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Child Bike Helmet Proposals Face Opposition

It’s an iconic American image – kids hopping on their two-wheelers and skidding through the streets. But those visions of skinned knees and summer vacations might be in for some tweaking if lawmakers pass a controversial law that would require kids to wear helmets while biking.

Illinois lawmakers are currently pondering two child helmet bills. HB 6114, introduced by Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston) at the urging of the American Academy of Pediatrics, would require kids 17 and under to wear helmets while biking on any public road or sidewalk, or their parents would face a $30 fine. Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) is leading a similar bill through the Senate, which would apply to kids 15 and younger.

Helmet advocates and doctors argue the law is a common sense way to prevent brain injury. Wearing helmets would prevent up to 45,000 head injuries per year in the U.S., said Scott Allen, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children ages 5 to 14, the age bracket where bike injuries are most common, would especially benefit, he said.

But not all biking advocates are on board with the bill, and motorcyclists and equestrians – leery that their heads will be lawmakers’ next target – are fighting it too.

Rob Sadowsky, executive director for the Active Transportation Alliance, said his group supports helmet wearing for all ages but has found that helmet laws are not effective. Supporting this is the fact that Chicago has one of the highest rates of helmet wearing in the country, he said, even though it is not required by law.

Bike safety education is a better way to get the message out, Sadowsky said, but neither Hamos’ or Silverstein’s bill comes with money for a public awareness campaign.

“The law alone is not enough to change behavior,” Sadowsky said. “You have to tie it to education.” He likened the helmet legislation to the state’s seatbelt laws, which did not gain traction with motorists until the state poured money into a “Click It or Ticket” campaign.

But opponents’ biggest concern is that a helmet law could open the floodgates to a number of intrusive laws.

“The risks of a head injury while biking is comparable to walking, rollerblading, even showering,” Sadowsky said. “At some point, we have to be very careful. Do we need a helmet for every activity?”

Motorcycle advocates say we don’t, and argue that a helmet law would be a step in the wrong direction toward big government. They successfully lobbied against an earlier bill by Hamos that would have required children to wear helmets while riding on the back of motorcycles.

“The belief is that government is there to protect you from yourself,” said George Tinkham, spokesman for the Illinois motorcyclist advocacy group ABATE. “The situation is not so dire that mommy and daddy have to be pushed aside and big brother has to step in.”

Child helmet laws are already on the books in five Illinois cities – Barrington, Cicero, Inverness, Libertyville and Skokie.

Kathy Phelan, trauma coordinator at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, said she has seen a “significant decrease” in bike-related head traumas in her 29 years at the hospital, largely because of a surge in helmet wearing. She was unsure if the drop was due to the city’s 1997 law mandating helmets for children under 17 or changing public opinion.

“When I was a kid, you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a helmet. You’d be a total dork,” agreed Mike Deering, spokesman for the Barrington hospital. “Now you wouldn’t dare let (your kids) go out without a helmet on.”

Advocate Good Shepherd has held several bike helmet giveaways, Phelan said. The hospital also gives free helmets to bike injury patients when they do not own one or when their helmet has been cracked in an accident.

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