After heading into a dead end in the city of Spokane Valley over five years ago, a possible helmet law targeting children in unincorporated Spokane County appears to be gaining traction with county commissioners.
On Tuesday, Marion Lee, injury prevention specialist with the Spokane Regional Health District, appeared before the commissioners and requested that the board revisit the idea of enacting an ordinance that would require helmets be worn by anyone riding bicycles, skates and skateboards, or nonmotorized scooters.
“It’s the best way to deal with preventable head injuries,” Lee said.
In 2007, there were 1,300 reports of wheeled-sport injuries in Spokane County, and a 2008 study showed that 90 percent of kids never or rarely wear helmets. Of that group of 10- to 17-year-olds, 60 percent were the ones getting injuries, Lee said.
According to Lee’s statistics, at trip to the emergency room for anyone who was hurt participating in a “wheeled sport activity” typically costs around $7,200. A stay in the hospital raises that amount to $22,000 and – in extreme cases – has reached $416,000. But a helmet can prevent brain injuries by up to 88 percent, she said.
Currently, in this area, only the city of Spokane has a helmet law for all ages. The measure, which passed by a 5-1 vote in 2004, was threatened with a veto by then-Mayor Jim West, who said he wanted a law that more specifically targeted children 16 and under and not cover skateboarders and inline skaters.
Spokane County Board Chairman Al French, who sat on the Spokane City Council at that time, said he voted in favor of the ordinance.
“It was very controversial,” French said, adding that there are already laws for motorists to wear seatbelts and motorcyclists to use helmets. Bicyclists, he said, are typically the least protected on the roadways. “We have laws that have to deal with the use of the right-of-way. It’s a matter of consistency.”
But personal responsibility, accountability and parenting all factored into the Spokane Valley City Council’s 4-3 decision not to follow through with its own ordinance a year later.
“It’s a parent’s responsibility,” said then-Mayor Diana Wilhite prior to casting the deciding vote.
At the time, Staci Schlerf – whose daughter died in a bicycle/car collision just a few weeks earlier – testified against a helmet law.
“If the government always tells us what to do, we’ll never learn anything,” she told the council. “You lose the value of the lesson by taking away the opportunity to make mistakes.”
While Spokane Valley does not have a law on the books, it is the only jurisdiction that has a $3,000-per-year line item in its budget for the purchase of helmets that are given away at bike rodeos and other events put on by the Sheriff’s Community Oriented Policing Effort.
Commissioner Todd Mielke said he was in favor of a Spokane County ordinance in theory – other jurisdictions could follow later if they so chose -- but worried about passing laws “that will never be enforced.” At the skateboard park in Hillyard, for example, there are posted signs that state helmets must be worn for entry.
“We have government-sponsored facilities where you’ll have 40 kids and only two will have helmets on,” he said.
Lee said that the emphasis is more on education than enforcement. Coupons for ice cream, for example, are given out by officers who spot children who are wearing helmets. But, she added, “Legislation is the quickest way to get helmets on heads – no doubt about it.”
Commissioner Mark Richard – whose involvement with the health board prompted Lee’s visit -- suggested that the commissioners receive testimony from Spokane city law enforcement personnel who have had to enforce the law for the past several years.
“I’d like to hear the feedback if they would do anything differently (in the ordinance) if they were to do it over again,” he said, adding that he was in support of an ordinance.
“I fully expect there will be nuances to enhance this,” he said.
It’s possible that a public hearing could be held in the next several weeks on the subject.