Every year, when Robert and Sherri Goldstrom jaunt down from Leechburg, Pa. for the annual Bike Week revelry, Bibles to pass out and motorcycles in tow, they unhitch their trailer at a friend’s place in North Carolina.
The rest of the trip turns into something of an internal battle of wills for Robert Goldstrom, 55, who prefers to ride without a helmet, as they barrel down toward Florida on Harley Davidson motorcycles.
“I ride a bike because I want to be free,” he said. “It sort of defeats the purpose if I wear a helmet; it’s sort of confining.”
Goldstrom’s personal choice between safety and freedom is shared by many bikers, and becomes an active concern for hospitals twice every year who staff up for the en masse arrival of motorcycle riders.
Robert Goldstrom is forced to switch back and forth when he travels to Daytona Beach. Like Florida, there’s no strict helmet law in Pennsylvania. But there are headgear requirements in North Carolina and Georgia.
“He wears it,” said Sherri Goldstrom, 52, his wife, “but he doesn’t like it.”
During Bike Week’s 10-day stretch in March, hospitals worry and prepare most for biker injuries.
They often include bone fractures in the arms and legs; road rash and burns from exhaust pipes or from falling on concrete. And, emergency medicine workers say, there are a considerable number of head injuries.
Statewide, motorcycle deaths have inched up consistently in 2011, 2012 and 2013, according to the most recent federal data available. Half of the 485 motorcyclists who died in 2013 weren’t wearing a helmet.
“People that escape injury or walk out of here alive are usually wearing a helmet,” said Kevin Captain, who manages the trauma program at Halifax Health Medical Center. “There’s no doubt that helmets save lives.”
In July 2000, the state of Florida repealed its motorcycle helmet law. Registrations and fatalities climbed steadily in the years afterward. By 2008, the Florida Legislature instituted a mandatory safety course for new riders and registrations fell in many counties across the state. Now, only riders older than 21 can ride without a helmet and they must carry at least $10,000 worth of medical coverage.
Six years after the law was repealed, the soaring numbers caught the eye of local leaders in Daytona Beach when a Bike Week Safety Task Force was formed. In 2006, an estimated 16 motorcycle riders died in traffic-related incidents during Bike Week in Volusia and Flagler counties.
What the task force found was that many of the accidents, at least in Volusia County, likely involved violation of rights of way, said Pat Kuehn, who works for Volusia County and chaired the working group. That’s when they decided to adopt the “look twice, save a life” slogan, marketing it heavily during the March event in 2007.
The task force agreed that wearing helmets was beneficial, if not a lifesaving measure.
“But it wasn’t the prime focus,” Kuehn said, “because at the time we believed it was a hard topic to push especially because we were promoting locally, and by the time the bikers got here they either had a helmet or they didn’t.”
In Volusia, there were only six fatalities reported in 2007.
“It was a dramatic drop the following year,” Kuehn said. “Of course, was it signs or was it a blip, we’re not real sure but we do think that we were successful in raising awareness.”
Not all bikers need to be coaxed into wearing helmets. The benefit is obvious to many.
“I’ve been in bike accidents, but I’ve wrecked race cars. I know what helmets do for you,” said John Greek, 56, Gainesville. He once raced stock cars but opted for his electric blue 2008 Harley Davidson Ultra Classic parked on Main Street early Wednesday.
“You gotta protect your noggin,” he added.