Two separate motorcycle accidents occurring on Florida highways this past Memorial Day weekend resulted in a fatality and a life-threatening personal injury, reigniting the familiar motorcycle helmet law controversy.
News outlets report that 40 year-old Eric Von Schnetzer of Tampa died Tuesday morning at Bayfront Medical Center in Saint Petersburg, Florida as a result of critical head wounds and internal injuries suffered during the traffic accident. According to a Pinellas County Sheriff’s spokesperson, Von Schnetzer was traveling northbound on Philippe Parkway Monday afternoon when he failed to properly maneuver through a curve just north of Enterprise Rd. Von Schnetzer was not wearing a helmet as he hit the guardrail.
Cheryl Santucci, 54, collided with a curb on Forest Lakes Blvd and was also not wearing a helmet when she was thrown from her motorcycle on Sunday. She remains hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.
Before I go in to the controversy of the helmet law I want to make my personal and legal position clear. While you are not required to wear a helmet if you are properly insured, please do so anyway. I also urge all my friends on motorcycles to buy as much UM (Underinsured Motorist) coverage on their motorcycle policy as they can afford. It will cover you if an underinsured motorist hits you. Insurance is like a gun; it is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. (Citation unknown).
Now back to the controversy:
The propinquity of these recent Florida motorcycle traffic accidents has rekindled the debate surrounding Florida’s motorcycle helmet law among attorneys and policymakers. The controversy stems from the State of Florida v. Raynal decision ruling Florida’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law as unconstitutional. On December 8, 1995, Pinellas County Court Judge William Blackwood ruled that “Section 316.211, Florida Statutes, is unconstitutional,” and added that “the statute is overly vague and fails to give the average citizen sufficient notice of prohibited conduct.” The “vagueness” in question originated from an apparent lack of any list or description of which protective helmets met the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218 cited in the original statute.
On May 8, 1996, a motorcycle helmet violation case, State of Florida v. Landry, came before Pinellas County Court Judge Radford Smith. Counsel representing Frank Landry argued that the interpretation of Judge Blackwood’s previous ruling required no helmet to be worn during operation of a motorcycle. Judge Smith dismissed the charges against Mr. Landry based upon the reliance of the court’s ruling in State s. Raynal, thus acting as precedent and essentially deeming the helmet law is unenforceable in Pinellas County.
This decision was celebrated by many motorcycle riders not just as a small victory, but as an act of retaking some of the freedom that initially attracted them to the motorcycle culture.
Opponents, however, were angered by the ruling and cited the anticipated cost impact on taxpayers resulting from the inevitable rise in future motorcycle-related injuries.
Before going any further, it is important to understand that the freedom not to wear a helmet applies only to a “person who is covered by an insurance policy providing for at least $10,000 in medical benefits for injuries incurred as a result of a crash while operating or riding on a motorcycle,” according to the amended statute.
While this amount of coverage is satisfactory for lawmakers, those who face motorcycle injuries everyday have other perceptions. The law we have now in Florida requires helmetless motorcyclists to have a $10,000 personal injury protection insurance policy,” Dr. Lawrence Lottenberg, director of trauma and critical care at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood, Fla. says; “we’ll use $10,000 in the [trauma] room in 20 minutes.” Recent studies in the Journal of Trauma Nursing show that the average medical cost for helmetless riders involved in accidents is $55,000 and that two thirds of all bikers involved in accidents had no insurance at all.
It is estimated by the Federal Government that taxpayers and insurance companies would save $10 billion per year if all motorcyclists wore helmets. While costs to insurance companies simply flow through (with profit) to the others who purchase insurance, the taxpayers who foot the bill for treatment of those who cannot pay and are not insured do not.
And yet, beyond all the controversy, all the arguments over cost, and issues of freedom, we’re left with the recent tragedies of Eric Von Schentzer and Cheryl Santucci and all of our other motorcyclists either injured or lost while enjoying their passion of riding.
I urge all motorcyclists to “max out” their UM coverage on their motorcycle policy; buy as much as you can. This is coming from a rider and a personal injury attorney who spends every waking moment of his days suing insurance companies.
To all my friends who ride; keep the rubber side down.
http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=116857&page=1 (ABC News)
http://www.bikersrights.com/states/florida/florida.html (Biker’s Rights)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448295/ (American Journal of Public Health)
http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/flamcreport/pages/index.htm (National Technical Information Service)
Herman & Wells, P.A.is a law firm which handles personal injury lawsuits for the injured and their families in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and surrounding areas of Florida.