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No-helmet option draws riders to Idaho

Mon., July 17, 2006

LEWISTON – Idaho is one of the few states in the region where motorcycle riders can let the wind whip through their hair.

Over the years, several attempts to rev up momentum for a helmet law have failed, which is why Albert Romero, 57, of San Fernando, Calif., was riding in Lewiston this weekend.

“We came here to ride without helmets,” he told the Lewiston Tribune.

Free from the bare-headed bans in Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada, Romero and his biking buddy, Augustin Sclafani, 52, stuffed the helmets in their trunk for the ride along U.S. Highway 12 to Montana.

“It feels a little bit nicer, just the feel of it,” said Romero, a Universal Studios sound engineer for the television shows “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “Desperate Housewives.”

Sclafani, a photography teacher, agreed. Adults should be able to make their own decisions, he said.

Romero and Sclafani’s ideas about personal freedom fall on friendly ears in Idaho, where only riders under the age of 18 are required by state law to wear helmets.

After three University of Idaho students died on motorcycles in 2004, state Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, promoted a helmet law during the 2005 legislative session.

“The students were really behind it,” Trail said. “I think it would have been a good piece of legislation.”

The law would save lives and money spent to cover catastrophic injuries of uninsured riders, Trail said. What’s more, a helmet law would allow Idaho to collect several million dollars in additional federal highway dollars, he said.

But by a vote of 7-5, the House Transportation Committee rejected the idea.

Trail does not plan to resurrect his helmet push next year.

“I think that’s a dry hole unless we have some citizens out there willing to back it up.”

That’s just fine with state Sen. R. Skipper Brandt, R-Kooskia.

“The proper role of government is not to protect myself from me,” said Brandt, an avid motorcyclist who chooses to wear a helmet on almost every ride.

He remembered dumping his Harley on a steep highway grade and watching his wife, Pia, bounce down the road on her helmeted head.

The helmet saved her, he said.

“We were doing 30, maybe,” Brandt said. “She was dingy for a good six hours.”

Statistics show requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets saves lives.

In 1992, after California required helmets, motorcycle deaths plunged by 37 percent – from 523 to 327 – in one year.

In 2000, Florida eased its law to require helmets only for riders younger than 21. Deaths jumped 25 percent within two years, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But Brandt defended Idaho lawmakers’ rejection of the helmet law proposal.

If the government wants to protect people, lawmakers should just ban motorcycles and force people to drive reinforced Suburbans, he said.

“Hopefully, Idaho will stay a freedom state as it comes to helmet laws,” he said.

But helmet law proponents say that by refusing to require helmets, Idaho is draining money that it uses to pay for hospital bills and sending emergency units to crash sites.

“When you die at home, it’s a lot different than when you die out on the freeway,” said Washington State Patrol Sgt. Monica Hunter. “When you die out on the freeway, you pull a lot of state resources that come to respond to these collisions.”

Police treat traffic fatalities as crime scenes, requiring extra work and slowing the movement of commerce as lanes are closed, she said.

Washington repealed its helmet law in 1977, then reinstated it in 1990.

Still, in Idaho, choice has as great an allure as the prospect of barreling bare-headed into the wind.

“I know there’s a reason Idaho doesn’t have a helmet law,” said Ben Spaulding, 24, a Clarkston restaurant manager. “It’s because a lot of people like to ride around here without a helmet.”


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