Plan to make helmet wearing mandatory draws praise, fire

Posted: Friday, March 10, 2000

Kids on bikes and four-wheelers should wear helmets, most everyone agrees. But whether the law should make them do so is a matter of debate.

Rep. Allen Kemplen believes it should. The Anchorage Democrat has introduced bills requiring children under 16 to wear helmets while riding bikes or off-road vehicles, such as snowmachines and four-wheelers.

The idea drew praise from medical workers and safety advocates Thursday in a House Transportation Committee hearing.

Steve O'Connor, assistant chief at Central Emergency Services in Soldotna, said he's been to 300 to 400 accidents involving bicycles and off-road vehicles in his 28-year emergency medicine career.

``I've seen the difference that helmets make,'' he said.

Studies have shown helmets reduce the risk of serious head injury by 85 percent and the risk of brain injury by 88 percent, said Jane Fellman of the Kenai Peninsula Safe Kids Coalition.

Not everyone agreed mandating helmets is a good idea, though. Judy Murphy, who teaches effective cycling classes in Juneau, said she favors education instead.

``I don't think the answer is mandatory requirements,'' she said. She's bothered by such laws because, she said, ``It's the police state kind of thing.''

Juneau resident Dennis Harris, who uses a bicycle as his primary means of transportation, agreed. A law would give police ``another excuse to pick on poor kids'' or children whose parents don't speak English, he said.

Education and parental guidance is a better approach, he said. ``I believe in Dad's helmet law, not a state helmet law.''

However, Chris Knight, a Kemplen aide, said helmet laws save children from potentially devastating injuries. In the 16 states with such laws, the rate of head injuries has declined, he said, and that saves the public money.

Medical costs for bicyclists not wearing helmets are 57 percent greater than for those wearing helmets, he said. Forty percent of those hospitalized with bicycle-related injuries were uninsured or covered by the government Medicaid program, he said, which means the public helps pick up the cost.

The lifetime cost of care for a child with a severe head injury can be more than $4.5 million, Knight said.

Grants are available for groups to provide safety information and give out helmets, so cost shouldn't prevent a child from getting a helmet, he said.

Under the bills, violators would be fined up to $25 for the first offense and $50 for a second offense.

The helmet requirements are contained in two separate bills - House Bill 282 for off-road vehicles, and House Bill 283 for bicycles.

A proposed committee change to HB 282 would require off-road vehicle dealers to sell helmets every time a vehicle is sold unless the buyer signs a waiver of his or her right to receive a helmet.

Neither bill moved out of the Transportation Committee on Thursday. Committee Chairman Andrew Halcro suggested changes be made and more public comment taken later.

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