It has been nearly three years now since Janice Baerg's 18-year-old son, Michael, died in a motorcycle accident.
He was on his way to Oregon and fell asleep while riding. The bike veered off the side of the road, hit a dirt mound and flew into the air. When it came down, Michael, who wasn't wearing a helmet, smashed his face against the instrument panel. The impact shattered facial bones and left him with other massive head injuries. Five days later, doctors declared him brain dead.
Ever since her son's death, Baerg, who lives in Lake Forest, has lobbied for a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets in California. When the Legislature passed the bill, she thought she might finally be able to put her son's death behind her.
But on Monday, Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed the bill, angering safety activists throughout California and making Baerg feel as if her son had died all over again.
"For me it's been 2 1/2 years that I thought if I could get this passed, I could put this in its proper place," she said, referring to her son's death. "Now I'm going to have to go through this all over again."
Baerg wasn't the only one in Orange County who was angered by the governor's action.
Dr. John West, a vascular and general surgeon at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange and the founder of the nonprofit Orange County Trauma Society, said Tuesday that he was infuriated with the governor's veto. West said he holds Deukmejian personally responsible for what he estimates will be an extra 200 deaths in California next year caused by motorcycle accidents in which riders did not wear helmets.
Last year in Orange County, 46 motorcyclists died and 1,741 were injured in traffic accidents, according to data compiled by the California Highway Patrol. Information about how many of those victims were wearing helmets was not immediately available.
Anti-helmet activists, such as John Siemsen, a salesman at a Santa Ana Harley-Davidson dealership, applauded the governor for his veto.
"We're all very proud of Gov. George Deukmejian," said Siemsen, who lobbied against the bill by writing letters to legislators and collecting signatures for petitions against the bill.
Siemsen, 32, a passionate motorcyclist, has been riding for 15 years. He said Tuesday that he rides "to experience the freedom of the open road, the wind in my face, the exhilaration. It's my magic carpet ride. It's my therapy. It's my first true love."
Siemsen believes that most motorcycle accidents could be prevented if riders paid more attention to the cars around them. What's needed, he insists, is better education, not a helmet law.
Siemsen argues that helmets increase the danger of riding motorcycles by blocking riders' peripheral vision and making it difficult for them to hear surrounding traffic.
Homer and Mary Jarrell of Garden Grove, who were in a motorcycle accident about a month ago, also hailed the governor's decision. They said they believe it is safer to ride a motorcycle without a helmet and will not wear helmets, despite their accident.
"The only thing a helmet is going to save is the skin on your head," Mary Jarrell said.
Arguing that danger is part of the fun of riding a motorcycle, Siemsen said riders ought to be able to decide for themselves whether or not to wear helmets.
"Just treat people as adults," he said. "Bikers know about helmets."
Those who support helmets, however, say motorcyclists should not be given a choice about wearing them, because when bikers crash, it is usually the state that foots the bill.
A 1981 study, conducted by researcher Harry Hurt of USC and funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found that less than 10% of motorcyclists involved in accidents have insurance of any kind.
The study, which investigated nearly every aspect of 900 motorcycle accidents in the Los Angeles area, also found that helmeted riders had fewer neck injuries than unhelmeted riders and that safety helmets did not reduce critical traffic sounds, limit vision or cause fatigue or loss of attention. According to the study, none of the accidents was related to helmet use.
A Tustin woman, who did not want to be identified because she feared her husband might lose his job if employers knew he had been in an accident and suffered head injuries, said Tuesday that motorcyclists can't understand the danger of riding without helmets until they have been in serious accidents.
"That's something we just shouldn't give people a choice about," she said. "People need to be told this is what you're going to do in order to save lives."
The woman said her family has been emotionally and financially devastated by her husband's accident, which occurred when a car made a left turn in front of him. He wasn't wearing a helmet at the time and struck his head on the pavement. He was in a coma for nearly three weeks after the accident and later lost an electrical business he operated with his wife.
The woman said doctors at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana said her husband's injuries would not have been as bad if he had been wearing a helmet.
For Janice Baerg, who has always voted for Deukmejian in past elections, Monday's veto may signal the end of her support for him.
"It disappointed me terribly," she said. "It's almost like finding out John Wayne was a Communist. I mean, I love Deukmejian."