Helmet Law -- an Extra Obstacle?

Times Staff Writer

Lawmakers may disagree, but 12-year-old Justin Deneen says the only thing he needs on his head while skateboarding is his baseball cap.

Gliding along curbs and hopping onto benches late Wednesday morning at a Huntington Beach park, Justin said he hadn't heard about the state law that went into effect New Year's Day requiring those younger than 18 to wear helmets while riding skateboards, scooters and inline skates. Helmets, Justin said, won't keep skateboarders from getting hurt.

"I've fallen plenty of times, but never on my head," the Huntington Beach boy said. "All a helmet does is make it harder to see, and then you end up eating it even more."

The law, the nation's strictest, is aimed at reducing an estimated 90,000 scooter- and skateboard - related emergency room visits and hospitalizations nationwide each year. It was sponsored by California schools superintendent-elect Jack O'Connell when he was a state senator.

Elsewhere in the country, Maryland and Rhode Island require children younger than 16 to wear helmets while riding bicycles, scooters and skates. New York and New Jersey require helmets up to age 14.

Violators of the California law face fines of $25, three-quarters of which will go to local health departments to promote helmet safety education and subsidize purchase of the headgear for low-income families. The remainder will defray administration costs.

O'Connell sponsored his first helmet bill 16 years ago. It required minors to wear helmets while riding bicycles. Students at an elementary school in his Central California district recently asked O'Connell to look at new legislation after a 9-year-old classmate was badly hurt while riding a scooter without a helmet.

Some parents criticized the rule, saying it will be difficult to enforce and is an unwarranted intrusion on parental prerogatives.

"As a parent, I want the right to be able to tell my kids what to do and what not to do," said Justin's father, Paul Deneen. "It's just not right for the government to be telling parents how to raise their kids."

The family's yellow Labrador puppy has eaten the pads out of Justin's helmet, which he wears only "when I'm trying something I haven't done before and when my mom yells at me."

The Deneen family lives a block from Murdy Community Park, where a portion has been paved with concrete for skateboard and scooter users. About a dozen were plowing up the banks and grinding ledges Wednesday, hair flying on the majority who were helmetless.

Four-year-old Lauren Lee's pale blond hair fluttered on her back as she wobbled along the gently sloping ramps on her Christmas present, a Razor scooter. Although her 10-year-old brother, Ryan, wore a helmet and kneepads as he rode his skateboard, neither Lauren nor her scooter-riding sister, Megan, 8, wore a helmet.

"We knew we were taking our chances this morning when we went out without them," said their father, Dave Lee, a high school teacher from the Central Valley community of Clovis who was visiting family in Huntington Beach. Lee said the law will be difficult to enforce but is a good idea.

"There will come a time when a kid will fall and they will be saved from much more serious injury because they were wearing a helmet," Lee said. "That said, I'm not going to make them wear a helmet just to ride down the block or go to a neighbor's house."

The law, however, does empower parents to be stricter about telling their children to wear protective gear, Lee said.

" 'It's the law' sounds a lot stronger as a reason than 'because I want you to,' " he said.

Local law enforcement said it would treat the new law similarly to the bicycle helmet requirement.

Officers will be focused more on making sure children understand the need for a helmet than on issuing citations, Newport Beach Police Lt. Tom Gasi said.

"We recognize the law needs to be enforced, but it should be an educational encounter rather than a punitive one," Gasi said. "We're trying to encourage kids to use helmets for their own safety, not break their banks by ticketing them."

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