State lawmakers introduce bills dealing with helmets, passengers in pickup truck beds

  • Ellsworth Fontes of Ellsworth’s Custom Cycles smiles in his shop on Kinoole Street Tuesday in Hilo. Fontes disagrees with a bill that would make helmets mandatory for motorcycle riders.

    HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

A trio of bills recently introduced in the state Legislature aim to improve the safety of Hawaii’s streets.

House Bill 1749, introduced Monday, proposes a change in state law to require all operators and passengers of motorcycles and bicycles to wear helmets.

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Meanwhile, Senate bills 2229 and 2691 will, if passed, respectively prohibit anyone from driving a pickup truck with any passenger in the bed unless in mitigating circumstances and would allow counties to place stricter limitations on passengers in pickup beds.

Each bill is motivated by a desire to prevent injuries or deaths on Hawaii’s roadways, but likely will face significant pushback from community members, lawmakers said.

“I’ve been here for 13 years, and I think we’ve had bills like this every other year or so,” said state Sen. Lorraine Inouye, D-Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Waimea, Waikoloa and Kona, who co-sponsored the measures pertaining to passengers in pickup beds. “We’ll see how far it goes this time, but there’s always disagreements.”

Currently, state law prohibits passengers from riding in the back of pickups unless there is no other available seating and then only if they remain seated and the bed is secure. The proposed Senate bills seek to remove that exception, although exceptions in the event of a legal parade or if the passenger’s life is in danger will remain.

Inouye said the pickup truck issue is frequently opposed by rural farming communities, where passengers in truck beds are a common sight.

“Farming communities should recognize the need for these laws,” Inouye said.

Hawaii Police Department Sgt. Robert Pauole said without proper restraints, even a minor accident can lead to severe injuries to passengers in pickup beds, particularly if the passenger is ejected from the vehicle entirely.

“A person back there is completely vulnerable,” Pauole said, adding that the absence of seat belts increases a passenger’s risk of fatal injury in a crash by 45 percent.

Meanwhile, the House bill requiring motorcycle helmets likely will spark considerable backlash.

“If it does pass, I think a bunch of riders would give up riding entirely,” said Ellsworth Fontes, owner of Hilo motorcycle shop Ellsworth’s Custom Cycles.

The helmet bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Richard Creagan, D-Naalehu, Ocean View, Captain Cook, Kealakekua, Kailua-Kona, who said he sympathizes with opponents of mandatory helmets, but thinks that, on balance, the benefits of the law will outweigh the negatives.

Currently, all motorcyclists and passengers younger than 18 years old are required to wear helmets.

Frank DeGiacomo, legislative aide for Creagan, said a 2008 study found that mandatory helmets for motorcyclists would reduce fatalities by 42 percent and traumatic head injuries by 69 percent. He added that a traffic study from 2008-12 found that motorcycle-related injuries were the fifth-leading cause of unintentional fatal injuries in the state.

However, Fontes argued that some motorcycle crashes can become fatal when a helmet puts excessive pressure on a rider’s neck.

“It should be a choice for the rider, not something that’s mandatory,” he said. “It gives a false impression that, because you’re wearing a helmet, you can’t get hurt.”

The 2008 study found insufficient evidence to determine the effect of helmets on neck injuries.

Creagan said public awareness of the lasting effects of head trauma is much higher today than it has been in the past thanks to high-profile research linking brain damage to football.

Last year, researchers found 99 percent of 111 deceased professional football players showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease found in brains with a history of trauma.

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“There’s a tug-of-war between being protective and being a sort of nanny state,” Creagan said. “I don’t like making people do things, but I think overall it’s better for them and better for society to wear helmets.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com