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Spokane Valley ponders a bike helmet ordinance

When he heard that we were calling about the helmet ordinance being bandied about in the city of Spokane Valley, council member Gary Schimmels said, "Uh-oh" and laughed. "What a nice controversy," he added.

On Tuesday, May 24, the city of Spokane Valley held its first public reading of an ordinance, urged by the Safe Kids Coalition, that would require anyone using a bicycle, skateboard, skates, scooter -- you name it -- to wear a helmet. Those over the age of 16 who are caught without one would face a charge of around $100; those under 16 would be funneled into an education program.

Sound familiar? The Safe Kids Coalition pushed a similar measure in the city of Spokane last year that passed through the council (despite a veto by Mayor Jim West) and became law in August. The law's backers said that it was just common sense; opponents called it an infringement on personal rights.

The argument is no different today in the Valley. Ana Matthews, who is spearheading the ordinance for the Safe Kids Coalition, a group of 20-some organizations led by the Spokane Regional Health District, spews numbers: Washington spends $113 million each year on treatment of non-fatal bicycle injuries; every $10 bike helmet saves the country $30 in direct health costs.

Looking at this data and a steady decline in helmet usage, she says those in her organization asked themselves, "What is going to create a behavior change in our community? What is the piece of the puzzle that is missing? We knew that that was the legislation."

So far, it looks like the Spokane Valley city council agrees. Most of the members present for last week's reading shared the sentiment offered by the dozen or so people who came to testify in support of the ordinance.

Gary Schimmels says he supports the ordinance because "it sends a positive message" and because "people won't take care of themselves" otherwise. And who pays when helmet-less cyclists end up in the hospital? "Society pays," he says. "It's a long string of problems."

Councilman Mike Flanigan, who last week expressed reservations about applying the law to adults as well as kids, says he spent the weekend reading up on helmet law and is now leaning toward both. The cost to society, he says, "supercedes a person saying 'If I want to bust my brains out, I have that right' ... I don't believe [a helmet law] is an infringement on personal rights."

But council member Steve Taylor reserves the right to bust his brains out. "I think it is of the utmost importance for every person who rides a bike to take the proper precautions," he prefaces. "I believe, though, that it is an issue of personal responsibility to yourself and your family." He cites the dangers "of just stepping out the door in the morning" and wonders why, if the government is so concerned about the social cost of health care, it's not cracking down on teenage smokers or penalizing teenage pregnancy.

Taylor's opinion appears to be in the minority on the council, as it was in public testimony last week. In fact, only one group, the parents of a 15-year-old girl killed earlier this month while riding her bike without a helmet in the Valley, spoke up at the meeting to oppose the rule. "I don't feel that it is the right of our government to decide whether I wear a helmet or not," said Staci Schlerf, the girl's mother.

The second reading of this ordinance is scheduled for the Spokane Valley City Council's June 28 meeting, clearing the way for a final vote on the matter.

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