Howard gears up for bike helmet law

Eight-year-old Julie Kurtzman had all the necessary equipment when she pedaled her bicycle up Carrillon Drive in Ellicott City to sell Girl Scout cookies. Her Brownie uniform and cap were neat and her order form was in hand.

Come Monday, however, she'll have to add another piece of equipment to her outfit, as a Howard County law takes effect that requires children under age 16 to wear protective headgear while riding bikes on county-maintained roads.


Nancy Kurtzman, who rode a bicycle next to her daughter, realized she was near the deadline for buying a helmet for Julie and her 6-year-old son.

"It's on our list of things to do," she said. "We probably will buy them this weekend along with everybody else in Howard County."


Kurtzman, like many Howard County residents, isn't thrilled with the law -- which the County Council passed May 7 -- but said she will comply with the measure, the first in the nation mandating that bicycle operators wear helmets.

County officials came in for much criticism for the bill, including some residents' charges of local government playing "big brother." After some political bickering, a council majority ultimately was moved by statistics that showed 75 percent of all bicycle-related deaths are caused by head trauma and that 85 percent of cycling head injuries could be prevented with helmet use.

Across the county, people are gearing up for the new law. Councilman Charles Feaga, R-5th, sponsored it in response to ++ Glenwood Middle School students and teachers who were saddened by two fatal bicycle accidents -- one involving a classmate, the other a former student.

Even before the legislation, concern about bicycle safety was growing in Howard County and elsewhere. Since the bill was introduced, interest has surged.

The result?

Helmet sales in bicycle shops have soared. Parent-teacher associations at various schools are holding down helmet prices by ordering large quantities. The county's public schools are expanding bicycle safety programs and the county police have developed a policy to enforce the law without having to hunt down kids like criminals.

"I see a lot more bicyclists wearing helmets," said Jim Matsakis of Elkridge, a board member of the 2,400-member Baltimore Bicycling Club. "Last week, about half of the elementary-age kids riding bikes had helmets."

Under the helmet-law policy developed by police Lt. Jay Zumbrun, children under 16 will have a three-month grace period to comply with the law. Officers will distribute bicycle-safety literature to any child riding a bicycle without a helmet and record the violation, but will not issue a citation during that period.


After Jan. 1, officers will distribute the information and write reports on the first and second times that a child violates the law, but still not issue a citation. When a child is stopped a third time, the parents will be called into police headquarters. If they fail to bring proof that a helmet has been bought, they would be cited with a $50 fine.

Sgt. Bo Haslup said officers will not try to intimidate youngsters.

"They're just going to approach them," Haslup, a member of County Executive Elizabeth Bobo's bicycle helmet advisory committee, said at a meeting of the group Monday. "If they run, they're not going to chase them."

Police Chief Frederick W. Chaney indicated that officers might take stronger action if it is obvious that a child is flagrantly violating the law, but said he expects cooperation from parents.

He added that the department will investigate anonymous complaints as it does with the county's law that restricts smoking in some places. But he said the county will not need to hire more officers to enforce the helmet law.

Stephen Duckworth, supervisor of physical education at Howard County public schools, issued a memo to all physical education teachers reminding them to discuss the law with children.


Duckworth said the schools are aiming their bicycle-safety program at middle school students, who will have a complete curriculum involving a book, a lesson plan and materials in either physical education or reading classes. The owner of a Columbia sporting goods store will address school assemblies.

Sessions with elementary students will center on a 25-minute video called "Bicycle Safety Camp" that was produced by the American Academy of Pediatrics and distributed by a New Jersey pharmaceutical firm.

"The one group we're not sure how we're going to reach are the high school kids," Duckworth conceded, adding that the exception is at Glenelg High, where a physical education instructor teaches a three-week course on biking.

"I think, like anything else, it's going to take continuous education of people to have the total effect of everyone wearing helmets," he said. "And I think it's going to have to come from schools and it's going to have to come from parents."

Duckworth said some PTAs have organized sales of nearly 200 helmets from Maryland stores and distributors.

The helmet business is booming at Fuller's Cyclery and other area bicycle and sporting goods stores. Ron Fuller complains, however, that the law should have required bikers of all ages to wear helmets, as it did when the council passed it. A subsequent amendment limited the bill to children under 16.


"I think there have been more sales in adult helmets, but what I'm seeing is they want to conform to the law for their kids," said Fuller, owner of the bicycle shop that operates from a step-van.

A former bike-racing champion, Fuller had this message for adults: "Even though the law says you don't have to wear a helmet, don't be a fool."

How the law will work

On Monday, a new Howard County law governing bicycle safety takes effect. Under the measure:

* Children under age 16 will have to wear a helmet approved by the American National Standards Institute or the Snell Memorial Foundation while riding a bicycle on roads maintained by the county. The law will not apply on state roads or on the more than 60 miles of bicycle pathways maintained by the Columbia Association.

* Police will honor a three-month grace period before beginning to issue citations after Jan. 1.


* After the third warning, parents of violators will be asked to show proof of helmet ownership. Failure to do so would result in a $50 fine. A subsequent offense within a year would carry a $100 fine.