Senate committee takes no action on bike helmet bills

Vancouver Helmet Law Protest Ride-14.jpg
A bill to increase the minimum
helmet age was discussed in a
Senate hearing earlier this week.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The two bicycle helmet bills in the Oregon legislature made more waves in the media than in actual debate from lawmakers during a hearing held in Salem on Monday. The bills garnered media attention because they were an opportunity to pit the safety of our children (who could be against that?!) against bicycle advocates who feel mandatory helmet laws are not always what they’re cracked up to be.

At the hearing on Monday even the Senator behind SB 741 and 742, Chris Edwards, seemed a bit uncomfortable with all the attention they’ve gotten. Toward the end of the hearing he said, “This bill is getting a disproportionate amount of focus.”

In a nutshell, SB 741 would mandate that people of all ages wear helmets while riding a bicycle (or scooter, skateboard, and so on) in competition and SB 742 would raise the minimum mandatory helmet age from 16 to 18 years of age.

At the outset of the meeting, Edwards described the visit with a friend that led to his drafting of the bills. The friend’s son fell while riding his skateboard and during a discussion of the incident the Senator learned that some competitions don’t require helmets. That conversation also led to Sen. Edwards’ realization that kids under 16 aren’t required to wear a helmet. “I had assumed it was 18,” he told members of the Senate Business and Transportation Committee.

“Ultimately, I’m wanting to encourage a culture of safety among kids riding skateboards and bikes.”
— State Senator Chris Edwards

SB 741 isn’t too controversial because every sanctioned bicycle competition I’ve ever heard of already has mandatory helmet laws for participants. For that reason, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) does not oppose the bill. But the language of the bill is very problematic and could have unintended consequences. It calls for helmet use while in “organized exhibitions” but it doesn’t clearly defined what that means. Thankfully, Sen. Edwards is already aware of that issue and said he plans on striking that text. During his testimony, the Senator also made it clear he’s heard concerns that helmet laws reduce ridership which works against the safety in numbers phenomenon. “To the extent a helmet decreases ridership,” he said, “it hurts the critical needed to achieve that [safety in numbers].”

So, while Edwards says, “Ultimately, I’m wanting to encourage a culture of safety among kids riding skateboards and bikes,” it seems he has learned a few things about helmet policy of late.

When Senate committee members got their chance to speak, it was a textbook example of how the helmet law conversation always goes. “I’m a bicycle rider and I always wear a helmet,” Sen Rod Monroe proclaimed, “I had a pretty bad crash 10 years ago and if I didn’t have my helmet on I would have had a severe concussion at the very least. I believe in helmets.” (He then questioned the validity of the claim that helmet laws reduce ridership.) In the end, Monroe acknowledged that even though raising the minimum helmet age wouldn’t “make a huge difference,” he would still vote for the bill. “I just believe in safety and I support it.”

Senator Bruce Starr made the point that education and cultural awareness alone might be all we need to increase helmet use, saying he remembers when very few adults wore helmets. But now, “Almost everyone does even though there’s no law.” (He’s right, about 80% of Portland riders where helmets according to the most recent numbers.) Committee Chair Lee Beyer added “He’s right. It’s accepted now. It’s cool.”

BTA lobbyist Jonathan Manton testified that they are opposed to raising the helmet requirement age. The BTA has concerns because they say the law could reduce ridership, that some of its members think such regulation is “the improper role of government,” and the law would have a disproportionate impact on low-income populations. “Some people can’t afford a helmet so they won’t ride,” he said. “What we find is that education of middle school students through our Safe Routes to School programs are more effective in increasing helmet use than a state law that requires it.”

As for the age itself, Manton said the BTA feels 16 is appropriate, “Because it’s the same age you get a driver’s license and at 16 you’re able to operate a 2-ton car and drive down the road very fast.”

“It seems it’d be safer to make the driver’s license age 18,” chimed in Sen. Monroe as a light seemed to go off in his head, “I remember when I started driving at 16 and we’d drive like hell all over town!” Monroe is on to something, and there’s actually a grassroots movement afoot in Eugene to do just that.

The final person to testify was Nick Oliver, the executive director of BikePAC, a rights group for motorcycle riders. He said helmet proponents use scare tactics and his group worries that helmet laws are “about nanny state mentality.”

By this time in the hearing it was clear that neither bill seemed urgent enough to committee members to vote on. “We will allow Senator Edwards to think about it,” said Chair Beyer, before closing the discussion.

Browse more coverage of the 2013 legislative session in our archives.

CORRECTION: This post initially stated that the BTA testified in support of SB 741. The BTA testified that they are not opposed the bill.

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