The Howard County Council shifted gears last night and decided not to subject older bicyclists to its mandatory helmet law.

By a 3 to 2 vote, the council approved applying the law only to children under age 16, scaling back a measure that once covered all riders.

The law requires children to wear helmets when riding on county roads and paths beginning in October. The law will not be enforceable on state roads or private property.

"It seems to me you can more easily educate adults," said council member Paul R. Farragut (D-District 4) in voting to amend the law. He was joined by council member C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3) and council Chairman Shane Pendergrass (D-District 1).

Howard County's helmet law is considered by bicycling groups to be one of the toughest in the nation. Only two states, New York and California, have adopted laws requiring helmet use, and those laws apply only to bicycle passengers under age 4.

Council members Angela Beltram (D-District 2) and Charles C. Feaga (R-District 5) voted against the amendment. Both cited testimony showing that more adults than children are injured or killed nationwide in bicycle accidents. And they said it was inconsistent from a safety standpoint to cover only some riders.

"If you believe adults are responsible enough to make their own decisions, why do you believe they are not responsible enough to make decisions for their children?" Beltram asked.

The new law will not be easy for police to enforce. For one thing, officers have said it will be difficult for them to differentiate between 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds. And officers will have to determine whether a child is riding on a county road or path, and not a state or private thoroughfare, before making a stop.

In most cases, the children will not be subject to fines. Rather, the law puts the burden on parents, or a child's guardian.

Although the law calls for fines of up to $50 for a first offense, county police have said they will ticket children only as a last resort. The law allows a judge to waive fines if violators show proof that they acquired a helmet after being stopped.

The difficulties enforcing the law are one reason police asked the council to set the cutoff age at 18. They said it is more likely that riders 18 and over will be carrying identification when they ride. And the change would bring the bicycle law in line with a Maryland law requiring anyone under 18 to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle.

Farragut said he "didn't really follow their reasoning" because 16-year-olds are just as likely to carry identification.

The council's vote disappointed Janet Brown, an Ellicott City resident who suffered a serious head injury when she fell from her bike six years ago.

"We seem to have a lot of difficulty accepting things that are new," Brown said. "No one questions why football or hockey players wear helmets. I hope 10 years from now people will be saying to themselves, 'You know as recently as 10 years ago people rode bikes without helmets.' "