For years, motorcyclists have failed to persuade legislators to ax Washington’s motorcycle helmet law, bucking a national trend that has states abandoning helmet mandates.
They will make another try today in the Senate Transportation Committtee, which has scheduled a hearing on a bill repealing the helmet law for riders 18 or older.
Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, is the prime sponsor of the bill and the vice co-chairman of the Transportation Committee. He said that while he personally used to wear a helmet when he rode a motorcycle, he agrees with anti-helmet lobbyists who argue helmet laws aren’t necessary or even proper.
“It’s not the government’s job to protect us from ourselves, and it’s not the fundamental purpose of government,” Benton said. “People can get injured in all sorts of ways. Should we outlaw mountain climbing without a helmet, too?”
Both of the committee’s co-chairmen oppose the bill. Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Des Moines, and Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, agreed to hold the hearing, but neither will say whether they would prevent the bill from passing the committee.
Nationwide, motorcycle helmet laws have been falling out of favor. Just last year, the Michigan legislature repealed that state’s 35-year-old helmet law.
Many riders are opposed to helmet laws because they believe wearing helmets should be a personal choice and not a law. Or, as the motorcycle advocacy group A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments (ABATE) says on its website: “Let those who ride decide.”
ABATE has been trying to get Washington’s helmet law repealed for more than 20 years.
Donnie “Mr. Breeze” Landsman, legislative affairs officer for ABATE of Washington, said the organization takes exception to the common claim that helmets save lives. He said he thinks helmets give riders a false sense of security and that most riders he knows actually exercise greater caution when riding without a helmet.
Landsman said he plans to testify at the Senate Transportation Committee hearing, telling lawmakers that helmet laws violate the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment because they mandate helmets for just motorcyclists and not all motorists.
Not everyone is thrilled about the idea of Washington returning to a helmetless state.
Washington State Patrol Capt. Rob Huss said getting rid of the helmet law would mean more riders without helmets. And that, he said, would mean more motorcycle fatalities.
“We’d have grave concerns if that happens,” Huss said. “Just our agency alone investigated over 70 (motorcycle) fatalities in 2012. That’s over a 9 percent increase from the previous year. I can’t imagine what the fatality rate would be if we repealed the helmet law.”
Huss said he’s heard all the arguments for repealing the law before. He said the societal costs are just too high. He also said helmets save lives and countless studies have shown as much.
The Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle conducted one of the more publicized studies. A 2002 study by the center found that helmets reduced the risk of a crash fatality by 39 percent. The center’s finding is similar to those of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
If Washington state were to repeal its helmet law, it would join a list of 28 other states that have done so since 1976, when Congress stopped making helmet laws a requirement for federal highway safety funds. Today, only 19 states and Washington, D.C., have a mandatory helmet law.
It’s a trend that sits in stark contrast to the adoption of mandatory seat belt laws, which 49 states and the District of Columbia have adopted in the past 30 years.
Landsman refutes such comparisons.
“One of the biggest problems is that people try to equate helmets with seat belts,” Landsman said. “What is parallel in cars is an airbag. Seat belts are for restraining, airbags are for absorbing impact. And airbags are optional.”