- Associated Press - Sunday, June 29, 2014

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - As crowds of teenage skaters take turns maneuvering through Eugene’s new skatepark at Washington Jefferson Park, one youth stands out due to his full collection of wrist, knee and elbow pads, topped with a stickered helmet pulled tightly across his chin.

As his dirty hands and scraped pads attest, Sean Elliott, 10, still finds ways to fall off his board. But even when visiting Eugene for a family vacation from Madison, Wis., Sean and his family are careful not to forget the safety essentials, even if that means sticking out.

“Back home, everyone wears a helmet,” Tammy Elliott, Sean’s mother, said. “You’d be the odd one out if you weren’t wearing one, so it’s different here seeing so many kids without them.”

Helmets and other protective gear are not a common sight at Eugene’s skateparks, even though a decade-old Oregon law mandates that riders ages 15 and under must wear helmets when riding a bike, skateboard, scooter or in-line skates.

State Sen. Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield, was among those who championed the law. When it passed in 2003, he and other lawmakers referenced the death of 11-year-old Tyler Amundson near his Springfield home.

Amundson was riding his scooter down a hill when he crashed into a moving truck and hit his head on the pavement, later dying as a result of head injuries. He was not wearing a helmet.

Yet even a law formed by tragedy doesn’t motivate many kids to fasten their hard hats. In fact, many don’t seem to know such a law exists, though they certainly notice that no such law is enforced.

“The cops do come, but it’s mostly because people tend to drink here,” Daunte Blackwell, a 13-year-old skateboarder, said. “I’ve never seen or heard of anyone getting a ticket for (not wearing) helmets.”

Several parents at the new skatepark this past week agreed that there’s insufficient enforcement of the law to ensure children are being safe away from home.

For Morrisette, there lies the rub.

“There has to be some enforcement for anything,” Morisette said. “My son got 4 or 5 tickets for not wearing seat belts and he finally got smart and put them on. I would recommend deputizing people. Send someone down once and a while to the skatepark and start handing out tickets. Pretty soon word would get out and everyone would start wearing their helmet. That’s what has to happen.”

But Eugene police Sgt. Larry Crompton said he thinks education, not enforcement, is the best way to get kids to wear helmets - at least initially.

“(Few) 13-, 14- or 15-year-old knows the law so we have to make an attempt above and beyond to let these kids know what the laws are,” Crompton said. “We’re seeing an increase (in skateboarders) all over downtown making their way to the Washington Jefferson skatepark and we are trying to educate as many as possible, but a time comes when we start issuing tickets.”

Crompton said officers keep track of those who have been warned previously about riding without a helmet, so as to educate first-timers and reduce the number of repeat offenders. Police have the discretion to issue a $25 citation, but often issue a warning first. Some citations have been issued, but Crompton did not know how many.

“The law says that they have to wear a helmet, and most kids are aware of that even if they say they aren’t, but we still try to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Crompton said.

Shane MacRhodes is program manager for Safe Routes to School, a program that offers educational courses in middle schools in Eugene and Springfield on how to ride bicycles safely. He recommends the implementation of a so-called diversion program for young bikers and skaters that would reduce fines and create opportunities for individuals to learn about defensive riding, basic road laws and the importance of visible and protective apparel.

“We want police to enforce the law more than they are in some ways,” MacRhodes said. “If we can get the police giving out more tickets with the diversion programs in mind, hopefully we could get people to obey the laws more often.”

At Washington Jefferson Park, a sign above and near the skatepark encourages skaters to wear a helmet, and a distant plaque reminds that skaters under 16 legally must wear a helmet, as well as additional park rules and skating etiquette.

Henry Soderberg, a first aid station team coordinator with the American Red Cross, was at the skatepark’s grand opening earlier this month, when he helped treat several injured skateboarders, including one who dislocated his elbow. He said he feels the park could use more signs to help promote more frequent use of helmets.

“The law makes sense, but we need to create a culture that will end up greatly reducing severe head trauma,” Soderberg said. “There has been very good research from public health departments and universities that say a helmet will reduce the chance for head, neck or spinal injuries.”

Although proper posting doesn’t solve the problem, Kerry Peterson with Eugene Parks and Open Space said the city does plan to add five more signs at the Washington Jefferson skatepark by the end of the year. But the city’s influence goes only so far, she said.

“Really, it comes down to parenting and saying, ‘You can do this, but you have to wear a helmet,’” Peterson said. “It makes me sad to see very young children with their parents who don’t have that protective gear on because I think that (getting used to wearing a helmet) has to start at a young age.”

But most of the young skateboarders say they are set in their ways and don’t feel the law will prompt them to start wearing a helmet.

“The law doesn’t do much to change my mind,” Mason King, 16, said. “I’ll put on a helmet if I’m trying something new, but otherwise I’m confident that I won’t fall or get hurt.”

But Sean, for one, said he will always sport his pads and helmet, even if the law - or his mom - doesn’t require it.

“I would wear one even if I didn’t have to because I don’t want to get hurt.”

___

Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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