Adult bicycle riders in Howard County finally got a chance this week to comment on the County Council's decision in May to mandate helmet use for all riders -- not just children under 16.

The bicycle law, scheduled to take effect Oct. 1, surprised many bicyclists who said they always assumed the council would vote on the regulation as originally drafted, so that it would affect only children under 16.

The last-minute change so outraged some riders that they launched a petition drive to let voters decide the matter. Their effort fizzled when volunteers could gather only 2,000 signatures by Tuesday's deadline, about 500 names short of what they needed.

Riders' objections still were loud enough to persuade council members C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3) and Paul R. Farragut (D-District 4) to introduce an amendment to exclude riders over age 16 from the law.

A public hearing on their amendment Monday night drew a mix of comments.

Daniel Sullivan, an avid bicyclist who usually wears a helmet, said he opposes the law because adults "should have enough sense to know what's good for them . . . . It's not really the county government's responsibility to decide what we should do to protect ourselves."

Others said wearing a helmet is no assurance that a bicyclist will ride safely. And a lawyer said the evidence that helmet use dramatically reduces injuries is too thin to justify legislation.

However, most of the 22 people who testified at the hearing favored leaving the law alone. Brian Meshkin, 14, spoke for many of the law's supporters when he said age should not be a factor in determining who should be required to wear safety gear.

"This is a matter of safety, protecting every single person in Howard County," Meshkin said.

By including riders of all ages in the law, the council has removed a police department concern over how to distinguish between 16-year-olds legally riding without a helmet and 15-year-olds breaking the helmet law, Meshkin said. The council also avoided sending mixed signals to children who might wonder why they have to wear helmets when adults do not.

After the hearing, council member Charles C. Feaga (D-District 5), who introduced the original bill that would have limited the regulation to children under 16, said he would probably vote to keep all riders covered by the law.

Other council members said they have yet to decide how they will vote.

Some said that they might want the law amended to cover all riders under age 18. That would make the bicycle legislation consistent with state law requiring minors to wear helmets while riding motorcycles.