By ROBERT RECTOR
WHAT is it about motorcycles that turns their riders into blithering idiots?
I'm speaking, of course, about the recent accident involving Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who turned his face into an omelet after plowing his high-powered bike into a car and getting pitched head first into a windshield. Helmetless.
Here's a guy who is a pure gold sports hero, who led his team to a Super Bowl win, who at 24 has the world eating out his hand. And he makes two stupid mistakes: (1) He rides a motorcycle thereby jeopardizing his career, and (2) he rides without a helmet thereby jeopardizing his life.
One hopes he has learned a lesson, one that came at a steep price: Seven hours of surgery to repair multiple facial fractures. It could have been worse. Had he been on the freeway, he would probably be dead.
Of course, Roethlisberger hasn't cornered the market on motorcycle stupidity, not by a long shot.
Our very own man/child governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, came close to terminating himself in 2001 when he crashed his bike, breaking several ribs, just about the same time he was pulling in $30 million per flick.
Think that was stupid? Five years later and now governor, Arnold gets into another motorcycle accident, this time with his 12-year-old son as a passenger. They both suffer cuts and bruises.
Think that was stupid? Turns out, the governor was operating his bike illegally, having not obtained the proper endorsement on his California driver's license to operate a motorcycle.
Crazy? How about this: Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have a valid motorcycle license either, according to Pittsburgh television reports.
But Ben and Arnold were lucky. Author T.E. Lawrence, rocker Duane Allman and astronaut Pete Conrad didn't survive their last motorcycle rides.
There must be something incredibly alluring about riding a motorcycle. Frankly, I don't know what it is. It's that life-on-the-edge thing, I guess. I tried it once and didn't catch the fever.
I don't understand, given the dangerous nature of motorcycles, why there is constant agitation to repeal helmet laws. Such was the case in Pennsylvania where an existing helmet law was axed several years ago.
Roethlisberger, by all accounts an otherwise bright young man, has been outspoken in defending his freedom to ride without a helmet. Even after his coach Bill Cowher brought up the issue, Roethlisberger demurred.
"It's one of those things, where he talked about being a risk-taker and I'm not really a risk-taker, I'm pretty conservative and laid-back," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "So the big thing is just be careful, and that's what we do. I think every person that rides is careful.
"That's the biggest thing, I'll just continue to be careful..."
Talk about whistling past the graveyard.
Yet those "feel-the-wind-in-your-hair" goofs continue to push for the right to go helmetless, claiming that better rider training is the key to safer motorcycling. Indeed, the trend over the last several years has been to repeal helmet laws, according to Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, a leading advocate of laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets.
"The truth is that those who are in favor of repeal are far more organized than proponents of mandatory helmet laws," Tyson said.
But guess who pays the price in higher health costs every time one of these folks scrambles his or her brain in an accident?
A University of California study showed that this state's helmet law has been highly effective in reducing injuries and fatalities due to motorcycle crashes. In the first year of the law, the number of hospitalized brain-injured motorcyclists dropped 53 percent, from 1,258 to 588. Similarly, hospital charges for brain-injured motorcyclists paid by Medi-Cal and other taxpayer sources dropped from $17 million in 1991 to $11million in 1992 In the first two years of California's law, statewide motorcycle fatalities declined 38 percent and total medical care costs were reduced by 35 percent, or $35 million. Seventy three percent of the reduced hospitalization costs were attributable to reduced costs for patients with head injuries.
Bottom line: Ride if you must, but ride as if your life depended on it. There are no fender benders for motorcycle riders.