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Child Helmet Bills Cover ATVs, Bicycles

By Jeff Jones
Journal Staff Writer
    Every New Mexico child would have to strap on a helmet before hopping on a bicycle, tricycle, skateboard, scooter, skates or all-terrain vehicle, if lawmakers and health experts have their way.
    A pair of bills to be introduced during the 2005 Legislature aim to slam the brakes on years of unregulated ATV use and prevent serious brain injuries among children on all types of wheels.
    A third child-safety bill, which would mandate car booster seats for youngsters too old for safety seats, is in the works, according to the state Department of Health.
    It's the first time for the booster-seat measure, intended to position the older children higher in car seats so seat belts fit better. It will be round two and round three, respectively, for the previously unsuccessful ATV and bike-helmet bills. They're bound to be controversial again, but supporters of both bills say they're optimistic the 2005 campaigns will end in passage.
'This is going to pass'
    "The conventional wisdom is, this is going to pass this session," said Sen. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, who will sponsor the ATV bill.
    Gov. Bill Richardson also supports an ATV bill. Richardson spokesman Billy Sparks said Tuesday that Richardson is willing to examine the other safety measures but added the governor's main focus has been on an ATV law.
    "With all three of these (bills) ... it's only a matter of 'when,'" added John McPhee, childhood injury prevention coordinator for the health department. "There's enough clear (safety) data on all of these. It's only a matter of which session it gets passed in."
    There are no laws in New Mexico requiring helmets, goggles or training for the fun and fast ATVs.
    A 2003 Journal investigation found that New Mexico had more than 40 ATV deaths in the last decade, and many of the victims were under age 20. In 2002, at least 10 people died.
    Feldman on Monday said many of the provisions in her 2005 bill will mirror last year's effort.
    In addition to requiring helmets, goggles and training for youths ages 17 and younger, the final version of the 2004 bill would have required ATVers to pay a $30 fee every two years. That money would have been used to help establish designated ATV play areas around New Mexico.
    A group of enthusiasts called the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance wants Feldman to remove language that would ban adults from taking a passenger on most ATVs.
Not negotiable
    Feldman said she isn't inclined to budge on that issue: Most ATVs aren't designed for a passenger, the machines themselves are marked with warning stickers saying so and the ATV industry itself endorses a passenger ban.
    Nationwide, thousands of ATV passengers have wound up in emergency rooms. A child riding in front of an adult on an ATV could be crushed by a much-heavier adult in a wreck.
    "I am resisting any changes," Feldman said of her bill. "We are basically going to go with the bill that we had last year. Everyone had given a little, and gotten more."
    Joanne Spivack of Albuquerque, president of the off-highway vehicle alliance, said Tuesday her group is largely in favor of what Feldman is proposing.
    Passengers on ATVs are a common sight in New Mexico's rural areas, and Spivack said banning the practice would turn lots of otherwise law-abiding ATV users into lawbreakers.
    "We want the trail fund. We want the training. We want the helmets," Spivack said. But when it comes to passengers, "are you going to criminalize what 90 percent of the people are doing with these machines?"
    Kathy Van Kleeck, vice president of government relations for the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, which represents ATV manufacturers, reiterated that manufacturers are in favor of a passenger ban on ATVs not designed for them.
    "I think we've said it about as clearly as we can," Van Kleeck said.
Plenty of company
    The health department's McPhee said 20 states currently have helmet laws for children on bicycles.
    Most deaths resulting from bicycle wrecks are caused by brain injury, he said, adding the number of brain injuries has dropped by 45 percent in places where helmet laws are in effect.
    The proposed bill emphasizes education over punishment, McPhee said: Under the proposal, parents who neglect to put a helmet on their kids would need to view a safety video for their first infraction.
    "It's more of a public-education (law) with some teeth— but not shark's teeth," said Rep. Gail Beam, D-Albuquerque, one of the sponsors of the new bike-helmet bill.
    Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, will sponsor the measure on the Senate side.
    New Mexico has a child safety-seat law for children 4 and younger, but McPhee said there are no provisions requiring older children, weighing 40 to 80 pounds, to ride in a car booster seat.
    "It's a gap in the law," McPhee said, adding those older children are too big for child seats, yet too small for seat belts.
    Children in that weight group can suffer severe injuries from the adult-sized seat belts, McPhee said.
    He added that about half of the states in the U.S. have already passed booster-seat legislation.