As part of a special enforcement effort, Arlington police are scouring the county, searching for children 14 and younger who are not wearing bicycle helmets as required by law.
They don't plan to ticket them and haul them into court this time, though. Police are trying to identify those children who aren't wearing helmets for a good reason--their parents can't afford to buy them one--and invite them to a special bicycle rodeo.
Thanks to a donation from Pilot International of Arlington, a civic service organization, there will be a prize for everyone at this rodeo--a shiny new bike helmet.
"This is a significant contribution," Arlington Police Chief Edward A. Flynn said of the 90 donated helmets. "We think it's really great because it enables us to comfortably enforce our bike ordinance. It's non-adversarial."
The bicycle rodeo, which is being hosted by Pilot International and the police department, will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oct. 30 in the parking lot of Washington-Lee High School, said Kim Roberson, a police spokeswoman.
A second gift of 100 bicycle helmets, from the Charles E. Smith Corp., will be distributed at other times, Roberson said. Some will go to underprivileged children who were ticketed during a recent police crackdown on the problem, she added.
Children who are not in compliance with the county code can be issued a summons to appear in Juvenile Court, where they are lectured about bicycle safety, she said. There is no fine.
Bicycle crashes are a major source of childhood injuries, and helmets can prevent 85 percent of head injuries, which are the most severe injuries that bicyclists suffer, according to Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.
Bike-related crashes kill 900 people each year and send about 567,000 others to hospitals with injuries, he said. Although there are no accurate numbers on compliance, Swart estimates that about two-thirds of children in the county comply with the helmet law.
The importance of wearing a helmet hit close to home recently at the Arlington police department. In separate incidents, the police chief and an officer on the bike squad, Jim Buchhofer, were saved from serious injury by their helmets.
Flynn said he used to notice all the people riding their bicycles and wearing nothing more than a baseball cap on their heads.
"I was one of those," said Flynn, who fractured a bone in his shoulder and changed his ways after his crash. "Now I have my helmet on all the time. I was stunned at how fast my life could have changed."
Not long after Flynn's crash, Buchhofer was heading to Rosslyn on his bicyle as part of a July 4 patrol when he hit a bump in the road and was pitched head first over his handlebars and suffered abrasions.
"I landed on my helmet," said Buchhofer, whose helmet absorbed the impact. "The helmet broke the way it was supposed to. I just slid."
Safety advocates believe the fact that not everyone is required to wear a helmet sends a mixed message to children.
"It makes it appear that helmets are a kid thing," Swart said. "It gives the wrong impression. It's not unusual to see kids wearing them and adults not."
Kip Malcolm, who is on the bike team with Buchhofer, said he often asks children why they aren't wearing a helmet. "Usually, they say they're riding somebody else's bike, so they think it's okay that they're not wearing one," Malcolm said. "Everybody has excuses."
Pat Conaway, coordinator for the projects division of Pilot International, said her group heard about the helmet crackdown and how some children don't have them. Her group, which is devoted to the treatment and prevention of brain disorders and injuries, thought that donating helmets might be a way to save children from serious injury.
So the group began raising money with gusto, selling brownies at the county fair, raffling off cakes and hosting a spaghetti dinner. With their $610, they were able to purchase 90 helmets, and they look forward to giving them to children at the rodeo personally.
"We're very excited about it," Conaway said.