Last spring the Columbia City Council, prompted by child safety advocacy group Safe Kids and the board of health, passed a city ordinance requiring children to wear protective helmets when biking or skating. To date, no enforcement measures have been taken on the ordinance. Local lawmakers say they never intended to enforce it.
Columbia’s helmet ordinance requires children 15 and younger to wear protective helmets when riding bicycles, inline skates, skateboards or scooters within the city limits. The ordinance gives officers the power to fine the guardians of children without helmets between $5 and $25 for the infraction. It also allows officers to temporarily impound the items from children who violate the ordinance.
Kids at the skate course in Cosmopolitan park, where people regularly skate and bike without helmets, say they know about the ordinance but don’t fear enforcement. Tyler Turner, 15, said that although he has seen police at the skate park, he’s never been approached about putting on a helmet.
“It doesn’t matter, because they don’t check,” Turner said.
Columbia Police Capt. Zim Schwartze doesn’t remember any officers writing tickets or summonses on the ordinance.
“It’s going to become an issue if we do have any serious injuries or accidents, such as someone was riding a bicycle and was not wearing a helmet and it could have helped. That’s when it’s going to become an issue.”
Both Captain Schwartze and Steven Sapp of Safe Kids regard the ordinance as an educational tool. Sapp speaks of it as a guideline that parents can look to when making decisions regarding the safety of their children. He emphasizes that it is intended as an awareness-raising agent and not a punitive measure
“What we agreed to with the council was that we would take the lead in an education campaign. We did not expect, nor did we encourage the police department or law enforcement agencies to become bike helmet kiddie patrols,” Sapp said.
Council member Jim Loveless remembers coordinating the passage of the ordinance with the end of the school year. This was done so that fliers could be sent home with children to inform their parents of the ordinance. According to Loveless, the council intended to establish a policy whereby city prosecutors could dismiss fines if parents presented receipts proving purchase of a helmet.
City prosecutor Rose Wibbenmeyer said her office has not processed any bicycle helmet violations since the ordinance was passed.
“We have not seen any tickets come in, period,” Wibbenmeyer said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
National Safe Kids data shows that bicycle helmets reduce the risk of head injury by as much as 85 percent and of brain injury by as much as 88 percent. The organization finds helmet legislation effective in increasing helmet use and in reducing bicycle-related death and injuries among children covered by the law. In addition, the data said police enforcement increases the effectiveness of helmet legislation.
Columbia’s lawmakers and enforcers seem unsure of the best way to enforce the ordinance. Council member Loveless said the legislation put the responsibility for fines on the parents because the council does not want to criminalize children for not wearing a helmet. At the same time, he added that he does not want to see parents penalized for the actions of children who remove their helmets after leaving the house.
“I think we were realistic in our opinion that police weren’t going to be writing any tickets on this ordinance,” Loveless said.
“We have the issue of they’re juvenile; but, is this considered traffic or not?” Schwartze said. “It’s a real gray area that we have.”
She added that staffing issues also hinder helmet ordinance enforcement.
“We just do not have the manpower or the staff to actively enforce all the infractions we have on the books.”