Janet Southerby visited an Ellicott City bicycle shop this week and found what she was looking for: a child's bicycle helmet.

The Columbia resident said she had planned to buy the helmet for her son, a preschooler, long before Howard County decided to adopt a law requiring that bicyclists under 16 wear the safety gear beginning Oct. 1.

"I just never got around to it," Southerby explained.

Still, she said, "I bet my boy will . . . be the first on our block to have a helmet."

Howard County police are preparing for the possibility that many parents will be tardy in purchasing helmets for their children. That's why Chief Frederick W. Chaney on Monday approved an enforcement plan that grants a three-month grace period before patrol officers begin issuing $25 tickets to the parents of young bicyclists without helmets.

"Obviously, our emphasis will be on education, not enforcement," said Sgt. Gary Gardner, a police spokesman. "We plan to only enforce the law against flagrant violators" during the first three months.

The law requires children under 16 to wear helmets when riding on county roads and paths. It will not be enforceable on state roads or private property. The law also requires that helmets worn by children meet voluntary standards established by the American National Standards Institute and the Snell Memorial Foundation.

According to the police department's enforcement plan, violators who are stopped before Jan. 1 will receive a notice urging them to get a helmet. A copy of the notice will also be sent to a child's guardian or parents, Gardner said.

After Jan. 1, the parents of a child who receives three notices will be sent a letter advising them to come to the police department and show proof that their child has a helmet. If the parents don't come forward, they could be subject to a $25 fine for a first offense and $50 fines for subsequent violations.

"If they bring a helmet in, then we figure we've acheived our principal aim," Gardner said.

School and county officials hope to use the next three months to organize an extensive public awareness program alerting children to the law's requirements.

On the county's cable television, Chief Chaney is already appearing in a commercial, aimed at children, that stresses the importance of helmet use. And Howard County physical education teachers are expected to talk to their students about the law this week.

Several community organizations are considering establishing programs to lend helmets to students. In addition, some county PTAs are trying to set up programs to buy helmets at a group discount. Other school groups are working with Princeton Sports, a local sporting goods chain, to promote helmet use.

"We hope to put helmets on the heads of 1,500 kids," said Alan Davis, a district manager for Princeton Sports in Columbia who is helping to organize the helmet drive.

Davis said Princeton Sports will not profit from its participation. Working with the schools, the company offered weeklong bicycle safety seminars for middle school students last year.

The company is expected to expand its efforts to include more schools this year.