weather getting warmer, more and more motorcyclists will fill the roads.

“One of our mottoes is look twice, save a life,” Redman said. “After a long winter where drivers haven’t seen motorcycles in a while, there is going to be a lot of them on the roads.”

For more information about free motorcycle safety training, visit

By the numbers

0 Number of DeKalb County motorcycle crash fatalities in 2012

1 Number of DeKalb County motorcycle crash fatalities in 2013

148 Number of motorcycle crash fatalities statewide in 2012

155 Number of motorcycle crash fatalities statewide in 2013

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