Veteran Iowa motorcycle rider becomes helmet advocate after serious crash

Iowa one of three states without a mandatory helmet law

Steve Gravelle
Published: October 26 2012 | 5:15 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 2:32 am in
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Gregory Francisco can't do anything about it, but you really should wear a helmet on your motorcycle.

“I don’t really understand the concept of how we can have a seat belt law and not a helmet law," Francisco said one recent afternoon. "I’ve never thought about riding a bike without a helmet."

That paid off early Sept. 23, as Francisco was riding his Harley-Davidson home to Libertyville from Richland, a 21-mile ride. Francisco had just finished a shift as Richland's part-time police chief.

“I remember looking at the clock on my motorcycle and it was 20 (minutes) to 1," he said. "The last thing I remember was turning left onto Highway 1."

About a mile north of Fairfield's city limit at about 55 mph, Francisco struck a deer. A large one.

“Foggily, I kind of remember seeing a deer," he said. "The next thing I remember was getting loaded onto  the helicopter."

The copter flew Francisco to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, where he was treated for eight broken ribs, a shattered left collarbone, a compound fracture of his right hand, bruises to his heart and lungs, and a pulled groin muscle.

But not a head injury.

“You can tell my head dragged on the concrete multiple ways," he said, examining the shattered remains of his full-face helmet at the Marion townhouse of girlfriend Donna Hoskinson, where he's recovering. "No way I would have survived without it.”

Francisco, 48, has been a motorcycle rider “only one day less than I’ve had a car license," getting his cycle endorsement at 16.  He was a motorcycle safety instructor during his law enforcement career.

"I’ve never thought about riding a bike without a helmet," Francisco said. Among his riding friends, “I’m in the minority as far as wearing a helmet," but a few started donning helmets after his accident.

Francisco's convinced his helmet prevented his being one of the  51 motorcyclists killed in Iowa this year. Forty of the riders killed weren't wearing helmets, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation.

Iowa is one of three states without any helmet law -- Illinois and New Hampshire are the others. Nineteen states require helmets for all riders, and the rest require helmets for younger riders or passengers.

That's not likely to change, as riders' groups have proven effective at preventing any re-institution of Iowa's helmet law, repealed in the 1970s.

"We keep our friends at the Capitol, and pretty much keep an eye on things," said Phil McCormick of Clear Lake, state coordinator for the motorcycle riders' group ABATE.

Earlier this year, Iowa City students ran into a dead end when they appeared before a state Senate committee urging a helmet law for young mo-ped riders. They were motivated by the August 2011 death of classmate Caroline Found, whose mo-ped struck a tree.

Political inertia is often the case when an issue involves a minority - there were 280,232 motorcycle license holders last year in Iowa, compared to 2.3 million licensed drivers.

"There is probably a very vocal group of people against it, which has probably kept it from becoming law," said Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. "From the libertarian point of view, probably some people who would be regular helmet users would say it’s your choice."

"It should be freedom of choice," said McCormick. He said ABATE "definitely enourages" helmet use in its safety education programs.

"Unhelmeted riders have higher health care costs as a result of their crash injuries and many lack health insurance," according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The Institute cites federal studies finding just over half of injured cyclists are covered by private insurance.

"Sure it’s your choice, but if you get incapacitated or killed who’s going to take care of your family?" said Hagle. "It falls on the taxpayer. The libertarian point of view doesn’t seem to see that."

Francisco said it's also important to wear protective clothing. His leather jacket and a couple layers of shirt sleeves were worn away, leaving a scar on his elbow that could've been worse. But he's looking forward to riding again, after replacing both his Harley and his $170 helmet.

“Our first stop after leaving the University of Iowa hospital was the Harley shop in Coralville," Hoskinson said.

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