Helmet ordinance hearing draws mixed reaction

March 17, 2010 10:55:00 AM

Tim Pratt -


The first of two public hearings on a proposed child safety helmet ordinance drew mixed reaction Tuesday night from Starkville citizens, aldermen and former city officials. 


Several residents and aldermen said they were in favor of new rules which would require persons 16 and younger to wear a helmet while riding bicycles and other alternative forms of transportation, while others liked the concept but were concerned with how the measure was written.  


As it stands, the ordinance doesn''t specify who would be allowed to issue citations to violators of the ordinance. It says "any authorized agent" of the city can issue citations.  


The ordinance also states a parent or legal guardian of the violator must pay a $15 fine for a first offense, although it gives the parent or legal guardian the option to purchase a helmet in lieu of paying the fine. 


Mayor Parker Wiseman said only city police officers and code enforcement officers can issue citations. He also said the ordinance "isn''t meant to punitive" because its goal is to get people to purchase and wear helmets while riding bicycles and other alternative forms of transportation. 


"I think, in most cases, what this ordinance is aimed at and what it will do is require a helmet to be worn," Wiseman said. 


Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas doesn''t like the idea of a police officer or code enforcement officer stopping a child without a helmet and issuing a citation. 


"So if my 10-year-old is out on her bike and she gets a ticket, are they going to ask for her driver''s license?" Dumas said to a round of laughter.  


Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver had a similar concern. 


"Everybody laughs about this ... but if my son comes in at 6 years old with a ticket, I''m going to have a major issue with that," Carver said. "There''s going to be all kinds of profiling issues and identification of children and things like that." 


"Half of them don''t know their street address," Carver added.  


Carver also suggested the ordinance be revised to specify that only police and code enforcement officers can issue citations. He also suggested looking into ways to enforce the ordinance without a monetary fine.  


Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker also had concerns with the ordinance. 


"I understand the premise and I understand the safety issues, but personally, I think it''s my responsibility as a parent to make sure my kids have a helmet on," Parker said. "I think we''re taking lightly the ordinance. You say it''s not punitive, but it is. There is a punitive fine in there. I just think it''s the parents'' responsibility. I don''t know if the city needs to be in the business of requiring certain things in an ordinance like this." 


Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn, a member of the city''s Healthy Hometown Committee, which spearheaded the ordinance, said he is in favor of the helmet requirements. 


"We (are) pushing and pushing the bike lanes in the city, but why can''t we be safe with it?" Vaughn said. 


Dumas later said he is in favor of the ordinance, but was still worried about enforcement.  


"Frankly, I''m for the ordinance," Dumas said. "I think it''s a good thing. I think it''s something we should promote. But if I look at my children, I have a 10-year-old who, if she gets stopped on a bike, would probably think it''s pretty neat if she got a ticket. However, I have an 8-year-old who, if she got a ticket, it would be the most traumatic thing to her, and that''s just the difference in personality. So, I think, regardless of fine, regardless of money, how that is operated, how that is enforced, that''s where my main concern lies. I have all the faith in the world in our police officers and all the faith in the world in our code enforcement officers, but just understanding how much of an impact a child being pulled over when she''s on her bike with her buddies, how that may impact the individual, that''s what I have an issue with." 


Ward 7 resident Alvin Turner said he was in favor of the ordinance. 


"It''s better to be safe than sorry," Turner said. 


Former Ward 1 Alderman Sumner Davis, however, took issue with the ordinance. 


"I''m not necessarily against the concept of this ordinance," Davis said. "I''m against this ordinance as it is written. Basically, you''re going to cite a child who you may or may not be able to identify and bring their parents to a quasi-judicial hearing in the city of Starkville. How are you going to be able to positively identify who that citation belongs to?" 


Davis also had an issue with the wording that says any agent of the city can issue citations. 


"From the time children are very young, we talk about ''Don''t talk to strangers. It''s OK to talk to police, it''s OK to talk to firefighters,''" Davis said. "But our code enforcement (officers) are not uniformed agents. They''re plain-clothes, average looking people, and I''ve told my children not to talk to people like that. I just wish you would identify any agent of the city in a more specific manner." 


"The overall concept of trying to get children to wear helmets, I''m 100 percent behind," Davis continued. "The only thing I would urge you to do is if you all are going to pass an ordinance, which hopefully will stand for a long time and improve the safety of our children, just make sure you don''t set up certain pitfalls in trying to pass this ordinance." 


Jim Gafford, a member of the city''s transportation committee, shared a sentiment similar to Davis, saying he liked the intent of the ordinance. 


"One of the major problems I have with it is apparently we don''t care about adult safety," Gafford said. "So I just have that one question: Why is it limited to only children? Children are more likely to wear helmets than (adults). It''s really about education and encouragement." 


Lois Connington, director of Starkville In Motion''s Safe Routes to School program, and Linda Southward, of the Healthy Hometown Committee, spoke in favor of the ordinance. 


"It''s not just enough to paint a white line on the side of the street," Connington said of the bicycle lanes in town. "You have to encourage these people to wear helmets ... not only for the Healthy Hometown competition (in which the city is entered), but to improve the safety of our community."  


The second public hearing on the child safety helmet ordinance is schedule for the Board of Aldermen''s next meeting, April 6 at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall.