In this tough governing climate, the Spokane County Commission faces some really difficult decisions, so it ought to rejoice when it has a no-brainer in front of it. And it does, with the proposal to adopt a mandatory helmet law for users of bicycles, skateboards and scooters.
The commission will hold a public hearing on the topic Aug. 23.
The predictable objection is that this is another lost liberty – that is, the freedom to crack your skull open without government interference. But that complaint pales in comparison to the tragic deaths that could’ve been averted.
Another objection is that the county cannot afford to enforce the law, but in other jurisdictions the mere presence of the law has triggered greater helmet use. The law serves as effective backup to the instructions imparted by parents, schools and other bicycle safety teachers. Plus, children can note the law in prodding their parents to comply. From there, a new culture of helmet use takes hold and participation widens.
In communities that adopt an ordinance, the number of bicycle fatalities drops by an average of 16 percent.
From June 2010 to May of this year, none of the helmet-wearing children admitted to Providence Sacred Heart Hospital for bike injuries sustained a severe or fatal head injury. However, 75 percent of the young bike riders who landed in the hospital were not wearing helmets. That is a sad compliance rate considering that helmets reduce the risk of head injuries by about 85 percent if worn correctly.
The city of Spokane adopted a helmet ordinance in 2004, but the county, Spokane Valley and other communities have not followed suit. That’s puzzling when the National Traffic Safety Administration reports that nearly 70 percent of fatal bike accidents involve head injuries.
The debate over this is similar to the one about seat belts. But what individual liberty mavens fail to consider is how the effects of the accidents reach beyond the victim.
The costs are not neatly contained, which is why public safety departments have been known to give away helmets, rather than deal with the consequences to children who ride without them. A simple fall for a child wearing a helmet can turn into a tragedy for those who don’t. Taxpayers, in turn, pick up the costs of the emergency response.
The Spokane Regional Health District totaled the emergency room costs for 2007 and found that head injuries related to wheel sports yielded $451,400 in hospital bills. Lifetime care of a brain-injured child runs into the millions of dollars. The cost of educating one is three to four times higher.
With seat belts, the state was able to pass a law that covered all communities, and compliance soared. With helmets, the choice is left to local governments. It’s an easy one to make.