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.
Orange County supporters of the proposed legislation said Tuesday they were hopeful that the governor would approve the bill.
In recent years, the Fountain Valley and Irvine Unified school districts have required students who ride bicycles to school to wear helmets. Individual schools in Newport Beach, Fullerton, La Habra and in South Orange County also have imposed helmet rules.
"This is such a simple thing, and it saves lives," said Principal Bill Knight of Newport Elementary School, where a new helmet rule goes into effect on Sept. 13. "When the kids get used to it, it will be like putting on your shoes or your shirt."
Proponents of the bill, including 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.
They 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.
Backers contend that making helmets mandatory would dramatically reduce both the toll of personal suffering and the high cost of medical care for victims.
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 many unhelmeted children in bike wrecks are not as fortunate as Torres' son, local officials say.
Don Snyder, a former principal of Santiago School in Lake Forest, spearheaded a successful effort to enact a mandatory helmet policy four years ago after he and a crowd of students witnessed a car strike a girl walking home from school. The girl, a seventh-grader, suffered irreparable brain damage and is now in a wheelchair. She was not wearing a helmet.
Karen Evarts of Newport Beach, a mother of three and member of a group of activists who have been lobbying for helmet rules, said: "I think this is a place where most people realize that government has the right to impose on our lives for our own good, and the way to start is with children."
About four elementary schools in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District have enacted voluntary bike helmet policies in recent years, according to Tony Ignoffo, director of instructional services. Although the schools cannot legally enforce such policies, they have received cooperation from virtually all parents and students, Ignoffo said.
"We've seen a change in kids' attitudes about wearing helmets," Ignoffo said. "Younger kids are starting to be brought up that helmets are OK to wear. It's something you would have never seen in the olden day . . . kids didn't think it was the thing to do."
Opponents of the bill, including Sen. Quentin 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.