By Anna Lothson
It isn't the law of the land yet, but soon enough those under 17 could be subject to a bicycle helmet law in Oak Park.
The initiative has been a priority for the Oak Park Board of Health for years, but lack of grant funding for educational programs left the measure off the books in both 2009 and 2010. In late June the health board officially backed the concept of implementing a bike helmet ordinance, but recommended that in lieu of a financial fine the mandate comes with an educational lesson.
On Monday, Oak Park village board members asked questions related to the costs of the program; how much police time it would take; and how it is possible to enforce an ordinance that has no specific ticket or fine associated with it.
The question of how Oak Park would enforce such a measure spurred a debate that left Trustee Peter Barber and Village President Anan Abu-Taleb voting against the first reading of the recommendation that requested staff draft an ordinance that would implement this mandate. The health board's recommendation passed 5-2.
Staff recommendation is to address safety concerns though education and parental guidance instead of law enforcement, so staff suggested the board direct the village manager to review options with the police department to see how the health board's safety recommendations could be upheld.
One resident, Michael Stewart, spoke during public comment and said he is a bike advocate but did not support this ordinance. He didn't doubt that wearing a helmet is safer; instead he suggested the mandate could spur unintended consequences.
"They may decide it would be easier not to bike. I'm worried [kids] won't ride if they [feel forced to] have to wear a helmet," he said.
Stewart suggested the recommendation and report seemed "rushed and flawed" and said it did not include enough detail about the education programs and how much police time and resource the mandate would require.
"I am, in fact, in favor of education instead of making it criminal," said Stewart, who serves on Oak Park's transportation commission. "We (the commission) are in favor of more bike helmet use, but we are not in favor of an ordinance change that would make this mandatory."
Trustees Colette Lueck and Adam Salzman, who both favored the ordinance, said they think the measure could be a good tool for parents who need a reason to convince kids to wear a helmet.
"It gives you extra support as a parent," Lueck said. "I also think it gives the chance for police to have a relationship with kids."
Police Chief Rick Tanksley spoke Monday to explain the police would be enforcing the measure only through child and parent education. A bike enthusiast himself, Tanksley said the board still needs to determine how the police department should track enforcement since they don't plan on issuing tickets.
"Anytime [a police officer engages] a juvenile. …you better start talking to the parent real quick," he said. "I would not be in favor of issuing a citation. I lean more toward further education to further compliance."
Barber, who tried to get the issue tabled to get more answers but couldn't get a second trustee vote, said he wanted more data on how this mandate would impact allocation of police resources.
Abu-Taleb suggested the report presented didn't provide all the necessary details, such as how do the police determine who to stop and how to enforce the measure if a non-resident kid is biking through town. He also questioned the point of implementing a law that seems unenforceable.
"I just don't want to adopt something that we can't do well," Abu-Taleb said.
The measure passed, but the details of the ordinance are not finalized as that will be up to staff to write and bring back to the village board to review and approve.
Bike safety statistics
Health board member Dr. Ravi Grivois-Shah prepared a report for bicycle helmet safety that was approved the Oak Park Board of Health in June. His presentation was reviewed by the village board Monday. Some of the statistics in his report include:
"The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that injuries while riding a bicycle lead to 500,000 ER visits, 52,000 serious injuries and over 700 deaths annually, nationwide."
"According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, head injuries cause 70 percent of fatal bike accidents, and 90 percent of those deaths are among cyclists not wearing a helmet."
"The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration calls helmets 'the single most effective way to reduce head injuries and fatalities resulting from bicycle crashes'."