Debate over helmet law for motorcycles; Blake wants mandate removed


OLYMPIA — Motorcyclists made their annual plea to the Legislature to let them ride without helmets in Washington state, citing everything from accident statistics to the Constitution in an effort to overturn what they view as an infringement on their personal liberty.

If the NFL can’t design a helmet to protect their players from traumatic brain injury, asked Rich Bright, of Yakima, how can anyone believe a motorcycle helmet built to decades-old standards protects a rider?

Insurance, health and law enforcement officials made what has become the annual rebuttal, that helmets save lives or lessen injuries and save overall medical costs.

But the argument for helmets is really about compassion, said Susan Tracy of the state Medical Association, for giving motorcycle riders and their families a greater chance of surviving head injuries.

Senate Bill 5143 would remove the mandatory helmet requirement for motorcycle drivers and passengers who are 18 or older. Younger motorcyclists would still be required to wear a helmet.

State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, has introduced similar legislation on the House side that would do away with the helmet requirement altogether. His legislation is House Bill 1246, although he says it’s not getting much traction and won’t even get a public hearing this session.

“I’m hoping the Senate bill will pass and we can force the issue in the House that way,” Blake said. “I think it’s smart to wear a helmet in most situations, but to me it’s a freedom issue and we still have an issue of some profiling going on. It’s my understanding that there are people being stopped by police under the guise of checking helmets.”

David Devereaux, of the Outsiders Motorcycle Club, argued wearing a helmet should be a choice, just as Washington gives its residents a choice on many other things, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, and more recently same-sex marriage and personal marijuana use.

“I don’t think that’s consistent,” Devereaux said of the mandatory helmet law. “It should be in the arena of choice rather than paternalism.”

He and other supporters had statistics to show that motorcycle accidents are a small fraction of all traffic accidents, and deaths from head injuries a small fraction of those accidents, and deaths from head injuries by unhelmeted motorcyclists a fraction of that fraction.

Donnie Landsman, a lobbyist for the motorcycle rights group ABATE, said helmets aren’t effective at speeds above 25 mph, and give some riders “a false sense of security.”

But Steve Lind of the Traffic Safety Council had statistics from the Centers for Disease Control that show helmet use lowers injuries, fatalities and medical costs. “This is the wrong time to be repealing our law,” he said.