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Gregory Perenich
4 November 2021

Maximizing Motorcycle Safety

Maximizing Motorcycle SafetyRiding a motorcycle is one of the most exhilarating and pleasurable ways to travel on the open road.  There is simply nothing like the feeling of the wind in your hair and a sense of freedom that motorbikes provide to their operators and riders.  But sadly, motorcycle riding is also one of the most dangerous activities especially when traveling on congested and high traffic roadways of the Greater Tampa Bay area such as in Clearwater on U.S. Hwy. 19, Tampa on I-275 and Dale Mabry Highway, St. Petersburg on 34th Street and 4th Street North, in Brandon on S.R. 60 and New Port Richey on Little Road. In 2019 there were over 5,000 motorcyclist deaths in crashes amounting to nearly 15% of all motor vehicle deaths. Although motorcycles are not as safe as passenger cars, trucks and SUV’s, there are several ways to significantly lower the risk of serious injuries or even the chances of dying from a motorcycle crash.

Wearing a helmet on a motorcycle may give you “hat hair” and keep you from letting your hair blow in the wind, it will also significantly increase your chances of surviving a crash and will greatly reduce the risk of serious injury resulting in total permanent disability. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, wearing a helmet is credited as being 37% effective in preventing motorcycle deaths and 67% effective in preventing debilitating traumatic brain injuries. Many non-helmeted brain injury victims end up having such severe cognitive dysfunction that they require permanent placement in a rehab unit or needing 24/7 nursing and attendant care.  This is extraordinarily costly, potentially many millions of dollars over the person’s lifetime, and truly such a tragic outcome . . . that in most cases could have been prevented or minimized by wearing an approved helmet.

So then why does Florida align itself with only 18 other states in not mandating helmets while riding motorcycles?   Simply stated, Florida is Florida and tries to be different in this area of the law.  Instead of responsibly requiring bikers to wear helmets, Florida has decided to try to incentivize voluntarily helmet use.  Do those incentives work?  Not very well, as many riders opt to forgo wearing a helmet and take their chances.

The good news is that Florida does make all operators and registered owners of motorcycles to possess a valid motorcycle endorsement on their license.  This is clearly a step in the right direction.  To obtain a motorcycle license endorsement, Floridians must enroll in and pass a basic motorcycle safety training class.  This class includes both a written exam and an operating skills class which I recently passed at Bert’s Barracuda Harley-Davidson in Clearwater under the expert tutelage of road instructors Jim and Deb.  Wonderful teachers without a doubt and I couldn’t recommend them more highly, but is this enough to protect Floridians from the dangers of riding on and operating motorcycles?  In my view, clearly not, as much more should be required.

In 2000, the Florida motorcycle helmet law was signed into effect. Florida Statute § 316.211, complying with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218, provides that a person can only operate or ride a motorcycle if they are properly wearing protective headgear, i.e., an approved helmet, that is securely fastened upon their head as well as protective eyewear. Notwithstanding the Federal Motor Vehicle Standard 218, in Florida, a person over the age of 21 may operate or ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet if they are covered by $10,000 in medical payments coverage or if their motorcycle has a motor displacement of 50 cubic centimeters or has 2 brake horsepower or less and is not capable of propelling them at a speed greater than 30 miles per hour.

Notwithstanding the law, is it wise to ride on or operate a motorcycle with such minimal coverage?  Absolutely not!  I recommend no less than $250,000 per person in both liability and uninsured motorist coverage, preferably stacking uninsured motorist coverage for motorcycles.

If you’re under the age of 21, Florida also requires motorcyclists to wear an approved helmet regardless of having purchased the minimum medical payments coverage of $10,000.

Just two weeks ago a woman in Hernando County lost her life while riding on a motorcycle and the driver suffered serious injuries after colliding with a wooden pole; both were not wearing helmets.  Moreover, when purchasing a helmet, it is essential that you choose a one that fits correctly, is not loose and can be fastened with a chin strap in compliance with Florida law.  Also, full face protection is much more protective than half helmets as up to 20% of head injuries occur to the chin of the face.

Oftentimes, motorcyclists are eager to take as many people on their motorcycle as possible; however, this can also be extremely dangerous. When you have too many people riding on the same motorcycle over the manufacturer’s recommended limit, the motorcycle may not function properly.  The weight may be too heavily weighted on the back of the bike, and it may become more difficult to steer the motorcycle. Florida law requires that a person driving a motorcycle only carry as many people as the number of seats on the bike. If your motorcycle has only one seat, it is meant for one person and can only carry one person. Furthermore, some motorcycle drivers like to give their passengers the full experience and let them sit in front which again is extremely dangerous. Having the passenger sit in front of the driver is a recipe for disaster as this will limit the driver’s visibility, or in the case of an emergency, the passenger may not know how to properly maneuver the motorcycle. Florida law requires that a motorcycle driver cannot carry a passenger in a position that will interfere with the operation of the motorcycle or the view of the driver.

It certainly is mesmerizing to watch a motorcyclist “pop-a-wheelie” on a highway or a local street and while these “dare devils” make it look very easy to do, one wrong move and they can be severely injured. In January of 2021, a South Florida man decided to “pop-a-wheelie” while going through an intersection and ultimately collided with a vehicle in a head-on collision and lost his life. Under Florida law, motorcycles must always have both wheels on the pavement.  “Popping-a-wheelie” may be a cool way to show off your motorcycle skills, however, it can be deadly and if you are caught by a police officer you may be charged with a noncriminal moving violation or even reckless driving.

Use of headlights are required by Florida Law, both in daylight and nighttime operating conditions.  But again, many motorists are not accustomed to seeing one headlight even if its flashing.  More education of motorists and better ways of using flashing/strobe and LED lighting options on all motorcycles should be adopted under Florida Law. More advocacy for bikers and motorcycle safety is needed to push these laws through our legislative process.

Motorcycles can provide an extremely thrilling mode of transportation, but it is important to recognize the serious safety risks of improperly operating a motorcycle. A combination of wearing the proper protective headgear, eye protection, gloves, and clothing (which should be bright colors and reflective coating) while operating a motorcycle can significantly reduce the chances of being seriously injured in a motorcycle accident.

Our firm is here to help you if you are the injured victim in a motorcycle accident.  We have the legal knowledge, experience, and compassion for our clients to put our reputation on the line for you.