Lindsey Treffry | The Argonaut
Despite one of the highest motorcycle fatality rates in the nation, Idaho does not have a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.
Throughout the U.S. there are 20 states, including Washington D.C., that require motorcycle helmet use for all riders. Idaho is one of 30 states that does not.
Shirley Ringo, the District 6 representative for the Idaho House of Representatives and member of the Transportation and Defense committee, said it is due to the “extreme conservatism” apparent in the state.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in Washington, a state that requires motorcycle helmet use, a per capita rate of 1.1 motorcycle fatalities per 100,000 people in 2009. In comparison, Idaho reported a per capita rate of 2.4 — higher than the national average of 1.5.
“The legislatures in Washington tend to be much more progressive,” Ringo said. “Idaho is quite unique in the extreme conservatism in the people who serve in the legislature and those that elect them.”
Idaho requires people under 18 to wear a helmet while operating motorcycles and ATVs, but does not have a universal bicycle helmet law. In 1990, Washington passed a statewide motorcycle helmet law. As for bicycle helmets, requirements are up to individual cities or counties.
Spokane passed a citywide bicycle helmet law six years ago. Lynn Drake, the program manager of bicycle and pedestrian safety for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, said the Spokane health district originally proposed the bicycle law to city council.
“The first turn around, they were told not to bring it to council,” Drake said.
She said the district then did “homework” on crash prevention, medical costs and special education costs of moving a child with a debilitating head injury through the public school district.
“They had to reassure the council that they made the correct decision,” Drake said.
Drake said the Washington Highway Safety office gave $5,000 to the district so they could provide properly fitting helmets for children who needed them. Local companies like McDonald’s gave incentives for children wearing helmets, such as free coupons for ice cream. Drake said the district assured the court would waive helmet citations if the citizen brought a helmet to court.
When the health district returned to the council with the new plan, the helmet law was created. As of today, Drake said approximately 85 percent of Washington is covered by a bicycle helmet law.
However, such incentives may not convince the Idaho legislature so easily.
Ringo co-sponsored a law requiring people under 18 to wear helmets with the help of David Langhorst, a previous senator, who works for the Idaho Tax Commission. Ringo said the bill passed the State Senate fairly easily, but it was not a sure thing in the House. She said testimony helped highlight the need for a law.
“It just happened that, just prior to bringing that to the legislature, there had been a little 2-year-old boy who lost his life, who was on an ATV with his father and they crashed and he didn’t have a helmet,” Ringo said.
Langhorst said during a camping trip the father, who was involved in the legislative testimony, had taken the little boy with him to get firewood. They were driving up a grade and while the father looked to the side of the ATV, one of the tires went off the roadway, lodged in a rock and the little boy landed headfirst on a rock that killed him.
Langhorst said although the vote wasn’t unanimous, it was easier for legislators to pass a regulation that affected minors.
“(Legislature) is responsible for (minors) in the eye of the law,” Langhorst said.
Drake said while attempting to pass the bicycle law in Spokane, a spokesman for a family whose child was struck by a car, came to testify on behalf of the helmet law. She said it is more effective anytime you have a victim that comes forward.
Drake also said in order to enact a law, citizens have to align political powers with them. She said legislation moves much faster through government if a citizen activist or a victim advocates on behalf of a proposed law.
“...Or to have a fire chief or police chief have a real strong passion and have them take a lead on it,” Drake said. “You have to cover all your bases.”
Despite arguments in favor of a helmet law, there are reasons the legislature has not voted to have an Idaho helmet law in the past.
Langhorst once owned a Harley Davidson and said he is sympathetic to the riding community that does not want an adult riding bill mandated.
“You can see better without a helmet and you can hear better without a helmet,” Langhorst said. “... I didn’t hear an emergency vehicle intersecting right ahead of me until it was late ... It makes it easy for a libertarian legislature to make an argument that finds sympathy with (motorcyclists) to not want anymore regulation.”
However, Ringo attributes the lack of a helmet law to the desire for personal rights.
“People that oppose (the helmet law) give the argument that if the person wants to take that risk, it’s his or her right to do that,” Ringo said. “That’s pretty much how they justify opposing it. Personally I think that’s a very narrow interpretation of the real situation.”
Henry Houst, a Boise personal injury attorney, said the absence of a helmet law is due to the notion of laissez-faire, a French term that is used generally in economics.
“It’s a notion about a pre-market economy and how you don’t necessarily have to regulate economics,” Houst said. “Things will take care of themselves. Let (the helmet law) alone, and it will regulate itself.”
Houst said the problem with this notion is that if a fully reasoning adult decides to go bungee jumping off Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, smashing onto the rocks below, legislature is probably not going to stop that person.
“We’re kind of a conservative lot that likes less government than more,” Houst said.
Langhorst said the only way the law would pass is if the federal government mandated it, much the way the seat belt law works. Idaho would have the right to ignore a helmet law, but the federal government would have the power to take away millions of dollars from funds, like highway or transportation programs, if such a law is not passed, Langhorst said.
“As long as the users’ communities (motorcyclists) don’t support it, it’s going to be a real tough sell in the Idaho legislature,” Langhorst said.
Even if a law were to pass, it may not be beneficial to the community, Drake said.
“The death toll (in Washington) is going up in motorcycles,” Drake said. “We can’t seem to get that one down, but so is the number of bikes being purchased and the number of ridership being increased. The helmet laws don’t match.”
Langhorst said even though the 18-and-under law passed, there has not been much change to helmet use.
“I’ve seen people totally flouting and ignoring that law with two, three or four people on an ATV at the same time, none of them wearing helmets,” Langhorst said.
Ringo also said Idaho citizens will continue to argue that individuals have the right to take their own risks.
“I don’t have a lot of hope that we’ll be able to get such legislation through, at least not in the near future,” Ringo said. “I think the prevailing attitude is that people have a right to make that decision.”
As seen in Dec. 9 issue of The Argonaut.