Keep Children Safe:
Chain 'em in the closet

(Testimony read by Charles Komanoff before the hilariously-named "Health Committee" of the New York City Council, which is considering a bill to require helmets on children using push-scooters. Charlie's painful but amusing description of the experience is excerpted below. We've done this before, with similar results.

We've even gotten into the papers on this subject, with Op-eds by Martha Rowen and Charles Komanoff. None of it did any good; laws that punish kids and facilitate cars are great favorites with the City Council.)

[Testimony before NY City Council Health Committee, 9 November 2000, re Intro 818]

Members of the committee: Scooters don't kill kids; cars kill kids.

The bill before you today, Intro 818, probably owes its existence to the tragic death last month in Elizabeth, NJ, of 6-year-old Andy Pino, who scooted out into the road and was run over. The police officer at the scene said that a helmet would not have saved Andy. Yet here we are, talking about helmets. Helmets for cyclists, helmets for skaters, now helmets for scooters.

Why not go all the way and mandate helmets for pedestrians? After all, a couple of hundred pedestrians are run over and killed every year in New York City; in the past five years, 80 of the dead have been children under 14. If a helmet law is a sensible response to young Andy's death in Elizabeth, why isn't it a sensible response to the death of Dante Curry or Quinntaun Burns or Aaron Brown?

You don't recognize these names? Dante and Quinntaun and Aaron were three of the 80 run over, and killed, just like Andy. Right here in New York City: Dante in the South Bronx, Quinntaun in Fort Greene, Aaron in Jamaica. On residential streets, in broad daylight. But in their cases, there was nowhere to displace the blame - no scooter to scapegoat. Dante and Quinntaun and Aaron were killed by cars, no more and no less. To pay attention to their deaths would unavoidably mean taking a look at - cars.

That wouldn't be easy. For the entire past century, government has given more and more of our public streets to cars, and conferred more and more privileges on drivers. Members of the Health Committee, that policy - the one that kills 16 kids, and 200 other pedestrians, each year - is itself one of the biggest health menaces your constituents face.

Experience with helmet laws for cyclists has taught that such laws discourage cycling. The effect on scooters will be even more poisonous. The scooter isn't much bigger than the helmet; there isn't even a place to hang the helmet. Scooting isn't gear-intensive like scuba-diving; it's like walking or running. Intro 818 will for all practical purposes outlaw scooting. Kids like mobility as much as adults; deprive them of it and you will harass them off the streets and back indoors to watch TV. And what do you think the health consequences of that will be? In short, this bill is another nail in the coffin of what we used to call childhood.

Oh, the streets will be safer, all right - safer for cars. Motorists will no longer have to worry about having to watch out for those pesky kids. But is that really the kind of "safety" we want?

As members of the City Council, you have any number of means at your disposal to make our streets safe - safe for children, that is, rather than for cars. You can insist that police safeguard crosswalks near schools. You can shame the mayor into keeping his "State of the City" speech promise to take away cars from drivers who endanger pedestrians. You can take steps - they are well understood - to slow cars rather than speed them up; to reduce traffic rather than encourage it.

Let's be honest. If cars are an untouchable sacred cow - if it's more important for them to race through the streets than for our kids to play outdoors - then say so. But please don't pretend you're doing something about a deadly danger, just by making the victims wear a funny hat.

(Charlie's description of the experience.)

I attended the City Council hearing today on the scooter-kid mandatory-helmet bill. It was awful.

The hearing, before the Health Committee, lasted over three hours. Victor Robles (Brooklyn) chaired it, and five other Council members attended: James Oddo (Staten Island) and Pedro G. Espada, Jr. (Bronx) were there more or less throughout; Jose Rivera (Bronx), Julia Harrison (Queens) and Christine Quinn (Manhattan) each sat in for an hour or so.

Witnesses were, in order: for the City administration, the Assistant Commissioner of the Dept .of Health, Dr. Susan Wilk; Captain Michael DeFilippo, NYPD; Assembly member Jeffrey Dinowitz of the Bronx (81st district) who is sponsoring a similar bill, #11542, in the legislature; a representative of the New York County Medical Society, representing a neurologist (who couldn't attend) who basically said "concussions are bad" and had nothing to say about scooters; Susan Boyle of Transportation Alternatives; and myself.

The City witnesses supported the bill but "with reservations" on details such as who would actually enforce. Dinowitz and the medical rep endorsed. Susan and I opposed.

I'll give some details shortly, after stating the two biggest "lessons" I took from the hearing. One is the appalling buffoonery of the chair, Victor Robles. The other is the strength of the delusion shared by all six Council members, and Assembly member Dinowitz, that the bill would contribute meaningfully to protecting of children in NYC.

Robles first. He had no grasp of the issue. He literally did not hear the important statement by the Assistant Health Commissioner, made several times, and repeated by TA's Susan Boyle, that none of the seven emergency room visits by scooter kids to 20 NYC hospitals (out of some 70), sampled during a recent week by DOH, involved head injuries. Robles repeated, half-a-dozen times, a story about how he bought a scooter for his grand-nephew, who promptly fell off it, re-injuring his previously broken [!] arm but not his head. He said he wanted this law to be his legacy (he's term- limited) and then disavowed any such wish when I used that to make a point.

Robles referred to the 6-year-old boy killed in Elizabeth, NJ as a 9- year-old girl, even after being corrected. He said Muhammad Ali's boxing-induced Parkinsonism justifies helmets on kids. He referred to the state juvenile-cyclist helmet law "[that] protects children from bicycles." And that wasn't a "W"-style malapropism; it's his mindset.

Now the delusion, which I'll apply particularly to Oddo (who at least seemed thoughtful) and Espada, since they challenged both Susan and me quite strongly. Neither gave any credence to the idea that a scooter helmet law would reduce scooter use; or that it would whitewash governmental inaction on murderous traffic by letting the Council members feel they had accomplished something; or that they should be concerned that it would avert at best just a handful of injuries (I tried to take them through the percentages), whereas controlling cars and drivers could save huge numbers; or that they might just as well mandate helmets for kids walking or whatever. I might as well have been talking to the wall.

More delusion: Assembly member Dinowitz said, "A young child recently died in NJ as a result of operation of a scooter as to whether he would have survived if he had been wearing a helmet, we don't know." Thus denying NJ police lieutenant Edward Baginski's statement (NY Times, Sept. 27) that a helmet wouldn't have made a dime's worth of difference.

Ah, but some truths did emerge. Here are three:

They do hate scooters. Pedro Espada, who has a 4-y-o daughter: "I took her scooter and I threw it in the garbage. I think it's disgusting that they made these scooters." Not quite as virulently, but in a similar vein, Robles decried the fact that the scooters, formerly $99, can now be bought for as little as $39. Yup, keep children safe -- chain 'em in the closet.

Cars are untouchable. Julia Harrison, responding to Susan Boyle's pleas for traffic- calming instead of helmet laws: "Traffic-calming won't work. The DOT nixes road narrowing. The police and fire depts. veto speed humps around schools. Driver ed is useless". All perfectly true, of course; so let's require kids to pay the price.

In fact, cars are unmentionable. Not until Susan spoke, almost 2 hours into the hearing, did anyone utter the words "car" or "motor vehicle." Though the death in Elizabeth was invoked repeatedly by one official after another, none mentioned that the kid was run over!

As for myself: I was near-apoplectic at having to wait through Robles' interminable and pointless story-telling; and then an hour's worth of mostly bonehead questioning directed at Susan. ( "I respect the work of the T.A. but you're off-base here," so you better watch yourself, sister, that kind of thing.) I read our statement. I did have some good, mutually respectful colloquy with Oddo. I ended up in a shouting match with Espada, who accused me(!) of trying to exploit Dante Curry's death. [Editor's note: Espada is the council member who has so far successfully obstructed renaming a Bronx street after young Dante Curry while dishing out gallons of hypocritical sentimentality and feigned concern to Dante's mom.]

Essays and reflections -- contents