OLYMPIA — Universal helmet laws are a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, argued one supporter of a bill introduced in the Senate Transportation Committee Thursday that would only require motorcyclists younger than 18 to wear helmets.
Some are opposed due to safety concerns.
The proposed legislation would only require that riders younger than 18 to wear helmets while operating motorcycles. Anyone 18 and older would legally be allowed to ride without protective headgear.
While some see it as controversial and highly dangerous, Sen, Don Benton, R-Vancouver, the primary sponsor, said this bill is nothing new.
There are only 19 states in the U.S. and the District of Columbia, including Washington, that enforce universal helmet laws.
As groups and fellow legislators voiced their concerns with the notion that citizens would not be as cautious if helmets were optional, Benton said, “I patently disagree with that assumption.”
“Fatalities are not age-discriminate,” said Capt. Rob Huss of the Washington State Patrol.
Huss is opposed to the bill and said that Washington had not seen a decline in motorcycle-related fatalities during recent years.
Repealing the existing law, which requires each motorcyclist to wear a certified helmet, “would move us backward as a state,” he said.
David Devereaux of Washington Confederation of Clubs, claimed that maintaining universal helmet laws constitutes conflict with an individual’s freedoms and is in violation of the 14th Amendment because, he said, motorcyclists are not equally protected under law when it comes to helmet-certification standards.
Safety standards are set by the Department of Transportation and the Snell Memorial Foundation. The standard helmet-reliability test is determined by two guided falls per helmet head-form onto a fixed steel anvil, according to the Snell Memorial Foundation. The mechanical energy generated during the test is assessed and the severity of impact is determined. The Snell model certifies all sizes of helmets that are able to withstand 150 joules/110 joules of mechanical energy.
Devereaux argued that, because certification labeling is so ambiguous and labeling requirements and sizes are of public knowledge, law enforcement cannot tell by visual observation on the roadway whether a helmet being worn by a motorcyclist is certified or not.
Also, if a motorcyclist is pulled over on suspicion of wearing a non-certified helmet, law enforcement does not have criteria to judge, in that moment, whether the helmet is certified, he maintained.
“The Washington law goes too far and it is too much of an intrusion on our individual liberties and rights,” Devereaux said.
If Washington voters are able to pass legislation allowing civil liberties such as same-sex marriage and the legalization of recreational-use marijuana, that negates “the paternalistic instinct of government to control us,” he said. “Then why not allow motorcyclists to have the freedom of choice in how they protect themselves while riding?”
Donnie Landsman of ABATE of Washington also stated that requiring a helmet creates a false sense of security.
Richard Bright, a veteran and resident of the 14th Legislative District, agreed.
“Fatalities go up because people think they’re invincible with a helmet,” Bright said.
Health concerns remain for motorcyclists involved in accidents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, wearing a helmet reduces the crash-fatality rate by 37 percent.
Dave Overstreet of AAA Washington encouraged committee members not to pass the bill, saying that not wearing a helmet makes a motorcyclist three times more likely to suffer traumatic brain injury in the event of an accident.
But Larry Walker, a government relations specialist for the Washington Road Riders Association, said that no crash is ever safe. Therefore, arguments made in an effort to protect motorcyclists from harm are misleading.
“We’re buying into the idea of safer crashing,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a safe crash.”
SB 5143 has not been scheduled for an executive session, at which time committee members would be able to decide if the bill would pass out of committee.
Kylee Zabel is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.