A week ago, a 59-year-old Arizona man lost control of his Suzuki motorcycle on Red Mountain Pass and went off the highway. He was not wearing a helmet. He was killed.
On June 18, Brianna Lynn Schmittel of Mancos was riding her Harley-Davidson when she drifted into a guardrail on U.S. Highway 160 while commuting to work. She was not wearing a helmet. Schmittel, age 22, was killed.
On June 22, Jerry and Elenea Heath of Harwood, Missouri, hit an elk with their motorcycle on U.S. Highway 160 west of Durango. They were wearing helmets. The Heaths were injured, but survived.
Notice a pattern?
“(The Heaths) were definitely wearing helmets, and that definitely saved their lives,” said Capt. Adrian Driscoll of the Colorado State Patrol’s Durango office.
Colorado is one of 31 states that does not require helmets for adult motorcyclists. Riders decide for themselves whether to use the safety equipment. (Many states, including Colorado, require helmets for minors). The other Four Corners states also do not require motorcycle helmets for adults.
Durango is a popular destination for group rides, and packs of riders without helmets is common a sight. Helmet use is about 50 percent in states with no helmet law, according to Consumer Reports.
Edward Howe, 41, of Ignacio, said he likes that Colorado has no helmet law for adults.
“It’s about freedom of choice,” he said. “But we also know the outcomes when you crash and choose not to wear one.”
Howe said he keeps a helmet in the saddle bag of his white Harley-Davidson. He uses it rarely in Colorado, keeping it around for use in states with a helmet law.
In 2012, 69 percent of motorcycle operators killed in Colorado were not wearing a helmet, according to the state Department of Transportation. And 44 percent of fatal crashes involved only the motorcycle and no other vehicle.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motorcycle-related deaths nationally have increased by 55 percent since 2000.
There also are more motorcycles on the roads. Motorcycle registrations in Colorado increased every year from 2008 to 2011. In La Plata County, there were 2,855 motorcycle registrations in 2011, up 2.59 percent from 2,783 the previous year.
Colorado had 79 motorcycle fatalities in 2012, including four in La Plata County. The county had none in 2011, three in 2010 and four in 2009, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Driscoll said La Plata County hasn’t seen any more motorcycle wrecks than usual this year. The spike in deaths is seasonal, he said.
“This time of year is rough for us,” he said.
Labor Day is the busiest weekend for motorcyclists in Southwest Colorado. Although the Sugar Pine Ranch Rally near Mancos dissolved after last year’s event, Ignacio’s Four Corners Motorcycle Rally continues to pull in thousands of bikers. This year’s Four Corners rally will be held from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1.
Driscoll said Southwest Colorado often attracts inexperienced riders. The mountainous terrain can be challenging for such riders, he said.
Driscoll had two recommendations: wear a helmet and keep your speed down. Wildlife frequently cross the highways this time of year.
“Wildlife and motorcycles don’t mix very well,” he said.
Motorcycle fatalities aren’t primarily the curse of the young. In fact, riders in their 50s were killed in greater numbers than any other age group. About two-thirds of motorcycle deaths occurred in riders age 40 and older, according to Department of Transportation data.
Riders said they accepted the responsibility for their choices.
Rickey Finn, who was visiting Durango with his wife, Memory, from Sylacauga, Alabama, often wears a helmet at her urging.
“She told me I had to,” he said.
Memory Finn countered, “I request that he does – I don’t tell him.”
Jenny Frost, 56, was visiting Durango with her husband, Mark, from Kansas City, Missouri. Their home state has a helmet law. Jenny Frost wears a helmet but doesn’t think it should be required.
“I just don’t like the government telling me I have to wear one,” she said. “I’d wear it anyway.”
Frost was rear-ended in Kansas City and went off the back of her Harley-Davidson. She walked away with only minor injuries.
Sarah Bradshaw, a nurse from Kansas City, always wears a helmet.
“I wish every state did (require helmets),” she said. “I know riders like it without them, but you’ve got to think about hail, you’ve got to think about things that can fly off of trucks.”
Data from states that have repealed helmet laws consistently show motorcycle fatalities increase afterward, according to a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration review. Enacting helmet laws has been shown to increase helmet use and decrease motorcycle fatalities and injuries.
Colorado’s universal helmet law was repealed in 1977.
Jerry Bradshaw, Sarah’s husband, typically wears a novelty helmet that’s not approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation. He admits it probably wouldn’t protect him much in a serious accident and said he wears it only because of Missouri’s helmet laws. Bradshaw said he likes the helmet because it’s lighter.
“I know the big ones, the (Department of Transportation-approved helmets) are safer,” said Bradshaw, 58. “But at my age, it doesn’t matter.”