COLLEGE PARK – Marjorie Webber, with 3-year-old Rachel strapped behind her, coasted her bicycle into the dappled sunlight of Calvert Road Park, hair whipping in the wind.
Minutes later, the bike’s front tire slipped on a hilly dirt trail, sending both Webber and her daughter careening to the ground. Neither was wearing a helmet. Luckily, no one was hurt.
As of Oct. 1, Maryland law required minors under the age of 16 to wear bicycle helmets. But many cycling Maryland trails over the weekend didn’t know about it.
“I could see it if you were going out on the highway, but in here?” Webber asked, glancing around at the nearly deserted park. “If they’re going to pass a law in Annapolis they ought to let people know about it.”
Even police were unaware of the helmet requirement. “I’m sure we will enforce it,” said Lt. Phillip Cholak of the U.S. Park Police Greenbelt Substation. “Usually we’ll get a teletype about things like this.”
Meanwhile, a Prince George’s County Police spokeswoman was sufficiently embarrassed by her ignorance that she declined to give a reporter her name. “I’m not at all familiar with it,” she said.
No one had heard about the law at nearby Lake Artemisia, which draws legions of bikers and roller-bladers with miles of wide asphalt trails.
Pony-tailed Rebecca Lopez, 10, leaned on the handlebars of her shiny red bike and confessed she had forgotten her helmet at home. Squirming, she looked up at her mother, and asked: “What would happen if we broke the law like we just did?”
Not much, as it turns out. Though police can issue a warning ticket, the emphasis is more on education and there is no penalty attached to the law, said Pat Bruce, an aide to Del. Mary Conroy (D-Prince George’s), who sponsored the bill in the 1995 General Assembly.
Conroy proposed the legislation out of concern “for children’s safety and the number of head injuries that have occurred,” Bruce added.
In Maryland, five children die each year and over 500 are hospitalized due to bicycle injuries. Overall, there were almost 2,000 traffic-related bicycle crashes in the state in 1993, with 17 percent resulting in an incapacitating injury, according to data from the Maryland Department of Transportation. According to one study, bicycle helmets can reduce head injuries by as much as 85 percent.
Told that police seemed to have been left in the dark on helmet enforcement, Bruce responded, “You’re kidding!”
But a member of the governor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee said he was not entirely suprised that many people didn’t know about the new law.
Notices explaining the law are being sent to the state’s 24 school superintendants “as we speak,” Don LaFond said. These will be followed by Department of Health and Mental Hygiene pamphlets, which will also be channeled to school systems.
Advisory committee members are scheduled to meet Oct. 19 to discuss statewide police notification and implementation.
But David Dionne of the Anne Arundel County Parks and Recreation Department was well aware of the helmet law when it passed in April. In fact, he’d been tracking its progress.
With about a million annual visitors to the Baltimore- Annapolis Trail, Dionne has preached helmet safety for years.
If an out-of-state bicyclist arrives at the trail without head protection, “we won’t turn them away,” he said. “But we’ll suggest they get helmets.” -30-