Bills introduced for helmet-less motorcycling, lane splitting

Once again, there are attempts in the legislature to give motorcycle riders more freedom on the road, prompting another debate over helmets and lane-splitting.

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Washington has had a spirited debate over the use of helmets, first required by law in 1967. That law was repealed 10 years later. The mandate returned in 1987, but only for minors, and then in 1990, all riders were required again to wear helmets.

The debate is back now in 2019 with Senate Bill 5007, which would create a three-year pilot project allowing riders over 21 the ability to ride without helmets. If riders choose to go without, they would be required to carry liability insurance, something that's not currently required.

Mark Riker is one of the many riders who testified in favor of the change this week.

“I’ve been riding a long time,” he told lawmakers. “I feel I’m a fairly responsible person, and I’m asking you to trust me with that responsibility.”

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Scott Robinson is an Army veteran who has been riding for 40 years.

“Someone says they are trying to keep us safe, but if I wanted to be safe I would not be on a motorcycle,” he said. “Many other veterans and motorcycle riders feel the same way. We put our lives on the line to fight for our freedom. We did not go to war to be safe. We went there so we could be free to make a personal choice in how we will live our life.”

The Washington State Patrol and others in law enforcement oppose the idea because of safety concerns. Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza loves riding, but going helmet-less almost killed him in 2016.

“We don’t ever expect bad things to happen,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am one of those guys. I was in a state where I didn’t have to wear a helmet, and it happened to me.”

Sheriff Snaza was in Montana when he lost it at high speed and went off a 60-foot cliff, suffering a major head injury and breaking his neck and several ribs. He is now a firm believer in helmets.

Lane splitting
Riders were also in Olympia this week to advocate for lane-splitting, the practice of riding a motorcycle between lanes of traffic. It's against the law in the United States, except California.

Senate Bill 5254 would allow limited lane splitting, with riders only being permitted to pass on the far left, but not in between lanes. They could only go 25 miles an hour, or no more than 10 miles an hour faster than traffic.

Most riders like the idea of splitting, but not this bill. They told lawmakers that restricting splitting to the far left is just too dangerous, considering the amount of debris that is usually in that area.

“I’m a huge supporter of lane splitting, and I am absolutely opposed to this particular bill,” one rider testified. “To restrict them to stay in that lane, in very limited space, with no out, I think is very flawed.”

A similar lane-splitting bill failed last legislative session.