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County may opt out of helmet law // WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY?

By about 6 p.m., Thursday was the kind of summer evening that made you want to get out on a bicycle and cool down with the wind tugging at your hair.

On the Withlacoochee State Trail that day, a mother and father straggled behind the training-wheeled bike of their 5-year-old son, who _ against his wishes _ was wearing a helmet.

Minutes before, the boy had lost his balance and tipped over, taking an innocuous spill at slow speed.

Irritated, the boy had stood up and thrust his newly purchased helmet toward his mother, Teresa Kuechle. As his father, Larry Kuechle, recalled, the boy had said: "I hate this helmet."

Helmet-free was not an option, so Kuechle said his son grudgingly acquiesced. Kuechle will not accept any less when it comes to the safety of his son.

But he also said he thinks parents should be responsible for making that decision _ not government.

"If they get hurt, it's our fault. It's not the government's fault," Kuechle said. "They're making more laws and more laws and more laws. Soon you won't be able to do anything."

Kuechle's words echoed the sentiments of Citrus County commissioners, who in their last public discussion of the state's new bike helmet law decried "Big Brother government" and decided to formally consider adopting an ordinance that would exempt the county from most of the law's provisions.

Some other parents say they cannot understand why commissioners would be against a law geared to save lives and cut down on injuries.

"It was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard," said Cynthia Cino, a mother of seven and wife of commission candidate Joe Cino.

Cino, a registered nurse, said her children "don't go out the door without a helmet on their head."

The law, she said, would force many more children to do the same.

Her family knows the possible consequences of riding without a helmet.

In January 1976, back before people used helmets much, her 9-year-old brother, Matthew Joseph McMahon, was riding his bicycle alongside the road when a car hit him. He landed on his head and died of a skull fracture.

"My brother would have been 30 years old," Cino said, a note of long-held grief in her voice. "He's gone."

If the law saves one life, she said, it is worth it.

Government, after all, is the ultimate setter of rules.

There are plenty of similar rules in children's sports, Cino said. Batters must wear helmets and catchers must wear masks and a list of other pads.

"For God's sake," Cino said, "we protect their gonads in little league soccer."

Of course, as many parents know, children tend not to be thrilled about wearing a bulky bike helmet _ especially in front of their friends.

Statistics also suggest that boys tend to be less conscious of safety than girls. According to facts compiled by the National Safe Kids Campaign in Washington, D.C., male bicycle riders die at a greater rate than female riders in all age categories.

Lorie Day, a Republican state committeewoman from Citrus, supports the bike helmet law. The reason commissioners generally feel differently, she said, may boil down to gender.

"I know most of the commissioners are against it," she said. "I think it's because they're mostly boys and I think they would feel restricted."

Day, a mother and grandmother, subscribes to the conservative school of thought that government generally should intrude less into the realm of private decision-making.

Still, when the safety of children is at stake, she said, "they should interfere."