SACRAMENTO — With no votes to spare, the state Senate on Tuesday approved legislation requiring all bicycle riders in California under the age of 18 to wear crash helmets or pay a fine of $25.
A 21-13 vote, the precise majority required, sent the proposal back to the Assembly, which narrowly approved it two months ago. If it wins Assembly passage again, as expected, it will go to an uncertain future at the hands of Gov. Pete Wilson.
A spokesman said Wilson, who has made prevention of childhood injury and illness a cornerstone of his Administration, has taken no position on the bill by Assemblyman Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles).
If signed by Wilson, the measure would become law Jan. 1. During a first-year grace period, young violators would be given only warnings by police.
But in 1995, they or their parents would be subject to citations and fines of up to $25 per offense.
Proponents of the bill, sponsored by the California Coalition for Children's Safety and Health, have testified that bicycle-related crashes are the No. 1 cause of death and brain injury to children between ages 5 and 14. The law already requires bicycle passengers younger than 4 to wear helmets.
The measure's backers said 17,800 children were admitted to California emergency rooms in 1991 for bicycle-related head injuries. Also in 1991, the last year for which figures are available, 138 people died in hospitals because of bike injuries, more than half of them children, state figures show.
Making helmets mandatory would dramatically reduce both the toll of personal suffering and the high cost of medical care for victims, proponents say.
Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) told the Senate that it is difficult for adults to comprehend the severity of brain injuries that can occur from even a relatively minor bike accident. He said his unhelmeted son, Joaquin, suffered a head injury in a bike crash several years ago and recovered.
"If he had been wearing a helmet, he would not have had to undergo six hours of brain surgery and (subsequent long) hours of reconstructive surgery," Torres said. "This bill can really have an impact on saving parents and children from terrible circumstances."
But opponents of the bill, including Sen. Quentin L. Kopp (I-San Francisco), challenged the wisdom of enacting a helmet law at a time when police department budgets are stretched to the breaking point and adult crime rates are soaring.
"I can certainly see the scenario of a cop citing a 6- or 7-year-old bicyclist for not wearing a helmet. That's quite a use of law enforcement resources," Kopp sarcastically told the Senate.
Another opponent, Sen. Gary Hart (D-Santa Barbara), asked why, if the bill was such a "great idea for children, it doesn't apply to adults?" He said he considered the helmet law typical of bills targeting Californians who are too young to vote and cannot defend themselves at the polls.
The bill has drawn support from health care professionals, insurance companies, police organizations, safety groups and children's advocates. It has been opposed by various local and regional bicycle clubs.
Bike clubs have maintained that helmets should be required of all riders, regardless of age. They also are concerned that enforcement will be uneven from community to community.
Some critics complained that poor families won't be able to afford helmets, which generally cost from $20 to $60.
To blunt such criticism, the bill contains a provision earmarking more than 70% of the revenue from helmet fines for loans and grants to help poor families buy helmets and for bicycle safety education.
Steve Barrow of the Children's Advocacy Institute noted that several states have adopted similar helmet laws for children, including New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Tennessee, Oregon and New Jersey.
The maximum age and penalties for violations vary in other states. Jim Gelb, an assistant to Caldera, said that Tennessee's law applies to youngsters up to age 12 and the fine is only $2. The recently enacted New York law carries a fine of $50 and applies to youths up to age 15, he said.
Barrow said the maximum age of 18 for California stemmed from political considerations.
"Politically, we couldn't get the (favorable) votes for a bill that applied (to adults)," he said.
He said 18 was agreed upon because that is usually the age youngsters graduate from high school.
Unlike the nearly 30-year-long legislative battle involved in enacting a 1991 law requiring motorcyclists to wear safety helmets, the bicycle helmet battle was a hard-fought but relatively low-profile affair.
The Caldera bill has been described as an extension of the law requiring bicycle passengers under the age of 4 to wear helmets.