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Helmet law would ease great risk for young bicyclists

So many times we Floridians read or hear that our state compares dismally with others on quality-of-life indicators. But this month we have an opportunity to turn one of those dismal negatives into a positive.

Florida is the most dangerous state in the country in which to ride a bicycle, with more bicycle fatalities per capita over the last 10 years than any other state. In 1992 alone, 107 bicyclists died on our roads and more than 50,000 visited hospital emergency rooms for treatment of injuries.

You would think that with that kind of record, state officials would be stumbling over themselves to stop the carnage. But in the state Legislature last week, sponsors of bills designed to reduce deaths and injuries to bicyclists found themselves pedaling uphill. Just getting their bills on the agenda for committee hearings was difficult. Why? Because the bills would force all bicycle riders under 16 to wear helmets.

It ought to be easy to pass bills like this that make sense and simply require us to do the right thing. After all, we aren't a people who would watch children die and not do something to help prevent deaths, are we?

Well . . . bicycle helmets cost money, argued some of the reluctant legislators. (Never mind that those people who say they can't afford a helmet somehow managed to afford a bicycle.) And shouldn't parents be the ones to tell their children to wear a helmet? asked other legislators. (Do they forget that the Legislature already has mandated seat belts or safety seats for children riding in automobiles?)

The sponsors of the bills, Rep. Julie McClure, D-Bradenton, and Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, just kept slogging along. McClure managed to get her bill through the House Transportation Committee with only a few negative votes. In the Senate, Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, resisted putting the bill on the agenda for a committee hearing because of the cost of helmets. But the medical and child protection communities exerted enough pressure that he finally relented, McClure said Friday.

Neither Sullivan nor McClure can understand such resistance. Sullivan, an orthopedic surgeon, is particularly insistent that Florida have a helmet law. He treated plenty of separated shoulders and injuries to the nerves of arms in his practice, he said. He's grateful he didn't have to treat the head injuries that are so common with bicycle accidents and can result in permanent disability.

"In a bicycle accident, you usually go over the handlebars and land on your head or shoulder," he said. "It happens so fast that no one ever gets a hand out to break their fall. If you land on your head and have a helmet on, you walk away from it. If you don't have on a helmet, you don't."

The reported statistics support his claim. In 1992, 20 children who weren't wearing bicycle helmets were killed in Florida. None wearing helmets were killed.

Sullivan said legislators' reluctance because of helmet prices is no longer relevant. He knows of one company that imports foreign-made bicycle helmets that meet all American safety standards and look good, too, but cost only about $6.

"If you can buy a bicycle, is it unreasonable to expect someone to pay $6 for a helmet? I don't think it is," he said.

McClure, a native of Georgia, notes that even notoriously conservative states such as Georgia and Tennessee have passed mandatory-helmet laws for children. Nine states have such laws. If Florida passed one, it could be ahead of most of the rest of the nation.

McClure's bill has several common-sense provisions in addition to the one requiring all bicycle riders under 16 to wear helmets. A child under 4 carried on the back of a bicycle would have to be in an approved child carrier and would have to wear a helmet. The person driving the bicycle could not leave the child in the carrier unattended. Children left under such circumstances have been hurt or even killed when the bicycles toppled.

A Tampa Bay talk radio host last week railed against the bill, raising the specter of cops chasing down kids and hauling them away because they didn't have on helmets. But McClure was exceptionally careful to give law enforcement and the courts a lot of latitude in her bill. A violation of any of the provisions would carry a fine of $25. But the fine could be waived if, within 10 days, the child or parent provided proof that a helmet had been purchased. Those who couldn't pay the fine could be given community service. The law would take effect Oct. 1.

McClure and Sullivan also are working to find a way the state could provide free or low-cost helmets for low-income children.

McClure believes that in order to get her bill passed on the House floor, she will have to support an amendment that would allow counties to opt out of the provision. Bicycle accidents are a far greater problem in heavily developed counties, she concedes, though she hopes that no county in Florida would decline the opportunity to keep its children safer.

Many of the state legislators grew up in a time when and place where no one gave a thought to bicycle helmets. They rode their bicycles to school or around their neighborhoods in relative safety, perhaps getting a scraped knee or toe sometimes.

But Florida has grown and changed. Today bicyclists are in deadly competition with automobiles on congested streets. Bicycles also are engineered to go faster than they were years ago. We aren't talking about scrapes anymore. We are talking about children dying, about concussions, about being brain-damaged for life.

Though bicycle helmets are worn increasingly by adult bicyclists, you'll see few children in them. It isn't always a matter of parents' being careless or uneducated. There is tremendous peer pressure on children, especially older ones, not to be seen in a bicycle helmet. Helmets just aren't cool.

Several national organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have bankrolled extensive educational campaigns to persuade parents to put their children in helmets. But change is happening at a snail's pace, and meanwhile, children continue to suffer and die.

It is going to take a law. This isn't such a big step to take, but it will do tremendous good. Legislators who vote for these bills will be able to declare at election time _ truthfully _ that they helped to make the state safer for children.

For once, let's be known for something positive.

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the Times' North Pinellas editions.

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