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California helmet law: early implementation

Summary: This article outlines some issues in the early implementation of California's helmet laws in 1995.

San Jose Mercury News
Friday, March 31, 1995

No Bike Helmet? Listen here
Helmet-less bikers get stern lectures,
not $25 tickets.

Follow-up: Cyclists without headgear are likely
to get talk, not a ticket.

by Bill Romano, Mercury News Staff Writer

Three months after they began enforcing a state law that requires children to wear bicycle helmets, local police agencies haven't issued many tickets to youthful offenders.

Palo Alto has handed out only 30 or 35, San Jose fewer than 10.

In most cases, police officials say they are still relying on discretion and a good talking-to to get kids to comply, rather than giving first time offenders the $25 tickets provided for in the statute since Jan. 1.

But that doesn't mean all youngsters are abiding by the rule. Just two weeks ago, a 15-year old boy died of head injuries when he was thrown from his bicycle in Milpitas' Ed Levin Park.

Although he had a helmet, the protective gear was in his backpack. If the boy had been wearing the helmet, assistant coroner Parviz Pakdaman said, he probably would have survived.

"Wearing a helmet takes away the risk of dying from a head Injury," said Dr. Jeffery Englander, who treats head trauma at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. "I've had a number of patients who survived because they wore helmets. Their helmets cracked, but they didn't."

Englander said California seems to be in "transition" - many people are still getting used to the idea of wearing helmets while biking. Most preschoolers and younger children are accustomed to wearing headgear, but many of junior high school age and older are apparently not adjusting as rapidly to the practice, he said.

"The big thing kids seem to be trying to deal with is `the cool factor' " said Palo Alto police Sgt. Brad Zook. Youngsters seem to think that the helmets "mess up their hair" or that a helmet "doesn't look cool," Zook said.

Many youngsters in Palo Alto have helmets, he added, but some leave them at home or choose to ride with them slung over the handlebars.

Zook said police tell them: "Better to have messed-up hair than a messed-up bead."

Less than 100 statewide

Since January, California Highway Patrol officers have issued only 72 citations statewide for helmet violations, according to spokeswoman Patricia Ryan. The Highway patrol is responsible for surface streets in some areas.

The numbers are admittedly low, Ryan said. But they serve to underscore the approach the CHP has adopted - counting on education rather than the use of the citation to obtain compliance.

Through an intensive bicycle safety campaign in California's public schools, Ryan said, the CHP is encouraging young people to follow the law for "positive reasons rather than negative reasons - to protect themselves from injury rather than to beat a ticket."

For the most part, police from one end of Santa Clara County to the other said they continue to give kids a break with a "first-time" warning.

In Santa Clara, traffic safety officer Rich Peterson said very few citations have come across his desk since the $25 fines went into force. A majority of cyclers are still being cautioned instead of cited.

But Peterson said he believes helmet use among the young is definitely on the rise - thanks largely to advertising efforts and safety promotions pitched to the city's elementary school students.

"We began warning kids and their parents about the fines that the new law calls for," Peterson said. "About 90 percent who ride bikes to school now wear helmets."

Enforcement plans

Gllroy police Lt. Greg Giusiana said his department had planned last month to do some "heavy enforcement" of the helmet law, using reserve officers. He said the operation had to be postponed when the long rain spell kept youngsters off the street.

Before the law went on the books last year, Giusiana said, police rarely saw a bike rider with headgear. Because of increased safety awareness, he said, nearly half those riding bicycles in Gilroy are now in helmets.

Parents and legal guardians are responsible for fines incurred by minors, according to San Jose police Officer Louis Quezada. A youngster who shows up in juvenile traffic court can usually get the fine waived if he or she has a helmet or can provide proof of having purchased one.

So far, officials say, no one has contested a helmet ticket in Santa Clara County juvenile traffic court.

The money from fines goes to pay for administrative costs, education programs and to assist low-income families buy helmets for their children. What's left over goes into the city's general fund, Quezada said.

And here is a copy of the law