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June 20, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: A brain splattered on the road is so not cool

Let’s say that instead of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, it was UK basketball star Randolph Morris who wasn’t wearing a safety helmet when he cracked up his motorcycle.What would the Kentucky General Assembly do then? Your choices are (a) convene a special session to make safety helmets mandatory for all motorcycle riders; (b) reaffirm its position that riding helmetless (brainless, some might say) is an individual freedom upon which government shouldn’t intrude; or (c) blame Tubby Smith.If you picked (c), you’re probably right. Unfortunately.It’s no secret that celebrity skews our society’s values. Had Ben Roethlisberger been Ben Smith, the accident wouldn’t have merited a mention in the Pittsburgh newspapers. But because he’s the QB of the defending Super Bowl champs, the issue of wearing helmets will now be revisited on a national level.Some good may come from this, but don’t hold your breath.Americans are funny about this freedom of choice business. The same right-wingers who oppose helmet laws, gun-control laws, anti-smoking laws and mandatory seat-belt laws on the principle of freedom of choice are adamantly opposed to a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. Go figure.You’d think that wearing safety helmets would be a, well, no-brainer.Yet during a session of the Kentucky General Assembly a few years ago, while our legislators were debating mandatory safety helmets for motorcyclists, a representative from Eastern Kentucky got up and delivered one of the funniest speeches ever heard in the state capitol building. Had Jay Leno gotten a copy of the tape, he would have run it in its entirety — and Kentucky again would have been a national laughingstock.What’s the big deal about wearing something that might save your life? It seems such a small thing. But this is where ego and vanity come into play. Many motorcyclists just don’t think it looks cool to wear a helmet. They will rhapsodize at the drop of a kickstand about the rush that comes from feeling the wind against your face while traveling at high speeds.A couple of years ago, I ran into the same thing with some thoroughbred jockeys when I was working for the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority. In an effort to give the riders the most protection possible, we found a couple of helmets that were state-of-the-art when it came to protection and urged the jockeys to wear them. But the jockeys balked because — they didn’t look good!Roethlisberger’s coach, Bill Cowher, warned him about the dangers of riding a motorcycle, especially without a helmet. Terry Bradshaw, the TV commentator who led the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles in his playing days, told Roethlisberger to wait until he retired before getting into motorcycles.But believing himself to be immortal, as most youngsters do, the headstrong quarterback just had to have the fastest motorcycle on the market. And, of course, he had to ride it without a helmet. No way Big Ben was going to be uncool. What would his young fans think?Well, now they think he’s an idiot. At least, they should. Why should wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle be a big deal for someone who wears a helmet on his job? How could any ride on a motorcycle be important enough to risk your career and your team’s future?The cretins who oppose safety helmets for motorcyclists argue that in the event of an accident, the only person likely to be hurt is the motorcyclist. In other words, motorcycles do not win collisions with cars, trucks, walls or trees. So if a motorcyclist wants to risk his life or his health, that’s his or her right.Dumb, dumb, dumb.When a motorcyclist is hurt, the insurance company will cover its costs by raising fees for everyone. Even more importantly, a motorcyclist who suffers a traumatic head injury might need care the rest of his or her life, which will have a direct impact, both emotionally and financially, on the victim’s family and friends.It will be interesting to see if Roethlisberger’s injury forces Pennsylvania lawmakers to do the right thing and rejoin the states where safety helmets are mandatory for motorcyclists. But even if it does, the lawmakers in Kentucky will only shrug. Sadly, it will have to hit a lot closer to home before our legislators stop regarding helmets as a joke.So, Tubby, keep your guys away from Harley Davidsons — unless, of course, he’s a 6-foot-10 power forward who can stroke the j. Contact the writer at billyr@leoweekly.com