Moped helmet law floated for Hawaii

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Is it time to require all moped riders to wear a helmet, regardless of their age?

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Is it time to require all moped riders to wear a helmet, regardless of their age?

And how many other protections should be required for the slow-moving riders so often seen cruising the highways and byways — often with a lot of tanned skin showing?

State Sen. Lorraine Inouye will push this legislative session for at least a helmet law, safety checks statewide and a closed-toe shoe and protective jacket requirement for moped operators.

“There have been quite a few accidents,” said Inouye. “Something needs to be done.”

Inouye, who chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation and Energy, has indicated she’s open to feedback on what is too much — or too little.

The idea is already seeing some full-throttle response.

Terry James, manager of Scooter Bros. on Alii Drive, said a jacket requirement is over the top.

“It’s just so hot here,” he said. “People don’t want to wear a jacket.

“They only go 35 mph,” added James, who has been riding mopeds and motorcycles most of his life and says he has crashed a moped at 35 mph.

“You can get hurt but it’s not like crashing on a motorcycle when you’re probably going to die,” he said.

James has 20 helmets available at his shop, and makes his inexperienced renters use the protection, he said. Older riders fall under state laws that mandate helmets only for riders under 18, he said.

There were eight moped rider fatalities on the Big Island from 2005 to 2014, a Hawaii Department of Health death certificate database shows. Oahu had 47 deaths, Maui had 11 and Kauai had one in the same time period.

“It’s important to note, though, that only one of the eight Hawaii County decedents were wearing a helmet at the time of the crash,” said Dan Galanis, an epidemiologist for the DOH Injury Prevention and Control Section, in an email. “Statewide, helmets were used by only 4 percent of the 67 fatally injured moped riders.”

Most of the victims were males, 20 to 34 years old.

If the past three years are any indication, emergency personnel respond to 60 moped crash-related injuries each year on the Big Island, and more than 600 statewide, according to statistics provided by Galanis.

Current state laws prohibit a second rider, and moped operators under the age of 18 must wear a helmet secured with a chin strap. Hawaii County laws also require proper eyewear.

These mandates are commonly flouted.

John Gillespie, owner of Big Island Mopeds, said he’s seen a lot of accidents with the machines, and it’s a good idea to cement common sense into law.

“I think it’s absurd we don’t have a helmet law for motorcycles and mopeds,” he said. “But I think closed-toe shoes and jackets are a little extreme, especially in Hawaii.”

Inouye announced that she would float tougher rules of the road after a 17-year-old moped driver was killed in November in Honolulu. The victim, Hunter J.L. Ortego, wasn’t wearing a helmet when he collided with a Ford pickup.

Last May, 29-year-old Mokihana Choy of Kailua-Kona died after the moped on which she was a passenger collided with a dump truck while merging from Hualalai Road onto Queen Kaahumanu Highway. Choy was not wearing a helmet.

Come time for testimony, Inouye — whose district spans most of the northern half of Hawaii Island — expects a good turnout from medical professionals who deal first-hand with highway injuries. Next year, she may be ready to take a tougher bite — helmets for motorcyclists.

New helmet law proposals have met stiff resistance from riders in Hawaii and nationally.

And while legislation is introduced each year to toughen laws around the country, more bills are floated to weaken existing rules, according the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Nineteen states require that all riders wear helmets, and another 28 require helmet use by those under 21 or 18. There were 4,584 motorcycle-related deaths in the U.S. in 2014, a study by the GHSA shows.

Still, wearing a helmet should be up to the individual, said Kailua-Kona resident Lacosta Rickford, who was renting a moped Friday afternoon from Scooter Bros.

“It’s a matter of choice, period,” said Rickford, who declined a helmet offered with rental. “When you start forcing someone to do something, you take their rights away.”

Rickford has owned four mopeds and had two stolen. Jackets would repel potential riders and create headaches for moped rental companies, which will have to sell customers on the new requirement, she said.

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“It’s so hot for that stuff,” she said.

There is no clear number on how many mopeds are operating in Hawaii County. That’s because the machines only need to be registered once and there is no way to track how many are still on the road, according to the county Vehicle Registration and Licensing Division.

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