Riders Say Police Warn, But Don't Ticket Helmet Scofflaws

June 30, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

Brian Cugle, 14, of Ellicott City, doesn't wear a bicycle helmet. Neither do most of his friends.

"Only the real ego-trip cops worry about hassling kids about the bicycle helmet law," Brian said. "Most of the time, the police just drive right by and yell at you, 'Hey, where's your helmet?' "

Bill D'Ambrisi, 11, also of Ellicott City, won't wear a helmet, either. "Motorcycle riders don't have to wear them," he said while riding along a quiet stretch of Linwood Drive, right across the street from police headquarters.

"Does it look to you like it's dangerous to ride a bike around here without a helmet?"

Neither of the two boys have ever gotten even a written warning from police, who say thatbusting bikers without helmets is on the same priority level as ticketing dog owners for not cleaning up their pet's messy trail.

Since its passage last October, Howard County's bicycle helmet law -- which requires every cyclist younger than 16 to wear protective headgear-- has yet to strike fear into helmetless scofflaws.

As of Friday, police had not issued a helmet law citation and had written less than a dozen warnings.

"This is not a high enforcement priority for us. It's an educational program," said Lt. Jay Zumbrun, who wrote thedepartment's bicycle helmet policies.

"You won't find any of us chasing kids up and down the street because they aren't wearing a helmet," he said. "We're just trying to educate people to look out for themselves."

Under the department's policy, a cyclist must rack up three warnings before a civil citation is issued. Those violations arepunishable by fines of up to $50 for a first offense and $100 for subsequent offenses.

But those fines are academic since few patrol officers want to take the time away from regular police work to levy fines on young bicycle riders. Wednesday, police began assigning cadets to county neighborhoods, where they will pass out brochures to helmet law violators.

"Most kids are receptive to wearing bike helmetswithout any prodding from us," said Sgt. Bo Haslup, who heads the county police youth services division. "I see a lot of kids out there wearing helmets, more now than ever before."

Police say the mere passage of the law last October, along with a public education campaignin county schools, has raised awareness of bicycle safety issues andspurred many youths to begin wearing helmets.

A state study recently coordinated in Howard County shows that roughly 50 percent of thebicyclists seen along county roads and pathways were wearing helmets, said Andrew L. Dannenberg, an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins University Injury Prevention Center.

The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversaw the study, refused to releaseany information until all the data was computed.

Dannenberg, who worked on the study and who also has prepared a bicycle safety questionnaire being circulated in Howard County schools, said a 50-percent compliance rate is unusually high.

Studies indicate that only about 5 percent to 10 percent of all bicyclists wear helmets, so "when wecan get that number up to 50 percent, it's doing better than education ever did at its best," Dannenberg said.

"Even if you don't haveheavy-handed enforcement, a law still helps bring compliance becauseit raises awareness in parents, teachers, and friends," Dannenberg said. "It also brings forth some peer pressure. When you have all thatgoing for you, you don't need police."

The police are more than satisfied to maintain a low profile and aren't planning to "throw the book" at helmet lawbreakers anytime soon.

"My own view is that there isn't a lot of compliance, but there's not a lot we're going to doas far as cracking down on kids not wearing helmets," said Sgt. Lee Goldman, a supervisor in the county police patrol division. "I've pulled up to kids and just said, 'Don't forget your bicycle helmet.' "

But the future seems to be bringing in more helmet law legislation.Howard County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, said he believes the law has been a success and said local governments from approximately 40 other states have asked for copies of the bill.

"I can't think of many states who haven't expressed some interest in it," Feaga said. "I think that in two or three years, just about everyone will bewearing bicycle helmets."

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