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Wear Helmets? No Way, Kids Say : Safety: They complain that the protective devices look dorky and are itchy and hot. But if Gov. Wilson signs the legislation, they will have to strap them on.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the expression on his face, you would have thought Scott Sutton’s mother had strapped a Bengal tiger onto his head rather than a white styrene bicycle helmet with the words Hot Shot emblazoned on the side.

“It’s hot on my head. It makes you itchy,” he said Saturday, sitting on his lime-green Huffy mountain bike at the Manhattan Beach Pier. He tugged at the chin strap, a 7-year-old at the mercy of his mother’s better judgment, forced to suffer the indignity of looking like someone wearing a salad bowl while his buddies breezed down the Strand, the wind in their hair.

If a law passed by the state Legislature is signed by Gov. Pete Wilson, children 18 and under will be required as of Jan. 1 to wear helmets while riding bicycles, whether they are racing down treacherous mountain paths or cruising their quiet suburban streets on a summer night.

And if the vocal chorus Saturday was any indication, it is the end of an era, an abridgment of a child’s right to mount his Stingray on a whim and ride into the sunset. They don’t like this idea one bit.

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Come to think of it, they don’t like measles shots either.

“It’s a small expense that could save a child’s life,” Scott McPherson, manager of Helen’s Bike Shop in Marina del Rey, said. “I’m expecting a child any day now and he will never ride a bicycle without a helmet.”

On the wall of his store is a handwritten letter from customer John Petro, describing a Nov. 14, 1992, crash where--on a remote path with no traffic, traveling at less than 12 m.p.h.--he crashed without apparent reason and landed on his head. He was hospitalized for a month with brain damage and amnesia and continues to suffer from double vision. The doctors said the helmet saved his life.

But old habits die hard, particularly when your role model, your hero--your father--doesn’t wear a helmet.

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“I don’t know,” John Emerson said as a salesman plopped a yellow Giro helmet on his 7-year-old son, Emmon, who had reluctantly removed his L.A. Dodgers cap for the occasion.

Emmon sized himself up in the mirror.

“I don’t see them fall on their heads very much,” his father went on. “It’s like anything else I guess; you can cross the street and get killed.”

The helmet was electric yellow. It had the word REBEL on it. Except for the lock of red hair that was popping through one of the vents, Emmon looked great.

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“Do you like it, Emmon?” somebody asked hopefully.

“No.”

Bicycle-related crashes are the No. 1 cause of death and brain injury to children between the ages of 5 and 14. Nearly 18,000 children were admitted to California emergency rooms in 1991 for bicycle-related head injuries; more than half the 138 people who died of bike injuries that year were children, according to the California Coalition for Children’s Safety and Health.

Clearly, no amount of data is going to persuade a child that a helmet could save his life, which is the reason the proposed law targets parents. After a one-year grace period, parents who allow their children to ride unprotected would be fined $25.

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All this seemed an exercise in overcaution to 15-year-old Danny Reed, who could not imagine putting on a helmet to ride his father’s battered Huffy 10-speed to the corner electronics store to buy a part for his computer.

“Maybe if I were wearing the tight shorts and gloves,” he said, looking down at his baggy green shorts and black high tops. “But it really doesn’t go with what I’m wearing.”

Few of the children wheeling about this weekend could find any purpose in putting on a helmet to ride to the corner market for ice cream.

But there was a time, helmet advocates point out, when they couldn’t see the logic of seat belts or sunscreen either. And considering the average helmet weighs about eight ounces, comes in an array of designer colors and costs as little as $30, it hardly seems worth the risk of riding without one.

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“I now know the consequences of riding without a helmet,” Joshua Fernandez, 11, said sagely as he took a break from a 20-mile ride through the South Bay. He pointed to the scar he’s carried since he fell face first off his bike and into a ditch. “They look nice, plus they keep your head from getting cracked open.”

Too bad he wasn’t wearing one.


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