Charles Komanoff


2001 essay, "Yet another helmet law? Let's skip it"

(Originally appeared on the Op-Ed Page of the Daily News, Jan. 10, 2001)

See if you can guess my choice for vehicle of the year. It's an environmentalist's dream, completely nonpolluting and practically inaudible. It's small and nimble, perfect for traffic-clogged cities and suburbs.

Yes, it's slow, with a top speed below 10 mph, and it carries only one person - the driver. But because it's so slow and small, it's harmless. At $99 or under, it's dirt-cheap. And it's fun!

Sound too good to be true? A lot of people seem to think so. Dozens of states and cities - including New York City - have laws in the works that would keep people away from such vehicles.

As you've probably guessed, my vehicle of the year is the folding push-scooter. Push-scooters have sold like wildfire - several million in their first year. But here comes the crackdown, under the dubious guise of safety. With so many scooters in use, there were bound to be some injuries. In September, federal safety officials totaled the sprains and fractures and issued an advisory. The media snapped it up. Then, a week later, a car ran over a 6-year-old on a scooter in Elizabeth, N.J.

So a half-dozen burgs in the Northeast, including Elizabeth, have banned scooting unless the child wears a helmet. And tomorrow, the New York City Council's Health Committee will hold a hearing on a bill to require helmets for scooter riders 14 and younger.

No one is questioning whether this is really in the kids' interest. In fact, it's not. Helmets won't save scooter kids. That would require doing something about cars - slowing them down, for example, and making drivers observe kids' and other pedestrians' right of way.

The boy in Elizabeth was one of the thousand or so children killed by cars in U.S. residential neighborhoods each year, including 15 to 20 in New York City. Typically in these cases, the body is crushed or the impact to the head is too severe for a helmet to help. A helmet wouldn't have saved the boy in Elizabeth, the police officer at the scene said.

Fortunately, scooting is done mostly on sidewalks, in schoolyards and in parks where motor vehicles aren't permitted. In those settings, serious head injuries are extremely rare. Once a kid has mastered it, scooting isn't much more hazardous than running or even walking. If scooters require helmets, then so does an afternoon at the playground.

With a helmet law, scooting would be a lot less natural, simple and convenient.

Scooters aren't a problem, they're a solution. We should be encouraging, not stifling them. Scooting is good for kids, and not just athletic ones. Almost any child can scoot and feel cool doing it. It doesn't take special equipment or facilities - although wider sidewalks would be nice.

Kids have little independent mobility as it is, and childhood obesity reportedly is reaching epidemic proportions. Scooting is a simple and inexpensive way for kids to get the exercise and regain the autonomy that previous generations enjoyed as their birthright. If we really want to make kids safer, we'll curb adult behavior that endangers them - aggressive or oblivious driving, for example.

But somehow, that's not in the legislation. We'd rather make the kids pay the price for adult privilege. And spend their childhood in perfect safety, in front of the TV, pining for the keys to the car.