MILTON, Wash. — Will the nanny state take away our right to drink too much soda? Will the police rob us of privacy in the name of fighting terrorism? In an era of polarized politics, the fear of government encroachment is one thing that unifies Americans from the left and the right.“Of course you should wear a helmet,” said Mayor Debra Perry, who emphasized that using one is a matter of safety.
But here’s a news flash from the municipal trenches, where local governments these days worry more about keeping the lights on: The discussion about government’s role in places like this struggling former lumber town centers less on philosophy or politics than on practicality, triage and risk. And now that dynamic has led to an unlikely place in the road: helmet laws.
For 15 years, until June 1, Milton, population 7,000, 45 minutes south of Seattle, required helmets for all bicyclists and skateboarders. But with its 12-officer police force stressed by an increase in domestic violence, alcohol abuse and property crime, all of which surged through the recession, law enforcement priorities now go way beyond hectoring people about their headgear.
And an inability to enforce a law on the books, the town’s insurance consultant argued, created administrative unevenness that — in the event of an accident by someone who was not nagged or cited about helmet use — posed a liability risk that could bankrupt the community with one swipe from a punitive-minded jury.
So in a unanimous vote of the City Council on May 21, helmet laws went the way of Milton’s library and fire department, both of which closed in 2010 and were replaced by regionally shared systems with neighboring communities. The city’s planning department and activities director are also now just chapters of local history. Projected tax revenues for Milton’s general fund budget have fallen to $3.9 million from $4.9 million in 2010, and Mayor Debra Perry said she was not at all sure yet what else might have to go.
There is one thing she is clear and adamant about, though: helmets are good, notwithstanding anything in the legal code. She said she hoped to organize a safety fair and helmet drive this summer to push the connection between helmet use and safety. What was a requirement — though unevenly enforced in the best of times — is now, she said, a point of moral suasion and conversation within the community.
“Of course you should wear a helmet,” she said in an interview in her office. “But this is a parents issue — parents need to be supervising their children, making sure their children are well dressed and have helmets on. Wearing flip-flops and shorts and no helmets on skateboards and bikes is just stupid.”
Milton’s decision on helmets has also tapped into an old and divisive debate in the broader bicycling community about how best to get people out of their cars and onto saddles.
Some bike advocacy groups in fact oppose helmet laws for adults and have applauded Milton’s new path. They say the focus must be on pushing communities to create safer biking conditions through more bike lanes and trails, car speed-limit reductions and other measures, and that helmet laws put the onus on bikers to be safe, letting cities off the hook in making safer terrain. For both sides, though, it comes back to money.
“Is it worth passing something that you’re not going to enforce?” said Andy Clarke, the president of the League of American Bicyclists, one of the nation’s oldest biking advocacy groups, which has maintained neutrality on the helmet law debate. “That’s a responsible question to ask, especially in this day and age when the role of government is questioned at every turn,” added Mr. Clarke, who says he sometimes goes bareheaded.
Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia require helmets for children and teenagers. Washington State, for whatever reason, has more local ordinances like Milton’s former law, requiring helmets for all ages, than any other state, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, a nonprofit group.
Milton has no bike lanes but not much traffic, either, and many people seemed unaware that the city ever had a helmet statute.
“It should be a personal decision for the person who’s doing the activity — how much they value their life,” said Jason Weems, 28, who was out for a run on a recent afternoon, and who also bikes — always, he said, with a helmet, strictly by personal choice.
His wife, Kerrie, 29, who was pushing a stroller behind him with their 7-month-old son, Oliver, disagreed, and said Milton’s law had been worthwhile even if it had nudged only a few people into helmet use. “Just like buckling up in a car — that’s mandatory, so why wouldn’t it be for wearing a helmet on a bike?” she asked.
One unexpected byproduct of the repeal debate, to gauge by people like Barry Minnes, 63, could be a kind of increased sympathy for local government’s many dilemmas. Mr. Minnes rides for fitness in his neighborhood and watches people run through a stop sign near his home on a street that was once patrolled by the police. He understands that resources are limited. What people do on their own when the police are not looking, he said, is the question.
“I realize government has to pick and choose where they enforce,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to draw a line to where you say the government should protect us from stupidity.”