Scooting on Thin Ice:
Helmet Bill is Bad for Kids

by Martha Rowen

(Originally appeared on the Op-Ed Page of Newsday, Jan. 24, 2001)

The City Council votes today on a bill to require children under 14 to wear helmets when riding a push-scooter in New York City. As the parent of a grown daughter, and perhaps a future grandparent, I want city streets, parks and playgrounds to be places where kids can safely play and grow. On the evidence available, I believe a scooter helmet law will be a big step backwards.

The bill before the Council does nothing about the real danger facing our kids: automobiles. Children playing outside are being killed by cars, not scooters. Children are threatened by streets designed to move cars quickly, by lax enforcement of traffic laws, and by drivers who think nothing of endangering a pedestrian's life for a few seconds of saved time. Wearing a helmet will hardly protect a child who is crushed under a two-ton automobile, or thrown across the road by a careening SUV racing to make the next traffic light.

Worse, the helmet bill is harmful to kids because it will discourage them from scooting. If Junior has to fretfully remind himself to put on the helmet every time he goes out to play - or engage in warfare with a parent over the subject - how long will it be before he chucks the thing and heads back to the Nintendo? And when that happens, he'll be giving up a simple but vital childhood pleasure -- freedom of movement.

Free outdoor play - in games, running, bike-riding and, yes, scooting - is far from trivial. In fact, it is part of the child's "job" - part of growing up into a healthy, happy, and productive adult. The exercise that kids get from scooters develops their strength and coordination, not to mention their social skills. It also helps prevent obesity and its associated health problems, which are now rampant. Riding outside fosters independence and encourages exploration, developing spatial skills and a sense of empowerment and self-esteem.

A recent academic study compared the development of children who were free to play outside, with others whose movements were restricted by car traffic. The authors found dramatic differences between the two groups in motor development, social interaction, and opportunity for creative play, with the latter group the clear losers. Traffic-calming measures that transform neighborhood streets from speedways to community space "are of decisive importance in the everyday life and the development of children," the authors conclude. So, if our City Council wants to protect children, they should be taming car traffic - not kids.

Sadly, this more wholesome approach doesn't stand much of a chance at present. Council Speaker Peter Vallone has trumpeted Consumer Product Safety Commission statistics as "proof" that we need the helmet bill. But just how serious were the 8,600 scooter-related injuries that the CPSC reported for September 2000 nationwide? Would helmets have prevented any of them? The commission doesn't say. It simply notes that most of the injuries occurred when riders fell from their scooters, and about a quarter involved fractures and dislocations, mostly to arms and hands.

If there were any evidence of a pattern of preventable head injury, surely the CPSC would have told us. But it hasn't. Significantly, of the two deaths sustained that month, one involved a 6-year-old boy in Elizabeth, New Jersey, who was hit by a car. The reporting officer's insistence that a helmet wouldn't have saved him - he was crushed so badly - has been ignored by our lawmakers.

The CPSC figures break down to an average of 172 injuries per U.S. State per month. I'm guessing this represents about three sprained wrists, one dislocated shoulder, and one broken arm per day, per state. Meanwhile millions of kids are scooting their little hearts out. Must we swaddle them in protective gear that won't help them anyway?

Let common sense and concern for the real needs of children keep the City Council from passing this misinformed and harmful law. Let them turn their attention instead to ending once and for all the "divine right" of drivers to intimidate and assault our kids and others who ride, walk and play in our public streets.

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