It was on a bright Indian summer morning last year that Sgt. Will Howe suddenly found himself standing over a child whose final breaths cut through him like a chill wind.
Sprawled on the warm sidewalk at Howe's feet was the form of Rolando Reyes, 14--the same age as the sergeant's own son--whose head had struck the concrete after his bicycle toppled at 10 m.p.h. on Thousand Oaks Boulevard.
The child had not been wearing a helmet.
"It was on a beautiful, sunshiny day," a still shaken Howe said a year later, "and suddenly, it's all over. . . . I couldn't help but think of my own son, watching him there."
Eager to prevent such preventable deaths, Ventura County sheriff's deputies, school officials and cycleries in the Thousand Oaks area are stepping up their vigilance for children on bicycles who fail to wear a helmet.
According to a state law that became effective Jan. 1, everyone under age 18 must wear an approved bicycle helmet while riding on streets and other thoroughfares. Those caught violating the law over the past 11 months have been issued warnings, but no fines.
That will change Jan. 1, when sheriff's deputies in Thousand Oaks will begin issuing citations that provide for fines of $25--about the cost of a typical helmet.
Although many youths heeded the requirement in the early months of the year, their adherence began to slacken, Howe said, when word spread that they would not be fined.
"The schools were real supportive in getting everybody involved. . . . But people soon realized there was no teeth in the law, and so they stopped wearing helmets," he added. "That'll change now that it's going to be enforced."
While no local bicycle-safety statistics have been compiled since the law took effect, a recent study on the effects of a motorcycle helmet requirement bears note, Sgt. Jeff Matson said. According to a UCLA study released Nov. 16, the state law that requires motorcyclists to wear a helmet produced a 37.5% drop in motorcycle fatalities in its first year.
"I've seen (bicycle accident victims) both ways, with helmets and without helmets," Sheriff's Deputy Tim Hagel said, "and it's enough to make you realize that the law would save lives."
Two months after the 14-year-old boy's death last year, Tom Bennett was riding his bicycle down a steep hill in Thousand Oaks when he hit a piece of wood and flew over his handlebars at 40 m.p.h., fracturing his shoulder blade and collarbone and grinding across 100 feet of pavement.
Although his helmet was severely damaged, he suffered no major head injury--just a mild concussion.
"If it wasn't for my helmet, I probably wouldn't even be talking to you right now," said Bennett, a detective with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.
Rolando Reyes was not so lucky.
It was Sept. 2, 1993, late morning, when Reyes was riding his bike on the sidewalk in the 400 block of Thousand Oaks Boulevard, his friend balancing on the handlebars. After hitting a hump, the Thousand Oaks youth lost control of his bicycle and fell while his friend jumped off.
"If he had been wearing a helmet, it could have prevented his head injury," said Howe, a traffic supervisor whose officers are redoubling efforts to issue warnings--and ultimately $10 coupons for helmet purchases--to youths violating the law.
"The Thanksgiving weekend historically is the busiest shopping day of the year," Deputy Hagel noted. "Our biggest blitz right now is . . . to get parents to buy a helmet for their children instead of going out and buying (a video game)," he said, "especially now that (violators) are going to be fined."
The $10 vouchers, which were donated to the Sheriff's Department by the Conejo Valley Bicycling Club, are mailed to parents of children who violate the helmet law. They can be used toward a helmet purchase at one of five participating bicycle shops. A moderately priced helmet, typically made of a plastic skin stretched over dense foam rubber, can range from $20 to $40, with more expensive helmets running up to $139.
Schools, particularly elementary and middle schools, have been inducing children to wear bicycle helmets.
"I see everybody here wearing them," said Max Beaman, principal at Sequoia Intermediate School in Newbury Park. But, he added, "some of these laws take a few years to implement to their fullest."
At Manzanita Elementary School in Newbury Park, Principal Phil Parish does not permit student bicyclists onto campus unless they are wearing helmets.
Other schools in the Thousand Oaks area have done likewise.
While acknowledging that some older youths might view helmets as "nerdy," Newbury Park Bicycle Shop co-owner Mike Cicchi said, "I have to say that they're coming up with so many options in designs and colors, I can't imagine (kids) not liking them."
Habits die hard, though.
"You've got to remember that you're changing the habits of the whole family," Deputy Hagel said. "Historically, the parents haven't had to wear helmets, so now they have to adjust to getting their children to do it."