By Bob Uphues
Riverside trustees have temporarily shelved a deeper discussion about requiring bicyclists, skateboarders and roller-skaters to wear protective helmets – and face possible fines or community service – after a majority felt it wasn't the right time, given a pandemic that is already stretching village resources.
Trustee Wendell Jisa, who requested the matter be on the May 7 village board meeting agenda, said implementing a helmet law would be setting an example for other municipalities to follow.
Jisa said he's been asked by multiple residents about why the village didn't have such a law on the books, adding that he's wanted to bring the matter up for discussion for some time. He was spurred to do so now after recently witnessing an 11- or 12-year-old girl who had suffered a head injury by falling off a skateboard on the Barrypoint Road bridge.
"I think it's an opportunity for Riverside to lead by example and be a trailblazer in something that may not be in our state yet, but it is in 22 other states," Jisa said.
Having a law on the books, said Jisa, would provide parents of preteens more leverage in making sure their children wear helmets at an age where there is resistance to it and peer pressure to resist wearing them.
"It only takes one [accident] to matter, and I'm not sure who this little kid was the other day, but I guarantee you that the parents wished we had an ordinance like this," Jisa said.
Jisa added that such a law should apply to all ages and that violating it should result in a "significant" fine to encourage compliance.
"It's got to be painful enough where parents are going to force their kids to wear bike helmets, no matter what," Jisa said.
He also said providing community service as a punishment instead of being fined was a good alternative.
"I know how hard it is for parents to convince these kids to wear helmets at a certain age," Jisa said. "It's learned behavior and I think if we can create a pattern and be a leader in this, rather than a follower, it could be powerful and something we can leave a mark on."
But Jisa's fellow elected officials were not so keen on moving ahead with such a law at this time. Trustee Alex Gallegos wondered how "logistically enforceable" such a law would be, with Police Chief Thomas Weitzel saying he would not support a community service component, since courts require such service to be supervised, which can occupy a police department employee for hours at a time.
Trustee Elizabeth Peters amplified Gallegos' concern about enforcement, saying she wanted information on how such laws are enforced elsewhere. Only three Illinois communities –Inverness, Barrington and Skokie – have such laws in Illinois and all of those pertain to children under the age of 17 only. Chicago also has a helmet law, but it only covers professional bike couriers.
"It would be at least good to find out how they've approached it," Peters said.
Trustee Cristin Evans said she wasn't thrilled with the prospect of increased interactions between police and children, adding that once parents start receiving fine notices, there were bound to be complaints.
Before delving into the subject deeper, Evans said she wanted to hear from members of the community about their reactions to a helmet law.
President Ben Sells also expressed concern about making the first experience local children have with police one in which they were in trouble, and suggested the village could do more in terms of educating adults and children about the importance of wearing helmets.
"I am concerned, as Trustee Evans is, that children at that formative age, I'm not sure that it's a good thing to have some of their first encounters with police being given a citation," Sells said.
Trustee Doug Pollok also questioned how the village would deal with the many cyclists from elsewhere who bike through a town that's considered a connector of sorts to other bike routes in the area.
Trustee Edward Hannon and Sells agreed that village staff who are consumed with having to deal with the COVID-19 crisis didn't need any special projects to research at this time.
With village officials already imposing safety measures on residents related to the pandemic, said Hannon, "It's just not the time to ask people to give their thoughts about what further restrictions the village should put on them."
Sells said he felt the topic of requiring bike helmets was an important one to have.
"Whether the right way to go is a punitive ordinance or the right way to go is more information, there's no question that in terms of the safety aspect of it, I doubt anyone would disagree that it's a much better practice to wear the helmet than not," Sells said.