SACRAMENTO — Calling it "vital to the health of our children," Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation Friday requiring child bicycle riders to wear protective helmets whenever they ride on public streets and trails.
Wilson, plowing through hundreds of bills that he must act upon by midnight Monday, also rejected a measure that would have legalized needle exchange programs that are said to fight the spread of AIDS.
In signing the bicycle helmet bill, the Republican governor broke ranks with many lawmakers from his party who had complained that the measure represented an unnecessary government intrusion into a decision that ought to be left to individuals.
The bill cleared the Legislature last month without a vote to spare. "We are taking steps to protect the children of California from needless suffering and injury," Wilson said in a statement. "This helmet bill will save young lives. Nothing is more important than that."
According to backers of the measure, nearly 18,000 children were admitted to California emergency rooms in 1991 for bicycle-related head injuries. That year, state figures show, 138 people died in hospitals because of bike injuries, more than half of them children.
The new law will save "tens of millions of dollars of emergency room medical care, rehabilitation care and special education care, not to mention an untold amount of pain and suffering by parents, children and their loved ones," the bill's author, Assemblyman Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles), wrote to Wilson.
Caldera said the law would remove one of the primary reasons children don't wear helmets: peer pressure.
"It strengthens the parent's position that a helmet be worn whenever cycling," Caldera said.
The law applies to bicycle riders under age 18 and will take effect Jan. 1. But during a one-year grace period, violators will receive only warnings from police. Beginning in 1995, those cited or their parents will be subject to fines of up to $25 per offense.
To overcome criticism that helmets, priced at about $20 and up, would be a financial hardship on the poor, the bill earmarks more than 70% of the revenue from helmet fines for loans and grants to help low-income families buy helmets and for safety programs.
Caldera also said he believed that nonprofit groups such as Rotary clubs and the Parent-Teacher Assn. will expand their programs to underwrite the cost of helmets for the poor.
Steve Barrow, spokesman for the California Coalition for Children's Safety and Health, said the new law will be a "monumental" step forward.
"Child advocates are just ecstatic," Barrow said. "This is an absolutely necessary step in the evolution of safety for kids in California. We had seat belts, infant seats, the shoulder harness in the back seats of cars and, now, bicycle helmets."
Several states have similar helmet laws.
In rejecting the needle exchange bill, Wilson declined to reverse a position he took a year ago, when he vetoed similar legislation.
The bill, by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), would have required the state Health Services Department to license a program in San Francisco and to consider programs in other cities and counties. The programs allow addicts to trade used syringes for sterile ones.
Wilson's veto came one week after release of a federally funded study concluding that supplying sterile needles to drug addicts was an effective way to slow the spread of AIDS.
The 18-month study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said there was no evidence that needle exchange programs lead to an increase in drug use.
But Wilson, in his veto message, said the study did not prove that a reduction in the transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, took place in those areas that had needle exchange programs. He said the more basic issue involved was his belief that the programs send a message that it is OK to use drugs.
Wilson wrote: "In blunt terms, is it worth reducing the risk of infection to intravenous drug users at the potentially far greater cost of undermining all our other preventive anti-drug efforts and suffering as a result an enormous increase in the number of young people who make a wrong choice that leads to an enormous increase in addicts?"
Dave Ford, a spokesman for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, called the veto a cowardly move.
"We consider this veto a slap in the face to the HIV community," Ford said. "It's astonishing to think that he could ignore the hard medical evidence and scientific evidence and show such a callous disregard for the lives of certain residents of the state."
Brown said Wilson "has chosen to place the potential tragedy of imaginary drug addicts over the real-life pain and suffering of thousands of men and women and children who we know with certainty will die of AIDS because of a dirty needle."