City approves helmet law

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Though a majority of Columbus Transportation and Pedestrian commissioners publicly support a proposed youth bicycle helmet law, some still have questions.

At a meeting July 10, commissioners, city officials and community members heard several informational presentations regarding the proposed law, requiring cyclists under 18 to wear helmets.  Columbus City Council members previously asked the commission to review the proposed law and comment on it, which has already gone through a first reading and public hearing before being tabled.

Introduced by Councilwoman Charleta Tavares, the proposed law is a product of modification to the city’s bike code. City officials are reworking the city’s bike codes to align with the recently approved Bicentennial Bikeways Plan.

James Ragland, legislative aide to Tavares, highlighted the proposed law for commissioners. As proposed, the law would require youth between one and 18 years of age to wear helmets as either riders or passengers on bicycles. The proposed law would also prohibit children under one as passengers as their necks are not developed enough to handle the strains of cycling.

One of Tavares’s goals for the law would also be to help alter city bike codes to be in line with state bicycle laws, which ultimately would help in enforcing the proposed helmet law, said Ragland. Current issues with the city’s bike laws include a ban on bicyclists riding on sidewalks. Updating the city’s bike laws would lift the ban, according to Ragland.

“Councilwoman Tavares is not proposing moving all bicycles to sidewalks,” Ragland said. “She respects bicyclists. She’s looking more toward the youth and making the provision for youth to ride on the sidewalks until they are prepared to handle the rigors of riding on the street.”

Doctor Gary Smith of Nationwide Children’s Hospital is a local expert on the safety of youth bicycle helmets and presented the advantages of having a youth safety helmet law. Among other roles, Smith is the director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Research Institute at the hospital, and has seen the effects of poor bicycle safety habits.

Each year, Smith said, more than 275,000 children are treated in hospital emergency departments nationwide for bicycle-related injuries, and an average of 140 children ages 14 and younger are killed while riding bicycles.

“We know the proven strategy to prevent serious brain injury is wearing a helmet,” Smith said. “When worn, the helmet decreases brain injury by 88 percent. And helmets are inexpensive and readily available.”

Wearing the helmet alone can decrease injury, but coupled with a mandatory law, Smith said, the health care industry would see a decrease in bicycling-related injuries.

“There are 15 studies out that say helmet laws lead to an increase in helmet usage, which results in a decrease in brain injury,” Smith said.

Smith recognized views opponents to the proposed law may have, including decrease in ridership and a burden on local law enforcement. However, he added, several studies done in communities with mandatory helmet laws show no change in ridership. And as far as law enforcement, several studies have shown very few tickets have been written. In fact, Smith said, the law has helped public relations between youth and law enforcement.

After Smith’s presentation, several commissioners voiced concern about the cost of bicycle helmets, and the availability of helmets for the disadvantaged. According to Smith, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, as well as the Columbus Bicycle Safety Coalition, a conglomerate of local associations and hospitals, will “work hard so that children who can’t afford a helmet will get a free one or one at reduced cost, if the law is passed.”

Suzanne Minnich, representative for the Brain Injury Association of Ohio, agreed with Smith that prevention is the only cure for brain injury.

“Education is not enough,” she said. “It takes education and law.”

A member of Consider Biking, John Gideon, said the organization is not opposed to the proposed helmet law for youth in general. However, he said, the proposed law’s language holds many problems, including the prohibition of children younger than one as a passenger on a bicycle or bicycle trailer.

“I think it is counterproductive from getting parents to get even the youngest of kids into biking,” Gideon said.

Commissioner Michael Wilkos gave his support of the proposed law, but asked if other agencies would better enforce the law so as not to “criminalize not wearing a helmet.”

According to Ragland, if passed, the law would have a 12-month grace period before taking effect, so as to familiarize parents with the law.

“We hope the educational component will promote a change in culture in wearing bike helmets,” Ragland said. “We are of the mindset that we do not have other departments that have the capacity to enforce the law.”

Chief Prosecuting Attorney Lara Baker responded to questions regarding fines juveniles would receive if they violate the proposed law. A traffic ticket would be issued by the local police department, and the juvenile would be informed of a court date. Juveniles could receive a $25 fine, not including court costs, should a judge desire to reprimand the youth.

After a brief discussion by officials regarding the language of the proposed law as well as council’s intentions according to Ragland, Commissioner Marc Conte made a motion to support the spirit of a mandatory child helmet law.

However, Wilkos disagreed with supporting “the spirit” of a law, which lead to Conte withdrawing his motion.

Before ending the meeting, commissioners agreed that the separation of the proposed law and the city’s bike codes would be the best. City Engineer Randall Bowman agreed to put together a memo with the commission’s comments and concerns to present to council for the regular meeting that occurred Monday.

“I think we are here to try to support the effort as best we can,” said Jeff Stephens, chairman of the commission and member of Consider Biking.

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