The new state law requiring bicyclists under 16 to wear helmets hardly seems the most significant measure to pass the just-concluded General Assembly session. A violation of the law, which would take effect Oct. 1, amounts to only a civil offense. The "punishment"? Each youngster who gets caught bare-headed by the police would be given a warning and a pamphlet on proper helmet use. In fact, for every violator who is stopped, many others will merrily roll along; the police are busy enough chasing real criminals. This has been the case in Howard County since the passage in 1990 of a local helmet law that became the model for the Maryland measure.
Yet for all these apparent drawbacks, the new law must be viewed in a positive light if it has the expected effect of encouraging helmet use among more children in Maryland.
Every year in the United States, about 1,000 bicyclists are killed, 20,000 are admitted to hospitals and 600,000 receive treatment in emergency rooms. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has found that 75 percent of these deaths involve injuries to the head -- injuries that probably would have been prevented by protective head gear, medical experts say. (Last year in Maryland, 15 cyclists, including five children, died from accidental head blows. Nationally, children incur about 14 percent of all bike-related head injuries.)
Still, only about five percent of all children wear helmets while riding bikes. Former surgeon general Dr. C. Everett Koop has cited this fact when speaking of preventable injuries as the No. 1 killer of American children under 14.
Maryland lawmakers have tried to pass a bicycle helmet law during past sessions. They succeeded this time mainly because of an amendment that dropped adult cyclists from the headgear requirement. But this position literally defies gravity in implying that falls by adult cyclists are less injurious than those by children, even though the vast majority of bicycling deaths and injuries involve adults.
For adult cyclists and the parents of young bike-riders, common sense dictates that headgear is as essential as brakes. Maryland's new helmet measure, despite its shortcomings, should serve as a reminder of that fact. Gov. Parris N. Glendening ought to follow the advice of his top health officials and sign the bill into law.