The Capitol Record

Should helmets be optional for motorcycle riders over the age of 18?

Bikers packed a hearing room Thursday to testify on four bills that might mean changes for the two-wheeled motorists.

The biggest debate was over a new version of an old argument – to make helmets a requirement only for riders under 18. Twenty-six other states require all riders to wear helmets, 28 have moderated versions of the helmet law, and only 3 states have no law requiring helmets.

Donnie Lasman said that while helmet laws are supposed to actually reduce the number of deaths in accidents, it doesn’t seem to work that way.

“When we had the helmet law in Washington State repealed in 1977, for those years that we were helmet-free, our death-to-accident ratio, which means, how many accidents were there to how many deaths there were, was at 2.66 percent. Since the helmet law has been enacted, our death-to-accident ratio is up to 3.33 percent.”

One military veteran speaking in favor of the bill began his argument by quoting one of the founding fathers.

“Thomas Jefferson said ‘Laws provide against injury from others, but not from ourselves’,” said Richard Bright, a 26-year military veteran. “The crux of this issue is that the legislature is trying to protect us from our own behavior.”

But while the proponents had more numbers in attendance, the opposition had more statistics.

“Helmets decrease the severity of head injuries, the likelihood of death, and the overall cost of medical care.” said Dave Overstreet, representing AAA Washington. “Specifically, NTSA estimates that motorcycle helmets reduce the likelihood of a crash fatality by 37 percent among riders, and 41 percent for passengers.”

Steve Lind of the Traffic Safety Commission also opposed the bill. He said that in 2012, the Center for Disease Control reported that when states repeal all or portions of helmet laws, helmet use decreases, and injuries, fatalities and costs increase.

One other bill, SB 5141, sparked some debate. Motorcycle riders stuck at a sensor-triggered traffic light because of the bike’s lighter-than-car weight would be allowed to proceed after one full cycle of the light, as long as no traffic is oncoming.

“It seems like a reasonable thing to me,” said Sen. Don Benton (R – Vancouver), the bill’s sponsor. “They may not signal the light to change due to their weight. What are they supposed to do then?”

Larry Walker of the Washington Rider’s Association spoke in favor of the legislation.

“The problem is we end up sitting at a traffic signal with no way to get out of it,” Walker said. “These lights are all over the state.”

A representative of the Washington State Patrol, Capt. Rob Huss, however, said that the bill could raise some safety issues and confuse law enforcement officers.

It could be confusing for other traffic, Huss said. Another car waiting at the same light might take the motorcycle going as a signal for them to go as well. And from a law enforcement standard, it is very difficult for a patrol officer to tell if they’ve waited through the proper number of signals before they go.

The Senate Transportation Committee heard testimony on two other bills. Motorcyclists would qualify for certain benefits of state carpool programs — such as cheaper parking, or using special highway lanes — under SB 5142. Another bill would allow motorcyclists to pass a pedestrian or bicyclist traveling in the same lane. No action was taken on the bills Thursday.

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