By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
State health officials think it’s a no-brainer: Motorcyclists are 42 percent less likely to die in a crash if they’re wearing a helmet.
Motorcycle fatalities in Hawaii dropped by 57 percent after the state adopted a universal helmet law in 1968 and they went back up to their previous rate after the law was repealed in 1977. The death rate went from six per 10,000 registered motorcycles to 14 per 10,000 registered motorcycles.
Hospital bills for head injuries in riders of motorcycles, motor scooters and mopeds reach almost $10 million annually.
But translating those figures into a helmet law has proved to be a challenge. A mandatory helmet bill is periodically introduced in the state Legislature, and it often doesn’t get a committee hearing, much less get passed.
The issue is particularly important in Hawaii County, which leads the state in the rate of traffic and motorcycle fatalities, said Kari Benes, trauma systems public health educator for the state Department of Health.
“The data that’s the most compelling to us, is that the rate of deaths without a helmet law are more than double the rate of deaths with a helmet law,” Benes said.
Just 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, have universal helmet laws, but most require helmets on youth riders, according to a 2011 Consumer Reports article. Currently in Hawaii, helmets are required only for those under 18 years old.
The 2014 legislative session may be no different, despite a move by the Honolulu City Council to include mandatory helmets for riders of motorcycles, mopeds and motor scooters in a package of priorities being put together by the Hawaii State Association of Counties.
The Hawaii County Council Governmental Relations and Economic Development Committee is scheduled to hear the HSAC package at its meeting at 1:45 p.m. today.
The Maui County Council has already voted down the helmet laws, so they will no longer be part of the package that will be sent to the state Legislature, said Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi, who is vice chairman of the HSAC board. He said only one council has to vote an issue down for it to be excluded from the package.
Increasing helmet use is the first traffic safety priority of the state Department of Health’s October, 2012, publication, “Hawaii Injury Prevention Plan 2012-2017.” Injury Prevention and Control Program Manager Therese Argoud said her agency consistently provides testimony supporting helmet laws.
The priorities are based on a statewide survey of 45 state, county and community partners.
“It’s definitely a priority for us,” Argoud said.
The bills generally are brought forward by members of the community, she said. But there’s usually opposition from motorcycle riders and others who worry that making helmets mandatory would decrease motorcycle ridership and alternative transportation in the state.
A call left with the state Department of Transportation, the agency most likely to introduce bills relating to highway safety, were not returned by press-time Monday.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Neil Abercrombie said the governor hadn’t yet completed a legislative package for the legislative session that starts in January, but so far, a helmet bill is not in it.
“There’s no discussion at this time regarding helmet law legislation,” spokeswoman Louise McCoy said.
Onishi said he’s going to discourage Hawaii County Council members from discussing the eight measures in the 14-bill package that have been voted down by the Maui and Kauai councils.
“To me, the discussion would be moot,” Onishi said.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.