[Testimony before NY City Council Health Committee, 9 November 2000, re Intro 818]
Members of the committee: Scooters don't kill kids; cars kill kids.
The bill before you today, Intro 818, probably owes its
existence to the tragic death last month in Elizabeth, NJ,
of 6-year-old Andy Pino, who scooted out into the road and was
run over. The police officer at the scene said that a helmet
would not have saved Andy. Yet here we are, talking about helmets.
Helmets for cyclists, helmets for skaters, now helmets for scooters.
Why not go all the way and mandate helmets for pedestrians? After all,
a couple of hundred pedestrians are run over and killed every year in
New York City; in the past five years, 80 of the dead have been children
under 14. If a helmet law is a sensible response to young Andy's death
in Elizabeth, why isn't it a sensible response to the death of Dante
Curry or Quinntaun Burns or Aaron Brown?
You don't recognize these names? Dante and Quinntaun and Aaron were
three of the 80 run over, and killed, just like Andy. Right here in
New York City: Dante in the South Bronx, Quinntaun in Fort Greene,
Aaron in Jamaica. On residential streets, in broad daylight. But in their
cases, there was nowhere to displace the blame - no scooter to
scapegoat. Dante and Quinntaun and Aaron were killed by cars, no more
and no less. To pay attention to their deaths would unavoidably mean
taking a look at - cars.
That wouldn't be easy. For the entire past century, government has
given more and more of our public streets to cars, and conferred
more and more privileges on drivers. Members of the Health Committee,
that policy - the one that kills 16 kids, and 200 other pedestrians,
each year - is itself one of the biggest health menaces your constituents face.
Experience with helmet laws for cyclists has taught that such laws
discourage cycling. The effect on scooters will be even more poisonous.
The scooter isn't much bigger than the helmet; there isn't even a place
to hang the helmet. Scooting isn't gear-intensive like scuba-diving; it's
like walking or running. Intro 818 will for all practical purposes
outlaw scooting. Kids like mobility as much as adults; deprive them of
it and you will harass them off the streets and back indoors to watch
TV. And what do you think the health consequences of that will be?
In short, this bill is another nail in the coffin of what we
used to call childhood.
Oh, the streets will be safer, all right - safer for cars. Motorists
will no longer have to worry about having to watch out for those
pesky kids. But is that really the kind of "safety" we want?
As members of the City Council, you have any number of means at
your disposal to make our streets safe - safe for children,
that is, rather than for cars. You can insist that police
safeguard crosswalks near schools. You can shame the mayor
into keeping his "State of the City" speech promise to take
away cars from drivers who endanger pedestrians. You can
take steps - they are well understood - to slow cars rather
than speed them up; to reduce traffic rather than encourage it.
Let's be honest. If cars are an untouchable sacred cow -
if it's more important for them to race through the streets
than for our kids to play outdoors - then say so. But please
don't pretend you're doing something about a deadly danger,
just by making the victims wear a funny hat.
(Charlie's description of the experience.)
I attended the City Council hearing today on the scooter-kid
mandatory-helmet bill. It was awful.
The hearing, before the Health Committee, lasted over three
hours. Victor Robles (Brooklyn)
chaired it, and five other Council members attended: James Oddo
(Staten Island) and Pedro G. Espada, Jr. (Bronx) were there more or less
throughout; Jose Rivera (Bronx), Julia Harrison (Queens) and
Christine Quinn (Manhattan) each sat in for an hour or so.
Witnesses were, in order: for the City administration, the Assistant
Commissioner of the Dept .of Health, Dr. Susan Wilk; Captain Michael DeFilippo, NYPD;
Assembly member Jeffrey Dinowitz of the Bronx (81st district) who is
sponsoring a similar bill, #11542, in the legislature; a
representative of the New York County Medical Society,
representing a neurologist (who couldn't attend) who basically said
"concussions are bad" and had nothing to say about scooters;
Susan Boyle of Transportation Alternatives; and myself.
The City witnesses supported the bill but "with
reservations" on details such as who would actually enforce.
Dinowitz and the medical rep endorsed. Susan and I opposed.
I'll give some details shortly, after stating the two biggest
"lessons" I took from the hearing. One is the appalling buffoonery
of the chair, Victor Robles. The other is the
strength of the delusion shared by all six Council members,
and Assembly member Dinowitz,
that the bill would contribute meaningfully to
protecting of children in NYC.
Robles first. He had no grasp of the issue. He
literally did not hear the important statement by the Assistant Health
Commissioner, made several times, and repeated by TA's Susan Boyle, that
none of the seven emergency room visits by scooter kids to 20
NYC hospitals (out of some 70), sampled during a recent week
by DOH, involved head injuries. Robles repeated, half-a-dozen times,
a story about how he bought
a scooter for his grand-nephew, who promptly fell
off it, re-injuring his previously broken [!] arm but not his head.
He said he wanted this law to be his legacy (he's term-
limited) and then disavowed any such wish when I used that to make a point.
Robles referred to the 6-year-old boy killed in Elizabeth, NJ as a 9-
year-old girl, even after being corrected. He said Muhammad Ali's
boxing-induced Parkinsonism justifies helmets on kids. He referred
to the state juvenile-cyclist helmet law "[that] protects children
from bicycles." And that wasn't a "W"-style malapropism;
it's his mindset.
Now the delusion, which I'll apply particularly to Oddo (who at least seemed
thoughtful) and Espada, since they
challenged both Susan and me quite strongly. Neither gave any
credence to the idea that a scooter helmet law would reduce scooter use;
or that it would whitewash governmental inaction on murderous traffic by letting
the Council members feel they had accomplished something; or
that they should be concerned that it would avert at best just a
handful of injuries (I tried to take them through the percentages),
whereas controlling cars and drivers could save huge numbers; or
that they might just as well mandate helmets for kids walking or
whatever. I might as well have been talking to the wall.
More delusion: Assembly member Dinowitz said, "A young child
recently died in NJ as a result of operation of a scooter as to
whether he would have survived if he had been wearing a helmet,
we don't know." Thus denying NJ police
lieutenant Edward Baginski's statement (NY Times, Sept. 27)
that a helmet wouldn't have
made a dime's worth of difference.
Ah, but some truths did emerge. Here are three:
They do hate scooters. Pedro Espada, who has a 4-y-o daughter:
"I took her scooter and I threw it in the garbage. I think it's
disgusting that they made these
scooters." Not quite as virulently, but in a similar vein, Robles
decried the fact that the scooters, formerly $99, can now be bought
for as little as $39. Yup, keep children safe -- chain 'em in the closet.
Cars are untouchable. Julia Harrison, responding to Susan Boyle's pleas for traffic-
calming instead of helmet laws: "Traffic-calming won't work. The
DOT nixes road narrowing. The police and fire depts. veto
speed humps around schools. Driver ed is useless". All perfectly true, of course;
so let's require kids to pay the price.
In fact, cars are unmentionable. Not until Susan spoke,
almost 2 hours into the hearing, did anyone utter the words "car" or "motor
vehicle." Though the death in Elizabeth was invoked repeatedly
official after another, none mentioned that the kid was
As for myself: I was near-apoplectic at having to wait through
Robles' interminable and pointless story-telling; and then an hour's worth
of mostly bonehead questioning directed at Susan. ( "I respect
the work of the T.A. but you're off-base here," so you better watch
yourself, sister, that kind of thing.) I read our statement. I did have some good, mutually respectful
colloquy with Oddo. I ended up in a shouting match with Espada,
who accused me(!) of trying to exploit Dante Curry's death.
[Editor's note: Espada is the council member who has so far successfully
obstructed renaming a Bronx street after young Dante Curry while dishing out gallons
of hypocritical sentimentality and feigned concern to Dante's mom.]
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