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February QuickThrottle Column

Midway through February in the desert, enjoying the sunshine and 80 degree days and an extended visit with my parents -- my pool is done, and softball is staring up...I know tough life, right?  Time to post the February column as I finish writing the March one -- if I can force myself inside to the office...
I’ve always taken great enjoyment in watching people engaged in the political process attempt to reconcile glaringly obvious policy ideas and conflicts.  One of my favorites was a few years ago at a legislative hearing in Olympia where there were dueling environmental groups trying to promote “carbon neutral” energy that doesn’t harm the environment somehow. Apparently everything harms the environment in some way.

You see we must go carbon neutral the environmentalists say, but the bird and wildlife folks don’t like wind and solar power because windmills are essentially a giant food-processor for birds -- pretty much chewing them up as they fly through them like a giant Cuisinart.  And they don’t like solar farms because the light reflecting off the mirrors blind birds and the heat radiating off them fries them like a microwave oven. And both forms put a “scar” on the face of the earth.  But they say we have to have “green power” and these sources aren’t the polluters like power plants, so they are good – sort of. But they do affect wildlife and views and on and on, so they are bad – sort of.  And hydro power isn’t good either because salmon can’t swim past dams so that’s out. Watching their brains try to make heads or tails of the logic in their argument and their conflict was amusing and I kept waiting for their little heads to explode like matter meeting anti-matter.

And guess what?  We have the same sort of debate going on now regarding the helmet law. No, not for motorcycles this time, but for bicycles, however the arguments for and against is pretty much the same for both bikes and motorcycles – freedom to ride, adults making choices, and good for the environment to encourage riding, vs safety and preventing injuries on the other.  But for bikes it seems helmets are bad for bike use – people don’t wanna wear them. And its great fun to watch and point out the hypocrisy of their arguments about bike helmets – which are “good” in some ways and “bad” in others.

You see it seems that one of the biggest reason Seattle, a town that’s uber cool towards bike riders, has failed to have a successful bike-share program like every other big city seems to have, is that damn requirement that bike riders, just like us motorcycle riders, are required to wear a helmet. That’s why the bike-share failed the thinking goes. Helmets.

The helmet law created a bit of a problem when you are trying to both encourage bike riding and operate a bike-share program where folks can, on a whim, rent a bike from a street stand for a quick trip about the neighborhood. It seems most folks don’t walk around with a bike helmet on their person just in case they want to, on a whim, rent a bike from an unstaffed kiosk for an hour or two. And to comply with the law you must provide them with one somehow.

“Pronto” the Seattle bike-rent/share program generated about $9,000 in revenue each moth but costs taxpayers $205,000 a month. The city is finally pulling the plug on this waste of money later this spring and one of the reasons cited for its failure is the helmet law. Pronto has a “free” helmet use bin as part of its component. Yeah, I’m sure that helps a lot. Everyone wants to use a grungy old helmet that someone else has had on their head. I know I do!  Its why we all love wearing those bowling shoes from a bowling alley.

Bike share works in hundreds of cities world-wide. I’ve used them in New York and Salt Lake City and London. Seattle is only one of five that requires a helmet. Other cities like Mexico City, Tel Aviv and Dallas scrapped their helmet laws in anticipation of their bike-share program. Most transportation experts agree that the helmet law is probably the major contributing factor in the failure of Seattle’s bike-share program. It’s wasn’t the thigh-killing hills, nor is it the worst traffic in the nation, nor the endless rain that keeps Seattle from having a successful bike-share rental program. No, it’s that damn helmet law!

My goodness what’s a city council to do?    I can just picture the arguments in the corridors of City Hall.

“But hey, we are SEATTLE!!!! Bikes are big here.”

“We spend tons of money on roads and lanes for them, we WANT people to bike here.”

“But no one will use our bike-share program because they have to have a helmet!”

“I know! Let’s get rid of the helmet law!!!!” 

“Oh wait, that would hurt people, wouldn’t it?” 

“But we must have a bike share program, we can’t be the only real city without one?”

“But people will get hurt if we get rid of the helmet law.” “But we have to have a bike share program!”  And on and on until matter meets anti-matter and their heads explode – or so we can hope.

But in the end, the helmet law for bikes will stay while the bike share will be going away. The nanny state can’t give that up. But you never know. Maybe a similar argument could scrap the motorcycle helmet law too.  We just need to find the perfect environmental-ish argument against them. One that is so duplicitous, so full of conflicts, that the matter and anti-matter components will cause the little brains of policy makers to explode and cancel each other out. Just what that argument might be I have no idea.  Yet.  But I wanna be at the hearing on that one for sure! It will be fun to watch.


Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

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