by Cara Gardner

Generally speaking, people don't like others telling them what to do, which is how Shanae Beito feels about the helmet ordinance, passed by the Spokane City Council on Monday.

"I think it should be everyone's choice," Beito says from the seat of her bike in downtown Spokane. "Maybe for public safety there should be an age limit or something, but with all of these laws, how are you gonna be free?"

Beito, 18, and her boyfriend Robert Schrivne, 25, ride their bikes downtown without helmets. They say there are already enough laws for bicyclists.

"The sidewalk law is pretty bad," notes Schrivne. "You can't ride on certain sidewalks, and she's almost gotten hit by passing cars." When Beito and Scrivne ride off, they are immediately told to dismount their bikes: They're on the STA sidewalk.

But not everyone feels like requiring helmets would be an infringement on their rights.

"Yeah, I mean, I definitely think it's a good idea. It's [about] safety," says 17-year-old Jacob Maravilla, as he leans over to pick up his skateboard. Maravilla doesn't have a helmet on now, but says his parents want him to wear one and that he wouldn't mind doing so.

The helmet ordinance isn't just for bicyclists and skateboarders. It includes "anything with wheels," according to Julie Graham, public information manager for the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD). So would people in motorized wheelchairs be required to don helmets? What about the small number of Segway drivers? On both counts, no. The ordinance identifies bicycling, skateboarding, riding scooters and in-line skating as activities which would require a helmet.

"If you're moving faster than [you would be if you were] running, then I think a helmet is a good idea," says Troy Nelson from his bike. "Our pumpkins just aren't made to take hits from speeds faster than that." Nelson, though, isn't wearing a helmet today.

"It's in my bag," he says, pointing to the duffle he has strapped over his shoulder. "I work just up there and was riding to meet a friend for my workout." Nelson's destination is just two blocks away. Still, he says, "Gosh, you could've been a cop, and I could've just gotten a ticket."

Despite the threat of a ticket for not wearing a helmet, advocates of the helmet ordinance say fining people isn't the incentive for the helmet ordinance.

"It's an educational thing, not a 'We're going to get them' thing," explains Dick Cottam, spokesperson for the Spokane Police Department. "We want people to understand why we're doing this; it's not a way to harass people, it's because we want to cut down on injuries and death -- especially in younger people."

"Usually issuing tickets for not wearing a helmet is something that's not practiced," says Graham, with the SRHD, noting that even though law enforcement can theoretically ticket people for failure to wear a helmet, they probably wouldn't unless that person's actions posed a serious threat to public safety. Police could also use the helmet ordinance as an incentive to stop a suspicious person, Graham explains.

"Is it a personal freedom issue or a safety and economic issue?" asks Graham. "That's the debate."

In the state of Washington, data shows that the cost of treatment for non-fatal bicycle injuries among children 14 and younger was more than $113 million, or around $218,000 per child. Currently, 46 percent of municipalities in the state have passed helmet legislation, including the city of Seattle. In Spokane, which until now had no helmet ordinance, area hospitals treated more than 4,500 people for bicycle injuries in the past five years, 26 percent of which consisted of damage to head, face and neck. These stats, provided by the SRHD, include the six cycle-related deaths and 259 hospitalizations.

"Head injuries are some of the worst things that can happen to a person," Cottam says. "A fall from a wheeled vehicle almost always has some injury, and if it happens to be your head, it could be for the rest of your life."

For police officers, paramedics, and trauma experts, wearing a helmet is common sense. Helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent, and reduce the risk of brain injury by 88 percent, according the SRHD. Few would deny that helmets protect people on wheels, but when it comes to actually wearing them, it's another story.

"We're conducting focus groups with teens at skate parks," says Graham. "We're asking them what would make them more likely to wear a helmet, and for those who don't want to wear them, what keeps them from doing so.

"The Kiwanis Club has a program where they hand out helmets, and we've given away lots," Graham continues, noting that it shouldn't be an issue for people who say they can't afford one, because there are plenty of places in town that provide them for free.

To those who claim mandatory helmets are an infringement to personal freedom, Cottam has a quick response: "These are the same people who, when they're injured, will have public assistance paying for that injury. They'll end up being wards of the state. It's not just their business."

Publication date: 07/01/04

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