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Bizarre logic wins the case against helmets in Milton

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on May 30, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
May 30, 2012 4:21 pm

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

Let’s get this straight: Milton must let bicyclists and skateboarders endanger themselves because they might sue the city if they hurt themselves?

We’ll have to let the trial attorneys explain that pretzel of logic; we sure can’t figure it out.

The Milton City Council last week repealed its 12-year-old ordinance requiring skateboarders and other rolling daredevils to wear helmets at the Milltown Commons Skatepark, a popular attraction for area skaters.

City officials cited two reasons for ditching the ordinance. Blame the state for one of them; blame the bizarre quirks of litigation for the other.

And maybe throw in some blame for the City of Milton, too – for an overabundance of timidity.

The town’s leaders cite the State of Washington’s failure to require helmets as a reason the city shouldn’t require them, either.

But the state is negligent about many things; it’s not necessarily a great role model for cities and counties. Washington ought to have a statewide helmet law, given that taxpayers usually wind up on the hook for the medical expenses when an unhelmeted skater or bicyclist accidentally substitutes his cranium for his brakes.

Jurisdictions surrounding Milton – Tacoma, Puyallup, unincorporated Pierce and King counties – require helmets; they aren’t intimidated by the state’s low standards.

But the biggest problem in this case has to do with the intricacies of tort law. According to Mayor Debra Perry, the city’s insurance adviser has told the City Council that an unenforced helmet ordinance is worse than no helmet ordinance at all if an injured skateboarder comes after the city in court.

Milton’s police reportedly don’t want to enforce the regulation, arguing that officers get pulled in too many directions to respond to helmet complaints from the skatepark.

Still, even a spottily enforced ordinance has some value. At a minimum, it serves to communicate public expectations. Oddly enough, there are people who obey the law just because they believe in obeying the law. We don’t doubt the legal acumen of the people who are anticipating Milton’s litigation risks, but in this case, the law’s an ass.

The Legislature could help by a) passing a statewide helmet law, and b) providing legal cover so municipalities aren’t punished for their good deeds. A city should not have to throw its safety regulations out the window if it’s short on funding for law enforcement.

You could argue that this is too trivial an offense for anyone to bother with, or maybe that it’s a free country and anybody should be able to do whatever they want.

But a serious head injury is not trivial, either for the person who suffers it or for the people who pay for it – typically Medicaid or other public insurers, or private insurers who pass the costs on to their more sensible subscribers.

As for the freedom issue, how about the freedom of taxpayers who get forced to subsidize foolishness?

One remedy would be for the helmet-haters to renounce all claims to publicly funded care in the event of preventable brain injuries.

Any takers on that one? We didn’t think so.

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