By Anna Lothson
The wheels turned at a recent village board meeting on a longtime youth bicycle helmet issue that was parked years ago by Oak Park's Board of Health.
On Nov. 18, a majority of the village board informally supported a law requiring anyone under 17 to wear a helmet while biking around town. But Village President Anan Abu-Taleb and Trustee Peter Barber think the law is problematic.
Some of the details, however, were hashed out by supporting trustees, including questions about how police would enforce the measure and how to avoid fining offenders. While those who supported the law argued it was good for Oak Park's youth, Abu-Taleb and Barber still spoke out strongly against it.
"It's completely unnecessary and it's a drain of police resources that we really don't need," said Barber, who attended the meeting via telephone. "I would like to get rid of this. We are moving in an absolutely wrong direction of where we want to go in the village."
Barber suggested the law is not only unenforceable but said it impinges on the role of parents.
He's spoken against the proposal since it first came to the board last month. Barber thinks there are ways to educate kids without relying on a specific penalty for not wearing a helmet.
Trustee Adam Salzman was initially skeptical of the language in the draft law that stated any violator could be punished by a fine up to $25. Last month's discussion focused on enforcement through education, not fines. Other trustees agreed the law should not be punitive.
In Cook County there are at least six towns that have bicycle helmet ordinances, typically for kids under 16, including River Forest. Although Oak Park's neighbor has the law on the books, police don't hand out tickets to offenders; rather, officers are encouraged to hand out "tickets" for items like free ice cream for those actually wearing helmets.
Oak Park hired the Active Transportation Alliance in 2008 to develop a 10-year plan to turn Oak Park into a more bicycle-friendly community. This ordinance proposal, along with plans that call for more bike lanes, shared-road line markings and additional signage for bikers, may be part of a more comprehensive biking plan for the village.
Village Attorney Paul Stephanides said Oak Park's code requires some sort of fine be tied to a law like this, but said he could research the possibility of having the fine replaced with community service. Trustee Bob Tucker, who supported the measure, jumped in to say there is still room to tweak details before the board passes it.
Abu-Taleb said the ordinance has not been fully vetted and asked for a more thoughtful review. He suggested education over punishment and said police are needed for more pressing matters than enforcing bike helmet laws.
Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley said the law would not be the department's top priority, and added he hopes the measure is only passed as a way to educate youth and start a relationship with kids, not create a negative interaction.
"I'm totally against the issuance of a fine," he said. "It's going against what we are trying to do. A fine creates a negative experience. We want a positive experience."
The law as written allows for an educational component and a warning before a fine or community service is enforced.
In June, the Oak Park Board of Health threw its support behind the measure and health board member Dr. Ravi Grivois-Shah gave the initial presentation to the village board in October. He spoke Monday and last month about the dangers of head injuries connected to bicycle accidents in which riders aren't wearing helmets.
In his initial presentation last month, Grivois-Shaw included some statistics he said the board should keep in mind as it evaluates the proposal.
"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," he reported.
"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."
He said the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration calls helmets the single most effective way to reduce head injuries and fatalities resulting from bicycle crashes.
Outside of the safety issue, at last week's meeting Barber questioned the validity of having a law that he doesn't think can be enforced. Kids without ID can lie about their age, and kids from other towns likely won't know about the law at all.
While he agrees parents and kids should be educated about wearing bike helmets, Barber said the ordinance was "making a mountain out of a molehill."
Stephanides and village staff will work through the text of the draft ordinance and bring it back to the village board for a vote.
No date has been announced for that vote.
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