By NATHAN GREGORY
The Starkville Board of Aldermen held its first public hearing on amending the current bicycle safety helmet ordinance to allow riders over the age of 15 to ride without a helmet at its meeting Tuesday. A vote to hold a second public hearing after gathering input from the city’s transportation committee passed 5-2, with Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn opposed. Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey introduced the proposed amendment and called for the hearing at the board’s April 17 meeting.
The hearing drew a slew of citizen comments, both for and against making the change. Each member of the board also offered input.
Vaughn, who is a member of the city’s Healthy Hometown Committee, cited the city recently being awarded a Healthy Hometown grant by Blue Cross & Blue Shield for practicing safe habits such as the enforcement of helmets for bicyclists and said common sense alone was enough to merit this amendment not being passed.
“We were awarded $50,000 … now we’re taking the money and we’re going to run with it … What does this make us look like? Now we want to change the whole ball game after taking this money for being a healthy hometown in Mississippi,” Vaughn said. “If these kids have sense enough to put a helmet on, what’s wrong with the rest of us?”
Brent Crocker, who works at Mississippi State University as assistant director of the Sanderson Center and as an emergency medical technician, was one of several who spoke in favor of making the change.
“I don’t think a contest is the right reason to create an ordinance. Some kind of contest to win us notoriety or money is not the right way,” Crocker said. “To say ‘We won the award and we now need to keep it that way,’ is that despite the will of the people of Starkville? I understand the safety side of it, but if we say we’re going to do this in the name of safety, where do we stop? I think we have to expect personal responsibility from people … My daughter will wear a helmet when she rides because I told her to. I don’t need a law that says she has to. I generally wear a helmet when I ride, but that’s my decision. It shouldn’t be your decision.”
Starkville citizen Chris Taylor also spoke in favor of the proposed change.
“I hate that helmet, and I hate it when you make an ordinance telling me what I can and what I can’t wear on the road. I’m a grown man,” Taylor said.
Citizen Alvin Turner was opposed to any change.
“Do we really respect our police officers? We give them one thing to do and then we turn around and change it … They’re out there to make it safe for pedestrians like me, the people who ride bikes and the people who drive cars. We have laws and we need to stick to laws because if you don’t, people will wind up hating the government body that makes laws and (doesn’t) stick to them.”
Austin Check, who said he has worked in public safety for 10 years and has never worked a bicycle accident, was another citizen in favor of the change.
“The problem I do see is admittedly the (Starkville) police department is understaffed right now … and it’s all about allocation of resources. My house has had stuff stolen three times in the last six months, and the reason I hear we’re not able to get in (my) neighborhood is because of understanding.,” Check said. “It does nothing but absolutely burn my rear end to come off campus and see two patrol cars picking folks off for not wearing a helmet.”
Healthy Hometown Community member Ron Cossman proposed sending the issue to the city’s transportation committee to compile non-motorized vehicle accident as well as citation data for the city.
“(We should) pull together exactly what has happened over the past year when we began to enforce this (to find out) who are the affected populations, what has been the impact (and if) we have perhaps prevented some traumatic brain injuries as a result of having this ordinance in effect,” Cossman said. “Let’s get some facts.”
Ward 3 citizen Dave Garraway said he was against making the change on the principle that the freedom of making personal decisions should not take precedence over public health and safety.
“I don’t want (the board) to be dissuaded by logical fallacy arguments. The argument tonight that because we’ve historically not shown very many head injuries sustained by people not wearing bicycle helmets that we won’t have them in the future is a logical fallacy,” Garraway said. “History does not show the future because it does not take in account that 40 years ago there were fewer cars on the road. This was a smaller town. As we continue to grow and congest our roadways, we have more potential incidents that could occur.”
Ward 1 Ben Carver said he would be in favor the amendment when it comes to a vote.
“If this is something (Corey) would be willing to change and the transportation committee is OK with it, I think I’d be OK with it also,” he said.
Perkins said safety always needs to be the first element considered.
“There are some people who may not want to wear their seat belt, but it is a safety measure. Safety is always a good tool, a good mechanism that promotes the health and safety of all individuals traveling the roadways. It is my opinion that it would be a step backwards for this governing body to amend the helmet ordinance … because of strict enforcement.” Perkins said. “I don’t think it would be a prudent or safe move. I’m not even in favor of sending this to the transportation committee. We need to kill it on its face.”