Hate riding with a helmet? Major shift could be coming for Washington motorcyclists

John Snaza was on a motorcycle trip through Montana when he made plans to meet up with a friend.

The dinner spot was only 10 miles away, so Snaza opted to forgo his helmet since it’s not required in that state for adult motorcyclists.

The ride wasn’t as smooth as planned for the vacationing Thurston County sheriff.

Snaza lost control from a “high speed wobble” while driving around a curve, and ended up going over a 60-foot cliff with his bike flew about 500 feet before it came to a stop, he said.

That August 2016 crash led to numerous surgeries, continuing physical therapy and a personal reason for Snaza to speak on the value of helmets.

Snaza was one of several to speak to the Washington state Senate Transportation Committee about Senate Bill 5007.

The bill — along with companion House Bill 1125 — seeks to do a three-year pilot project on helmet use.

Currently, anyone driving or riding on a motorcycle, moped or motor-driven cycle in Washington must wear a helmet.

During the pilot period, only riders under the age of 21 would have to wear wear one.

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A motorcyclist wears a patch on his riding vest declaring his opinion of Washington state’s current mandatory motorcycle helmet law. Tri-City Herald file

However, people who choose to go helmetless must be insured under a vehicle liability policy, carry self-insurance, or be covered by a certificate of deposit or a liability bond, according to the bill.

Failing to provide proof of insurance would be a traffic infraction.

Motorcycle fatality data

Tri-City state Sen. Sharon Brown, a co-sponsor, emphasizes it would not be a permanent change to the law, at least not yet. She isn’t even sure if Gov. Jay Inslee would sign off on the pilot project, or veto it.

The pilot would run from Sept. 1 through Sept. 1, 2022.

The intent is to see what happens over three years if riders are given the option.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission would be required to collect statistics from local and state agencies on motorcyclist fatalities, and report back to the Legislature.

Brown said she wants to see that data.

“Personally I just see it as a freedom of choice,” she told the Herald. “These are people over the age of 21 and, if they have insurance, it’s a choice. It’s not mandating anybody ride without a helmet.”

Sheriff Snaza said he likes the idea of everybody being responsible, but he can’t explain the stress and grief his near-fatal crash caused his family, friends, co-workers and community.

He believes he personally let all of them down because of his judgment that day.

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza was vacationing in Montana in August 2016 when he was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle crash. Snaza was not wearing a helmet since it is not mandatory for adult riders in that state. Steve Bloom The Olympian

“The fact is that I do appreciate everybody that is a very responsible rider, a very good rider. ... We don’t ever expect bad things to happen,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am one of those guys. I was in a state where I didn’t have to wear a helmet, and it happened to me.”

Snaza says he was lucky.

“I do have insurance, but that didn’t help me from suffering a traumatic brain injury, breaking all the ribs on my left side and breaking my neck,” he testified.

“I’m very blessed,” he said.

Not a first-timer in Legislature

The helmet study is being led by State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, but SB 5007 has 10 co-sponsors, including Brown, R-Kennewick, and Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.

This isn’t the first time the Legislature has taken up the helmet requirement. But this time it has drawn some strong opinions.

One side argues they should have the freedom to choose and make decisions about their own personal safety.

Others say their tax dollars shouldn’t be used to cover long-term care costs for people who choose not to protect their brains at high speeds.

Sharon Brown mug
Sen. Sharon Brown TriCities

Brown said that’s why it is critically important people understand the bill has a provision about requiring insurance, so that a potential injured rider would not become the responsibility of the state.

However, Kenton Brine, president of NW Insurance Council, points out that liability insurance coverage only pays for the other party that is injured in an accident, not the first party — in this case, the injured motorcyclist.

“So if there is a mandate in there for this coverage, it provides no protection for the helmetless rider,” Brine said. “I just want to make sure that is clear.”

‘They just would like the choice’

Brown does not ride motorcycles. But she’s backing the bill because she has a lot of constituents in the Tri-Cities who do ride, “and this bill is important to them.”

“I’ve heard from both sides ... since there has been so much interest generated in this subject matter. But I am hearing more in favor of the freedom of choice,” she said. “Some of them have said to me they may choose to ride with a helmet, but they just would like the choice.”

Washington’s helmet law was first enacted in 1967. It was repealed 10 years later, followed by a new law a decade later requiring helmets for riders age 17 and younger.

The current universal law was passed in 1990.

Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have a universal helmet law, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Another 28 states have laws requiring only some riders to wear a helmet, usually based on age. And three states have no helmet requirement.

Riders helmets file
Motorcyclists on a wide variety of makes and models take part in an annual Tri-City community event celebrating the motorized two-wheelers. The state of Washington enacted a universal helmet law in 1990 mandating all riders wear a helmet. Watch a video at: tricityherald.com/video Tri-City Herald file

“I’m wondering who’s right and who’s wrong and, if there’s an argument on both sides, why not let somebody have the choice that they want,” said Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview. “I guess it’s more about the statistics than the choice.”

Educate people so they can choose

Kaden is a career firefighter with a Tri-City agency, volunteer firefighter with another area department and a part-time employee of a Pasco motorcycle shop. He didn’t want to give his full name for this story.

As someone who started riding dirt bikes at age 3 and is now at 21, this change would directly affect him.

He’s had his share of crashes, resulting in several concussions including one that had lingering effects for months. He acknowledges that one time the helmet definitely saved his life.

“Honestly, I believe that protection is the most important thing, even if it just blocks a head injury,” he said.

People who have been in wrecks and slid across the road will bring their helmet into the store, and sometimes it is worn down to the inner shell, Kaden said.

“If that were your head, that would be past your skull. That would be brain matter coming out,” he said. “So I definitely understand it from the safety point of view.”

But Kaden said he also understands the right to choose for adults who make so many other important life decisions.

“We can just educate people and hope that they make the right choice,” he said.

75 deadly crashes in 2018

Capt. Monica Alexander, with the Washington State Patrol’s government and media relations office, told members of the Senate Transportation Committee that the agency opposes the bill.

There were 75 deaths in 2,082 motorcycle-involved crashes in Washington state in 2018, she said.

“The bottom line is that bad crashes happen all the time, right?” said Alexander. “We know they’re going to happen, but it’s our job to try and prevent those collisions from occurring.”

But Brian Lange, the legislative affairs officer for ABATE of Washington, testified that studies have shown lower collision rates, lower fatality rates and lower head-injury rates on-average in states with a helmet choice.

Scott Robinson is Washington’s senior deputy coordinator for ABATE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the freedom of the road.

Robinson said he’s been a registered motorcycle rider for 40 years, has ridden in almost every state and numerous countries and is an Army veteran, including two years in Afghanistan wearing helmet and body armor every day.

“In Washington state, the motorcycle riders do not have this choice,” Robinson told the committee. “Someone says they are trying to keep us safe. If I wanted to be safe, I would not be on a motorcycle.”

“Many other veterans (who are) motorcycle riders feel the same way,” he added. “We put our lives on the line to fight for our freedom. We did not go to war to be safe, we went there so we could be free to make a personal choice in how we would live our life. We are denied over and over.”

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Kristin M. Kraemer covers the judicial system and crime issues for the Tri-City Herald. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years in Washington and California.