The Consumer Product Safety Commission, responding to a petition filed on behalf of 35 medical, safety and bicycle groups, announced yesterday that it will study whether federal safety standards are needed for bicycle helmets.

By a 2 to 1 vote, the commission agreed to examine whether the voluntary standards now in place are sufficient protection for bike riders.

Commissioner Carol Dawson said she voted against the study because the petitioners failed to show that riders are being injured as a result of wearing substandard helmets. She also suggested that the commission is sending out a signal that helmets are not safe.

"We need to get people to wear helmets. This position does not do that," Dawson said.

However, Commissioner Anne Graham, who voted for the new study, said the commission did not want to be in the position of promoting helmets that are inadequate. Each year, she said, bike accidents claim more than 1,100 lives and "approximately 900 deaths could be averted by proper use of effective helmets."

"I don't think there's any question that wearing a helmet is a good thing. We just want to see whether we can make a better bike helmet," Graham said.

Mary R. Fise, an attorney for the petitioners and the Consumer Federation of America's product safety director, said the need for federal helmet standards became apparent recently when Consumer Reports released its study of bicycle helmets claiming to meet voluntary standards. The study indicated that certain helmets may not stay on riders' heads during a fall, while others may not adequately cushion a blow.

"More and more communities like Howard County are starting to look at mandating helmet use and some are questioning whether it's the proper thing to do in light of an absence of federal standards," Fise said.

Last month Howard County became what bicycle associations say is the first jurisdiction in the nation to pass an ordinance mandating helmet use for bicyclists.

Howard County Council member Angela Beltram (D-District 2) voted against the ordinance because she said she was uncomfortable requiring the use of something that meets only voluntary standards. The county law requires that helmets meet standards set by the American National Standards Institute or the Snell Memorial Foundation.

Bicycle groups, which have generally opposed mandatory helmet laws, joined the American Medical Association, the National Head Injury Foundation, the National PTA and the National Safety Council and many other groups in supporting the petition.

"A lot of us believe that voluntary standards don't work per se because they are voluntary. They don't require manufacturers to meet standards," said William Wilkinson, executive director of the Bicycle Federation of America.

"If there's a surge in demand, chances will increase that a less-than-reputable company will leap in and attempt to make a quick buck, with helmets that don't meet any standards," he added.

The commission staff will now determine if the voluntary standards are adequate and whether the commission has the authority to set standards.