Three of Howard County's five council members said yesterday they intend to vote at tonight's meeting to amend the county's unique mandatory bicycle helmet law to exempt riders over age 15.

"It was {a} mistake to include adults in the first place," said council member C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3). "Adults should be exempted because they are more aware of the dangers and more likely to use caution when they ride. Kids tend to be more oblivious to the dangers."

Howard County's helmet law is considered by bicycling groups to be one of the most comprehensive in the nation. It covers bicyclists riding on county paths and streets but does not apply to riders using state, federal and private roads. Violators can be fined up to $50 for a first offense and $100 for subsequent offenses.

Initially, the bill was drafted to apply only to riders under 16, but it was amended by the council to cover everyone. Some council members said they supported an amendment to include adult riders out of concern that if they voted against the measure, the entire bill would fail. That turned out not to be the case when the votes were tallied.

The amendment was introduced by an opponent of the bill, council member Angela Beltram (D-District 2). Beltram, who later voted against the amended bill, argued that if the law were to pass it should not single out children.

The council's last-minute change provoked outrage from many adult riders, two of whom began a petition drive to put the law on the November ballot. The ballot question would have coincided with this year's council elections. The petition drive fizzled after council members Gray and Paul R. Farragut (D-District 4) introduced the amendment to be considered at tonight's meeting.

Farragut said he offered the change because he felt the public had not been given an adequate opportunity to comment on the language affecting adults. He said yesterday he would vote for tonight's amendment because "there seems to be overwhelming support in the county, based on the calls and letters I've received, to limit the law to riders under 16."

"While it may seem inconsistent to only cover some riders, I think adults are more likely to wear helmets and more likely to be receptive to education efforts," Farragut said.

Council Chairman Shane Pendergrass (D-District 1), who described herself as "the swing vote," said yesterday she too intended to vote for the change "unless I learn something new between now and the vote."

Pendergrass said she has always thought the legislation "a bad law" because it intrudes on what should be a parental or adult responsibility. However, she said she was swayed by arguments that requiring adults to wear helmets would set a good example for children.

"But I decided the worst example for a child would be seeing an adult disobeying the law by not wearing a helmet, and I concluded that that is a real possibility with this law," Pendergrass said.

Beltram and council member Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5) have said they probably will vote to keep the law as it is, so that it covers adults. Feaga introduced the original helmet bill.

Howard Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D) is expected to accept the council's action. She went on record in support of the law before it was amended to include adults.