Moped safety: To helmet or not to helmet?

The Top Story by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

Gas prices are up, up and away, and moped sales, and ridership, are right there with them, exposing a gray area in Virginia law that allows moped riders to do their thing without needing to adhere to the requirements regarding helmet use that are mandated on motorcycle riders.

Localities are permitted to address the helmet issue through local ordinances, and more and more across the Commonwealth are looking at doing just that. Augusta County has already passed a helmet ordinance, and Waynesboro, which has been looking at amending its city code to require that moped riders wear helmets for the past year, will be addressing the helmet issue more formally beginning tonight with a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would mandate helmet usage.

An accident that led to the death of 50-year-old James Michael Baber of Waynesboro earlier this month helped bring the issue back into the public spotlight in the River City. “That definitely renewed the thought that we need to get on top of this sooner rather than later,” City Councilwoman Lorie Smith said.

“When you look at the state code with the requirement for bicycle helmets for those 14 and younger, and then we understand the requirements for helmets for those riding motorcycles, simple logic asks, Why we aren’t requiring those riding mopeds to do the same?” Smith said. “It is a safety issue. I am seeing a lot more mopeds on the roads these days with higher gas prices, and we’d be protecting them by requiring helmets, and we’d be creating a much smoother vehicular transition on the roadways for everybody.

“I think it only makes sense for us to require this. If people riding bicycles and motorcycles are required to wear helmets, why not mopeds? This is a common-sense approach to safety,” Smith said.

Fellow Councilwoman Nancy Dowdy jumpstarted the latest discussion with respect to moped-helmet laws in Waynesboro. “It used to be something that you didn’t see much of on the roads. But we’re in a position now where we’re going to be seeing them more and more. So it’s something we certainly need to be cognizant of and ahead of the curve on,” Dowdy said.

Dowdy agrees with me on one key point on this issue regarding issues involving the long-term impact on families and communities from head-trauma injuries that are most commonly associated with moped accidents and bicycle and motorcycle accidents all the same. “The main result of an accident like that is head trauma. And what happens is a lifelong result of that head trauma. Nine times out of 10 you’re going to end up disabled. And as we both know, that means it’s going to cost the community,” Dowdy said.

The head-trauma issue is driven by simple physics. “The closing speed to the pavement is what determines how hard you’re going to hit. And from that point of view, the moped rider has his head up at least as high as a bicycle rider. So gravity is going to accelerate you toward the ground in just the same way. And there may be some additional energy, especially if it’s a fast moped,” said Randy Swart, the director of the Northern Virginia-based Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, which recommends that moped riders wear a light-motorcyle helmet when traveling on roadways.

“The issue is that you’re always riding in traffic, and things happen in traffic,” Swart said. “People make mistakes, and whether or not you are the best moped rider in the world, your chances of crashing are significant, because you’re always riding in traffic. People on bicycles usually try to get off onto quiet streets or even use trails, but people on mopeds don’t tend to do that. They tend to ride with the traffic on the main roads.”

Augusta County Board of Supervisors member Nancy Sorrells can address the safety issue from a personal perspective. She speaks with drivers-ed classes in county high schools about her own brush with injury that came when she was involved in a collision with a car while riding her bike a few years ago. “I can tell you the difference between a helmet and not is the difference between walking away or being in intensive care, or worse,” said Sorrells, who represents the Riverheads District on the board of supervisors.

I like the county’s approach to its new helmet ordinance, which had the sheriff’s department delivering warnings and county-printed safety brochures to moped riders in the interim after the passage of the ordinance. “We tried to do it in a positive manner, not to collect fines. The reason to have these laws in place is not to collect fine money. The reason is to ensure that people are safe when they’re out on the roads,” Sorrells said.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t opposition to helmet laws. A recent News Virginian op-ed laid out the libertarian case to that effect, though significantly neither Dowdy nor Smith have heard from local critics of the helmet effort, and neither have I.

“I know that there are some in our community who have been vocal in saying that this is government getting involved in people’s personal lives. But I think it’s a safety issue. And if we can codify things that go along with what we have in the code with bikes and motorcyles, then that only makes sense,” Smith said.

 

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