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Roethlisberger Accident Revives Helmet Debate

Steelers Quarterback and Ohio native Ben Roethlisberger continues to improve following his motorcycle accident in Pittsburgh on Monday. Roethlisberger was not wearing a motorcycle helmet. He broke his jaw and other bones in his face and lost several teeth. The accident has renewed - at least informally - the debate over helmets in Ohio - where most motorcyclists aren't required to wear them.

Sportbike rider Sue Fitzgerald road her Yamaha into the local dealer in Hilliard on Tuesday. Fitzgerald describes herself as a homemaker and volunteer soccer coach. She's also one of Ohio's 632,000 licensed motorcyclists.

"I think once I turned 40, I sought out a little more adventure," says Fitzgerald. "And the kids were older and I did the motorcycle safety course and got my license and started out with a cruiser bike, then got a Honda, then a Yamaha and now I'm after a Suzuki."

Fitzgerald and Roethlisberger both ride high-performance motorcycles. But Roethlisberger is known for his opposition to wearing a motorcycle helmet. Sue Fitzgerald says she never rides without one.

"Yeah, it's fun. But I definitely make sure I'm wearing all the gear, full leathers and a helmet. Always."

Last year in Ohio, there were 4,500 motorcycle crashes that killed 177 riders. The state Department of Public Safety says that three-quarters of the riders killed were not wearing helmets. In a recent press release, the department noted the number of motorcycle deaths and injuries, but it did not mention that wearing a helmet improved protection. The department's Peter Cline, who's also a professional motorcycle racer, says helmets are only part of the safety equation.

"Our stance is basically that motorcycle helmets are just one small component of motorcycle safety," Cline says. If you take a helmet and put it along with other protective gear like boots, jeans, a jacket, it's an overall package.

Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that in potentially fatal crashes helmets would be 37% effective saving lives. Many states require all motorcyclists to wear head protection but Ohio does not. That may partially be due to public opinion according to Cline.

"The motorcycle riders of Ohio have deemed it that they would rather have the option of not wearing a helmet," Cline says. "So it's their choice and they've made their voice known through the legislative body. This is a very hot button issue for motorcycle riders in general. They want the option to wear or not to wear the helmet."

There's been little action in the legislature to tighten Ohio's helmet regulations. Recent attempts have died on the vine, Cline says. A bill that would relax regulations in Michigan has cleared the legislature, but will likely be vetoed by the governor. One of the bill's supporters says Michigan's helmet law discourages thousands of tourists from vacationing there.

While Ohio's Public Safety department encourages riders to wear helmets along with other protective gear, Cline says it cannot propose legislation. Cline says that's something a concerned citizen should do through his or her legislator.

Even if more restrictive regulation was proposed, it might be an uphill battle. David Charles rides a Harley-Davidson Sportster and wears a helmet about 70% of the time, he says. But he says he does not support government intervention.

"I don't think anybody should have mandatory anything, Charles says. Any sort of government interference is bad."

That goes for tourist and Harley rider Jimmy Rogers who's visiting from Georgia, a state that requires adults to wear helmets.

"I probably would wear a helmet even if it was or wasn't the law. That's my preference. I believe in helmets," says Rogers.

A manager at a local Harley dealer declined to comment on the issue. But the sales manager at Sue Fitzgerald's dealer in Hilliard, Dave Russell, says helmets are 'a necessity.'

We recommend them to our customers 100%. It's a policy we live by as well. Nobody here rides bikes without helmets; nobody test drives bikes without helmets. Even the mechanics that only need to go around the block put on a helmet every time after service has been performed.

Russell says he's wondering about Ben Roethlisberger's choices on and off the field.

"I really don't feel he would walk out on a football field without a helmet on so I really can't understand why he would climb on a motorcycle without one. It's not 100% in your control when you're out riding a motorcycle. And you don't have the big offensive line out there in front of you either."