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Florida A Life Lab For Helmet Laws?

It took a personal close call for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to change his point of view on motorcycle safety gear.

Roethlisberger was not wearing a helmet one week ago in Pittsburgh when he wrecked his bike and cracked his head on the windshield of a car that was allegedly turning left in front of his motorcycle.

Two days later, when he got out of the hospital – with much discussion by observers over his decision to ride helmetless, the Super Bowl-winning player said if he ever rides a motorcycle again, "it certainly will be with a helmet."

Bikers fond of the wind in their hair might find statistics from the state of Florida to be a less painful route toward revisiting the decision to avoid helmets.

Motorcycle fatalities involving riders without helmets have soared in Florida in the nearly six years since the state repealed its mandatory helmet law.

An analysis of federal motorcycle crash statistics done by the newspaper Florida Today found "unhelmeted" deaths in Florida rose from 22 in 1998 and 1999, the years before the helmet law repeal, to 250 in 2004, the most recent year of available data.

Total motorcycle deaths in the state have increased 67 percent, from 259 in 2000 to 432 in 2004, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.

Records, though, also show motorcycle registrations have increased 87 percent in Florida since Gov. Jeb Bush signed the helmet law repeal on July 1, 2000.

Roethlisberger, prior to winding up in the hospital, was an advocate of helmet-free riding and his accident put an uncomfortable spotlight on the debate over how much safety gear should be the business of the law and how much should be the option of the rider.

Physicians and insurance companies say helmets are crucial safety gear.

Roethlisberger, 23, broke his jaw, nose and several teeth and underwent seven hours of surgery.

As he got out of the hospital last Wednesday, he apologized to the team, fans and his family. "In the past few days, I've gained a new perspective on life," said Roethlisberger. "By the grace of God, I'm fortunate to be alive."

"People are knocking him for not wearing a helmet and all of that, but the guy is hurting," Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said Thursday. "He went through seven hours of surgery and the last thing he needs right now is guys banging on him for not wearing a helmet."

Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson says he hopes the accident does not cause teams to impose more contractual limits on dangerous activities by players.

"They took away the (touchdown) celebrations. Now we can't enjoy ourselves outside of the facility? That's not fair," said Johnson.

Police investigating the crash have said they will not release their findings until their accident reconstruction is complete.

So far no citations or other charges have been filed.

The car's driver, a 62-year-old woman, has made no public comment.

The Steelers have not given a timetable for Roethlisberger's return but hope he will be ready for their Sept. 7th opener against Miami. Players who visited him in the hospital have expressed the belief that he will be back in soon, with no ill effects.

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