Section VII. Profiles

F. Seymour, Connecticut

Jurisdiction: Town.

Effective Date: July 1, 1998 (Suspended July 21, 1998; repealed in September 1998).

Ages covered by the law: All riders.

Penalty: $25 fine for first offense, which could be waived upon proof of bicycle helmet ownership; up to $100 fine for each succeeding violation.

Agency enforcing the law: Police department.

Legislative language is reprinted in Section VIII F, page 148.

Seymour, CT, is a predominately middle-income white community, suburban/rural; population is approximately 15,000.

Impetus For The Law:

Connecticut has a state bicycle helmet use law requiring bicycle helmet use by those under age 15 but it includes no penalties for violation other than a verbal warning.

Bicycle helmet promotion efforts are primarily left up to communities. One state official said: “We don’t do a lot in bicycle safety. We use an outcome-based planning process; we look at data, which says that we don’t have a bicycle safety problem relative to other areas. We’re at or below the national average in bicycle accidents.”

The Connecticut SAFE KIDS Coalition and numerous community groups have been very active in promoting bicycle helmet use, including the Lower Naugatuck Valley (CT) Safe Communities coalition. This coalition serves the Seymour area as well as participating in the state-wide SAFE KIDS coalition. The coalition’s members decided to pursue an ordinance as a next step in bicycle safety after two children were killed in bike crashes over a several-year period. One was a high-publicity case involving a drunk driver who had been released by the police just before the crash.

In these fatal crashes, one child was seven (&); one was twelve (12); neither was wearing a bicycle helmet. The Safe Communities coalition decided the town deserved a stronger law. They approached the local political leadership -- the town’s selectmen -- with the “model” minors-only ordinance developed by the National SAFE KIDS Campaign, and asked them to enact such an ordinance.

“Basically, what we wanted was to enforce the state law and give it some bite,” said a local supporter. Something quite different happened.

The Bicycle Helmet Environment And Existing Efforts:

Before approaching the town’s lawmakers, the Safe Communities coalition conducted a variety of bike safety efforts, as mentioned above. They had passed out more than 1,500 bike helmets in the 18 months prior to the adoption of the ordinance. The coalition held education programs, particularly in middle schools. Every fall and spring, students were reminded of the need to protect their heads and brains while biking; one of the presentations taught students about the fragility of brain tissue, informally dubbed “Jell-O in a jar.” Bicycle safety was featured at some community days where parents attended, but the programs in general were focused on children rather than on parents.

The Process Of Adoption:

Lower Naugatuck Valley Safe Communities joined with emergency medicine professionals in approaching the town council in support of a stronger bicycle helmet use ordinance. Their most influential argument was the safety benefit of bicycle helmet use. The town’s police chief, however, was opposed to the ordinance because he was concerned about the additional burden it would place on his department.

The ordinance was first considered by the town’s ordinance subcommittee, which consists of selectmen and some community members. The subcommittee decided to go ahead with a bicycle helmet use ordinance – but to expand the proposal to cover all ages. Then the modified ordinance was included in a package with an anti-smoking ordinance. That ordinance prohibited smoking by children up to age 18 and imposed a fine on children caught smoking. Both ordinances were adopted by the board and took effect July 1, 1998.

The decision to expand the scope of the ordinance was taken without consulting the supporting coalition, according to coalition members. The broader scope of the reworked ordinance concerned the members of the Safe Communities coalition.

Implementation Of The Ordinance:

When residents learned of the two new ordinances, there was an immediate negative response. According the Safe Communities coordinator, “people went ballistic.” He paraphrased the opposition as: “When the town says I have to wear a helmet and the state law says I don’t have to, that’s a violation of my civil liberties.”

The town’s charter allows for a petitioning and referendum process. If enough registered voters (in this case, 400) signed a petition for reconsideration, then the issue would go to a referendum. A petition was circulated and the necessary signatures were quickly gathered. The ordinance was suspended 21 days after it took effect, pending the outcome of the referendum.

The supporters who had approached the selectmen asking for a bicycle helmet use ordinance were in a difficult position. Their intent was to establish an improved bicycle helmet use law for children, but when the ordinance was extended to all bike riders in the community, “we knew there was no way it was going to pass.”

“It was difficult for us to support a bill that would go so far beyond the state law,” said one local activist. “We couldn’t go door to door saying we supported this.” Though some in the coalition supported the ordinance in concept, no groups worked to support the ordinance in the referendum.

Meanwhile, opponents to the bicycle helmet use/smoking package organized and worked hard to win the referendum. The Seymour Ambulance Service and others successfully submitted some articles in the local paper about the benefits of bicycle helmet use from an EMS and injury prevention perspective. However, the combination of factors, such as the broader law, the linkage with the smoking ordinance, organizations unable to endorse the broader proposal encountering well-organized opposition, led to a situation that, according to one leader, “was a mess.”

In September, the community vote to repeal both ordinances was approximately 10 to 1.

Enforcement:

Due to the furor over the ordinance and its swift suspension, there is little to report about its enforcement. The few days it was in effect allowed little time for education or enforcement.

Bicycle Helmet Use Law Effectiveness:

The Lower Naugatuck Valley Safe Communities has several different perspectives from which to consider the effectiveness of bicycle helmet use laws. They pursued a stronger local ordinance because they believed the existing state law was not effective. They selected and advocated for the model SAFE KIDS approach because they believed it would be effective; they were unable to determine if it would have been effective because it was not adopted. The approach that was adopted was clearly not effective, being swiftly repudiated by the community at large.

Their earlier experience, in seeking to increase bicycle helmet use in their community, taught them that, “just throwing a helmet out there isn’t enough. Coordinated activities are needed.” The existence of the state law, in the absence of any penalty provision, did little to increase bicycle helmet use. Passing a law without also doing interventions such as education and bicycle helmet distribution did not work.

“We were willing to do the intervention, to go into schools, take other steps. The problem was that before we could get those programs into place,” the town leaders had broadened the ordinance so much that the community rebelled, thus “taking the issue out of our hands.”

The coalition’s goal is to increase bicycle helmet use, with or without a law. The coalition members would consider undertaking programs that other jurisdictions have been shown to be effective without requiring bicycle helmet use. However, the coalition’s interpretation of “effective” means evidence generated through study and research, not just anecdotal reports. The coalition director does not believe such efforts are underway (see next section).

Evaluation:

For bicycle helmet supporters in Seymour, the greatest barrier to evaluating their interventions, be it education, giveaways, or laws, has been lack of fiscal resources, followed by lack of time. The coalition has had experience in doing evaluations of teen seat belt use, where they did an intervention, measuring (observing) belt use before and after to see if their effort made a difference.

While the coalition director felt it was rather easy to sit in front of a high school and observe teen safety belt use pre/post intervention, a parallel effort on bicycle helmet use was described as being more difficult and complicated. The coalition director is unaware of sources of funds for such an evaluation.

Retrospective Analysis:

The Lower Naugatuck Valley Safe Communities would have preferred that the town’s ordinance committee had adopted the model SAFE KIDS ordinance submitted to them. They would have put before the community a law that covered only minors, not bicyclists of all ages.

Bicycle helmet advocates might also have sought the support of a bicycle helmet manufacturer to undertake a pilot study of the ordinance. Such a study would have shown if the ordinance was effective and/or if it needed to be modified. It would have allowed proponents to provide objective information to the community about the law and its effectiveness.

Safe Communities members do not intend to spearhead another effort to adopt a bicycle helmet use law at this time, focusing their resources on other activities. Some leaders of the opposition remain active in the community, opposing other measures that they deem to be intrusive.

The coalition remains involved in injury prevention and has “lots of positive things going on.” The lead agency of the coalition, the Seymour Ambulance Association, received the National EMT Association’s Leo R. Schwartz Emergency Medical Service of the Year award for 2000. In March 2000, the Safe Communities/SAFE Kids Coordinator, Frank Marcucio, was named national provider of the year; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Emergency Medical Services to Children also named him a national hero.