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Bike Helmet Law Hits the Skids With Kids : Safety: Starting Saturday, minors must wear protective headgear while riding, whether they find it fashionable or not.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It may be the new winter fashion as decreed by law, but wearing a helmet while riding his bike and popping a wheelie just doesn’t square with Fernando Valenzuela’s style.

“It makes my head look big,” said Fernando--not the former Dodgers pitcher but a Van Nuys seventh-grader out cruising the bicycle trails at Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Park on Thursday. “It’s hard and it hurts. I feel funny.”

So instead of a helmet, the 12-year-old sported a baseball cap while negotiating the park’s paths on his sleek, black mountain bike.

But starting with the new year Saturday, the cap won’t be enough to shield Fernando from the law when new legislation on bicycle safety for minors goes into effect. Signed by Gov. Pete Wilson in October, the measure requires anyone under 18 years old to wear helmets while riding a bike on public streets or trails.

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For the first year, violators need only fear reprimand in the form of a verbal warning from police. Citations and fines of up to $25 per offense will begin in 1995.

However, health experts say those who choose to ride bare-headed should be more concerned with the possibility of life-threatening injury. Bicycle crashes are the leading cause of death and brain damage for children between the ages of 5 and 14, according to the California Coalition for Children’s Safety and Health, which backs the law.

Miriam Watenmaker of Reseda knows the hazard.

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“I was an X-ray technician before I went into my present field,” said Watenmaker, now a part-time radiation therapist. “I’ve seen what can happen.”

Which is why at the Watenmaker home, helmets are required for 13-year-old Heath as he pedals to and from school every day and 5-year-old Michelle as she maneuvers her pink Barbie cycle, complete with training wheels, outside the house.

“We try to make it fun for them,” Watenmaker said, cradling her daughter’s white helmet, decorated with stickers of butterflies, fish and dinosaurs. “It’s always been the rule that when she goes out on her bike she has to wear a helmet, although it isn’t always easy.”

Or comfortable.

“It’s kind of getting tight,” Michelle said with a grimace.

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For her brother, though, the new law offers a refuge from peers who needle him about voluntarily donning something decidedly uncool by teen-age fashion standards.

“I’m glad the law is coming out so I won’t get teased,” Heath said.

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Watenmaker said she paid between $20 and $50 for her children’s headgear. Some helmets cost as much as $100, leading the law’s opponents to criticize the financial hardship it could impose on poor families. But supporters note that 70% of the revenue from helmet fines will be set aside to help low-income parents purchase helmets and subsidize other safety programs.

For many, the hard part isn’t buying the helmets but remembering to wear them.

“I suppose it’s a good habit to get into, like seat belts in a car,” said Sherman Oaks homemaker Ava Wooton. But right now, the rather pricey helmet belonging to her older daughter, Meredith, is “sitting in the closet.”

The secret for Meredith, 9, may be to regard the helmet as just another riding accessory, kind of like her pet rat, Bubba, whom she often lets hitch a ride on her shoulder as she pedals around the neighborhood with her pal, Erica.

Erica, however, has three rats she takes along.

“So now we have to get them helmets too?” Wooton asked with a laugh.

Choosing the Right Helmet Beginning Jan. 1, a new state law will require anyone under 18 to wear a helmetwhen riding a bicycle.

Plastic outer shell: Lightweight protection.

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Polystyrene foam: Absorbs impact.

Foam pads: Create custom fit.

Nylon webbing: Reinforces shell.

Buyer’s Guide Fit: Choose the smallest helmet that fits, one that tugs at the scalp when rotated from side to side and up and down. Avoid snugness at temples. Fasten chin strap, grab helmet at forehead and pull up sharply; if it easily moves or comes off, it’s too big.

Cost: $20-$100; paying more does not ensure more safety, but more expensive models usually provide better fit and aerodynamics.

Material: Must have rigid outer shell; foam-only helmets increase risk of neck injury.

Safety: Choose a helmet meeting standards established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the Snell Foundation.

Replacement: Every five years. Replace if it sustains an impact, even if no damage is apparent.

Sources: Bicycling magazine, Bell Sports Inc., Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times


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