Howard County may have gone further than any other jurisdiction in the nation with its new law requiring all bicycle riders to wear helmets, but opponents say the legislation backpedals away from fundamental personal rights.

"It's just another personal freedom being taken away," said Francis Lorin, a Columbia bicycling enthusiast who is collecting signatures to force a referendum on the law. "They're telling people they're too stupid to determine for themselves what is safe, when to use a helmet."

Unless there is a referendum, the law will take effect Oct. 1.

Lorin, who is studying engineering at the University of Maryland, and Richmond C. Laney, a father of five from Ellicott City, say people should be able to decide for themselves when to wear a helmet.

Lorin said he does not want government telling him he must "suffer the agony of having to wear this hot helmet in the middle of the summer." And Laney said parents should be able to set their own safety standards with their children.

The bike helmet law, the first of its kind in the nation, "is outrageous," Laney said. "Most kids are riding their bicycle not as transportation or as sport -- they're playing with it; it's a toy. You know there are going to be a lot of violations" of the ordinance.

The law's proponents, meanwhile, argue that it will save lives. They say they are confident voters will support the law if it is on the ballot in November.

"If it goes to referendum, the people carrying the petition will lose very badly," said County Council member Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5), who sponsored the legislation. "It seems dreadfully popular."

To put the law on the ballot, the petitioners need to obtain the signatures of about 4,500 voters, 5 percent of those registered in the county, within 60 days of the enactment of the law. If they obtain more than half that number within the 60 days, county law grants an additional 30 days to try to collect the remainder.

The law's opponents have gathered 620 signatures so far.

In past petition drives, notably last summer's failed effort to overturn the county's limit on new building permits, there have been disputes over when a law is technically "enacted." In this case, county election officials say the petitioners could have a deadline of as early as July 6 (60 days after the bill was passed) and as late as July 18 (60 days after it was signed into law). The county Board of Election Supervisors is set to rule June 25 on the matter.

Lorin said he needs all the time he can get. He has been collecting names from neighbors and at village centers in Columbia and has three other volunteers who will be collecting signatures in Columbia.

Meanwhile, Laney has been circulating the petition to neighbors and is hoping to set up tables at gasoline stations along Route 40 and at Centennial Park.

Aides to County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D) said there have been 32 phone calls and 24 letters in opposition to the law since she signed it in May. One of the letters had 125 signatures. About a dozen people have called to support the bill.

Many of the law's critics are particularly upset that it applies to adults as well as children, according to Bobo aide Grace Kubofcik. Children at a middle school in Feaga's district were the ones who first proposed the law. And as originally introduced, it would have applied only to children.

The petitioners also object to the cost of helmets.

"There are a lot of poor families in the county who cannot afford to pay their rent, let alone pay for a bicycle helmet," Lorin said.

He argues that the county government could better promote bicycle safety by making the county more "bicycle friendly," with designated bike lanes and warning signs.

"The county bike trails are fine for recreation," he said, "but if I just want to go to the mall or the store on my bike and pick up a few things, there's no protection for me."

Helmet law supporters want to discourage just such behavior, Feaga said.

"There are a lot of angry people out there who don't like bicycles mixing with traffic," Feaga said.

And, as with most debates in the rapidly developing county, there's a suggestion that the dispute is at heart a clash between the classes.

"It's the people who ride the BMWs," Lorin said, "who don't want to see bicycles on the roads."

Bobo is in the process of naming a seven-member task force to assist with public education on the controversial law.