Motorcycle safety month notes loss of Lowell police chief

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 104 views 

Lowell Police Chief Joe Landers often opted not to wear a helmet when riding his motorcycle. On a warm day in May, he decided to ride helmet-less in the Florida sun.

That decision — and the following crash that took his life — is drawing the attention of some local officials, who say Arkansas motorists need more education to be aware of motorcyclists and motorcyclists need a helmet law to reduce fatalities.

Landers died May 4, a week after he was struck by a motorist who was charged with fleeing the scene of an accident and driving while intoxicated, among other charges.

The popular police chief of 15 years died during Motorcycle Safety Awareness month.

The initiative’s goal is to get motorists and motorcyclists to pay attention to each other and “share the road,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Most motorcycle accidents involve only the motorcyclist, but speed, other vehicles and alcohol often plays a large role in fatal accidents, said Lloyd Vanover, state motorcycle safety coordinator.

Vanover teaches about 50 classes a year to groups interested in motorcycle safety.

Motorists often don’t see motorcyclists, he said. People driving cars should stop texting and talking on their cell phones while driving and pay attention, Vanover said.

In Arkansas, Benton and Washington counties are among the top three worst counties for motorcycle fatalities, Vanover said. The most fatalities are in Central and Northwest Arkansas, he said.

So far this year, 17 people have died in motorcycle accidents.

“[A helmet] could prevent some of these losses of life,” Vanover said.

On May 11, motorcyclists and police agencies held a memorial rally to honor Landers.

About 200 motorcycles and 27 agencies were involved in the memorial, said Lowell detective Sgt. Paul Pillaro, who was friends with Landers for about 12 years.

Pillaro and Landers rode bikes together. He said Landers thought it ought to be people’s choice whether to wear a helmet. When asked whether he thought Landers should have worn a helmet, Pillaro said, “I think that was his choice.”

Others disagree.

“I think people who ride a motorcycle ought to wear a helmet,” said Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette. “It’s an enjoyable deal, but it’s dangerous.”

Hendren, a long-time advocate for a helmet law in Arkansas, pointed out the federal government used to require state have helmet laws. Arkansas repealed its law in 1997, Vanover said.

Hendren said the loss of Landers and people he knew has renewed his interest in getting a helmet law reinstated. He said he believes a law would help save lives.
After hearing about Landers’ death, Hendren, who is term limited out of office this year, decided to convince his son, Jim, who will take his place, to bring back the legislation mandating helmets.

State and national experts say helmets save lives. In 2008, the federal government estimated 1,829 lives were saved by helmets. Another 822 people could have lived had they worn helmets, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

About 42% of motorcyclists who died were not wearing helmets.

Still, Pillaro said wearing a helmet should be the rider’s choice. Motorists should be more responsible, he said.

“They should learn to pay attention — don’t drink and drive,” Pillaro said. “Not all accidents are alcohol related, a lot are people just not paying attention.”

Drivers need more education and to look out for motorcyclists, Pillaro said.

That’s something Vanover said he is doing through speeches and promotional material. But, even without laws, the national safety administration reported use of helmets is rising, up from about 48% from 2005 to 2009. The number of motorcyclists who wear their helmets jumped 7 percentage points between 2010 and 2011, according the federal report.

The number of people dying in vehicle accidents has decreased over the past few years, but fatalities on motorcycles have gone up, according to another safety administration report released last year.

“Although motorcycle registrations have increased over the past decade, the increase in motorcyclist fatalities rose even more steeply, reaching 5,290 in 2008, making up 14% of all traffic fatalities,” the report stated.

But since the economic downturn started affecting Arkansans, Vanover said fewer people are riding motorcycles. Fatalities in Arkansas are going down — 84 people died in motorcycle accidents in 2010 and 63 died in 2011, Vanover said.

Landers is among those statistics.

So is J.S. Shrum, a Bella Vista alderman and former Benton County Sheriff’s Office deputy. Shrum was not wearing a helmet when he had a motorcycle accident in December.

Hendren said a helmet law is the right thing to do. He’s worried about so many people being injured or dying in motorcycle accidents. Other laws — including seat belt laws and speed limits — are in place to curb deaths for motorists. Why not a helmet law, he asked.

“It’s illegal to ride in the back of a truck, but you can get on a motorcycle without a helmet,” Hendren said. “There ought to be responsibility for all of us.”