Teens lobby for skating helmet law

Fatal accident spurs students to visit legislators

February 03, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The kids were prowling the halls of the James Senate Office building yesterday, lining up votes for a bill filed in honor of a dead friend.

They want the General Assembly to require children under 16 to wear helmets when using in-line skates, just as the state requires bicyclists to wear helmets. Since 1992, at least 27 children have been killed across the country while in-line skating. Their friend, Casey Athman, was one of them.

A helmet might have saved his life. The bill might save someone else's life. It seems an easy sale, but the bill must go through the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Success depends on knocking on doors, meeting senators and making a sales pitch like all the other lobbyists who descend upon Annapolis for the 90-day annual legislative session.

So, Senate Bill 8 has become a real-life civics lesson for the high-school students from the Hannah More School in Reisterstown. From the time Sen. Paula C. Hollinger challenged them to research their idea to yesterday's public hearing, they have learned that politics requires a personal touch, information and a godfather or, in this case, a godmother to smooth the way.

After Athman's death in May 1998, the students built a memorial garden at the Baltimore County private school. It was a good gesture, but they felt it was too intimate, too self-contained. They wanted to do something that might save a life.

They asked for a law. Hollinger challenged them to research the subject and to get back to her. Many thought it would be a waste of time. Others went to work on the idea. Aaron Jackson, 17, called area hospitals for information. Michael Hilton, 17, searched the Internet. Elizabeth Addison, 16, compiled the data. Joseph Kacvinsky, 16, became the public face, the one television crews filmed when he skated around the State House last month.

Yesterday, they came to argue their case in front of the whole 10-member committee. Like seasoned lobbyists, they knew it was best to go in having already worked the room.

"We've got yesses, but no no's," says Hilton, looking at his roster of elected officials. He says Senators Leo E. Green, Ralph M. Hughes and Clarence M. Mitchell IV have committed.

Kacvinsky runs through his testimony, then they head out to work the halls. They stop by Hollinger's office for a pep talk.

"This is the toughest committee in the state legislature. They don't like to pass bills and they don't like to tell people what to do," she says. "Let's put them to the test and see if you can humanize this process."

Next stop is Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson. They crowd into his office. Ferguson, it turns out, is an easy touch. He makes his son wear a helmet.

"So, it would be foolish for me not to support the bill," he says. "You got my vote."

"Excellent!" the students say.

Outside the senator's office, there are smiles and high-fives.

It is as if they had been holding their breath the entire time and can now breathe. The air has a scent of victory.

"We're heading to the stars," says Jackson.

Nicole Ferry, a social worker at Hannah More, grabs Kacvinsky by the chin and looks into his eyes. "We're taking that energy with you. Come on, smile."

They wait outside Sen. Richard F. Colburn's office. He's on the phone.

"We only need him for about 30 seconds," says Hilton.

"Thirty seconds?" says a skeptical secretary. "We're going to time you."

"OK, go ahead," says Hilton with all the easy confidence of a 17-year-old.

Outside the senator's office, Addison runs the vote tally through her head. "I'm telling you, we have the votes we need," she says. "We have Jimeno's vote. We have the votes."

After lunch, they head up to room 300, the domain of Sen. Walter M. Baker, committee chairman.

He scans the witness list. Almost a dozen people -- doctors, nurses, advocates for children's safety -- are listed. He gives an order.

"I have no problem with you coming up and saying `Amen' to what the last witness said, but don't give us the whole load of hay," he says.

Hollinger pleads their case, retells the bill's history.

"I would hope that you would give them the opportunity to have success," she says. "If it saves one life, then we will be doing something. It's not too much to ask."

Kacvinsky lays down the numbers: There are more than 17 million in-line skaters nationwide; more than a quarter-million children are sent to doctors offices and emergency rooms each year for skating injuries; helmets reduce the risk of brain injury by 88 percent. The more than two dozen fatalities since 1992 have been documented by the National Safe Kids Campaign.

"On behalf of the children whose lives you may save by voting yes on this bill, thank you," Kacvinsky said.

Afterward, Sen. Philip C. Jimeno says the students' lobbying has tipped him over to their side. Baker sounds mildly promising. After all, the bicycle helmet law came out of his committee.

The problem, Baker says, is that the bill is making a law out of what should be a parent's responsibility.

"Do you think if we pass a law it will affect the wearing of helmets one iota?" he asks, then adds, "Maybe this bill will raise the consciousness of parents."

Outside, the students are satisfied. All they can do is wait for the vote -- not yet scheduled -- and another glimpse of real world politics.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights:

House of Delegates meets. 10 a.m. House chamber.

Senate meets. 10 a.m. Senate chamber.

Senate Finance and House Economic Matters Committees joint hearing on bills to encourage Internet business transactions and set uniform standards for computer software warranties. 2: 30 p.m. Legislative Services Building, joint hearing room.

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