Children riding bicycles in Maryland would have to wear helmets after Oct. 1 under a measure approved by the General Assembly yesterday.
The legislation would require anyone under 16 to wear protective headgear that meets national standards when riding a bike. The bill was sent to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has not said if he will sign it.
Under the measure, young scofflaws would receive a warning from police and an educational pamphlet about helmet use. Failure to use a helmet would be a civil -- not criminal -- offense.
Children riding in commercial rickshaws, such as those commonly rented around Baltimore's Inner Harbor and in Annapolis, or on bikes on Ocean City's Boardwalk would be exempt from the helmet requirement.
The legislation passed the Senate yesterday, 39-8. It was approved by the House of Delegates last month.
In the past, the state has required motorcyclists to wear helmets, but never bicyclists. The bill approved yesterday stops well short of the universal helmet requirement -- which would have included adults -- that bicycle-safety advocates sought.
"It's just as important to have adults protected," said Ellen Schmidt, chief of the injury prevention division at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
She added, however, "Protecting half the population is better than none."
A growing concern about bicycle-related head injuries and fatalities has led three Maryland counties -- Howard, Montgomery and Allegany -- to adopt their own helmet rules for children in recent years.
Statewide, 15 Marylanders -- including five children -- died of head-related injuries in bicycle accidents last year.
About 150 adults and children suffered nonfatal head injuries, ranging from concussions to fractured skulls, that required treatment at Maryland hospitals between April 1993 and March 1994. Helmets would have prevented nearly 90 percent of those injuries, state health officials say.
Supporters argue that in addition to lives, helmet use can save on medical bills. For every dollar spent on helmets, they estimate taxpayers and consumers will save $2 in medical costs.
An unadorned, basic model helmet costs as little as $10 at a chain discount store, Ms. Schmidt said, with commonly used models going for as much as $40.
Baltimore health commissioner Peter L. Beilenson was among those urging passage of the bill. "The kind of serious head injuries likely to result from bicycle accidents in city traffic would be minimized if more people wore helmets," Dr. Beilenson told lawmakers.
"The substantial savings in medical expenses would benefit all citizens," he said.
When Democratic Del. Mary A. Conroy of Prince George's County introduced the bill, it applied to all bicycle riders, including adults. The bill was amended after some lawmakers complained that it was an attempt to legislate common sense.
Others said the bill would be too intrusive into adult lives.
A few safety advocates now dispute the benefits of a bill focusing solely on children, and say they would like the governor to veto the bill so they can start from scratch next year.
"Its primary purpose is to educate children, but it sends the wrong message," said William Clark of Greenbelt, a member of the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club. "We feel children won't take it seriously unless it applies to adults."
But Sen. Arthur Dorman, a Prince George's Democrat who sponsored a similar bill in the Senate, disagreed.
He said the Howard County ordinance led to a dramatic increase in the use of helmets among children there after its adoption in 1990.
"If we can save one severe head injury, it's well worth it," Senator Dorman said.