Section VII. Profiles

D. State of Oregon

Jurisdiction: State.

Effective date: July 1, 1994.

Ages covered: Children under age 16.

Penalty: A $25 fine, which can be waived upon proof of bicycle helmet ownership.

Legislative language is reprinted in Section VIII D.

Agency enforcing the law: Any sworn police officer

Impetus For Legislation:

The inspiration for the bicycle helmet use bill introduced in the 1993 session of the Oregon state legislature was the son of a legislative aide. The staff member, who worked for a Democratic state senator, was faced with an adolescent who balked at strapping on his bike helmet. Wearing a bicycle helmet made him feel “like a nerd.” His friends didn’t have to wear helmets, why did he? The aide, Claudia Black, thought to herself, “there ought to be a law” to make it easier for her to get her son and his friends to use bike helmets. With the support of her boss, she researched the issue and found out about the incidence and high costs of head injury and the effectiveness of bike helmets in preventing head and brain injuries.

The bill, however, did not appear in a vacuum.

The Bicycle Helmet Environment And Existing Efforts:

At the time of the bill’s introduction, several bicycle safety efforts were underway in communities around the state. Two major programs, THINK FIRST and Trauma Nurses Talk Tough, were at the two Level 1 trauma hospitals in the state and had chapters in various communities. Both programs distributed bicycle helmets through giveaways or subsidies and were instrumental in launching bicycle helmet give-away programs in various communities.

The City of Portland's pedestrian program conducted bike helmet giveaways. Portland Wheelmen held bike rodeos that emphasized bicycle helmet use. Various service clubs held bike rodeos; some gave away bicycle helmets. The American Automobile Association (AAA) held a bicycle helmet poster contest in the Portland metro schools.

Many elementary schools in Oregon provided ongoing bike safety education programs. Raleigh Park, an elementary school in Beaverton, was an early example. The Parent/Teacher Club handles the school’s bicycle safety program. The program’s primary goals are to educate children and parents about bicycle safety skills and to provide low-cost bicycle helmets. The two-week program involves learning bicycle safety skills in gym class, a poster contest, an all-school assembly, and concludes with a Bike Safety Fair/Ice Cream Social for parents and children.

Other efforts included a citywide bike bicycle helmet education effort by the City of Silverton. Low-cost bicycle helmets were offered for sale at a series of school assemblies with the cost of the helmets offset by fund raising. The project distributed 1,300 bicycle helmets and provided school safety messages to 2,365 children, all in a city with a population of 6,000.

Most programs were targeted to children in schools rather than to parents, who are described as a much more difficult audience to reach. One effort to reach parents was through court-ordered safety belt classes, where the group, Trauma Nurses Talk Tough included bicycle helmet information.

Perhaps most importantly, the legislative proposal developed by Ms. Black was fortuitously timed, emerging in an environment (outside of the state legislature) that had built a framework that could provide resources to support bicycle safety policies. Prior to the introduction of this particular bill, a lot of behind-the-scenes work helped to set the stage for success.

An early bicycle helmet use bill, introduced in 1987, resulted in the creation of the bicycle safety program within the then Oregon Traffic Safety Commission.

The Transportation Safety Division (TSD) of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) had been working on the possibility of a bicycle helmet use bill for a number of years and had supported bills introduced in prior legislatures. A fairly deep body of evidence supporting bicycle helmet use was already gathered by the office and was available for quick access when the time came to provide it to decision makers.

The transportation safety office had formed a well-defined bicycle safety coalition prior to the 1993 legislative session. The coalition had identified a bicycle helmet use law as a primary objective, and hammered out compelling arguments and data. In addition to TSD representation, the group consisted of Trauma Nurses Talk Tough, THINK FIRST, the Oregon Health Division's Childhood Injury Program staff, a bicycle supply wholesaler, AAA Oregon's legislative staff liaison, and others. According to one participant, “While the group was originally set up to treat the entirety of bicycle safety, once a bill with possibilities came to the fore the group leapt on the task of passing the law.”

The Legislative Experience:

The path from introduction to adoption was an intricate one, yet it took only one session, which surprised even the bill’s supporters. The “conventional wisdom” was that the bill’s passage, if it were to happen at all, would take several sessions. Bill supporters were advised that it would be a good sign if they just got a hearing on the bill in the 1993 session.

Several factors were credited for the bill’s unexpectedly speedy adoption; one advocate said a mandatory factor was persistence. Another supporter identified the state senator and his legislative aide who shepherded the bill, and their strong commitment to the issue, as key in the bill’s passage. One supporter said, “You’ve got to have some people with influence willing to support it.”

As mentioned earlier, an existing bicycle safety coalition was in place and had compiled evidence supportive of bicycle helmet use.

One key strategic move was the authorship of the legislation. The two main cosponsors were a liberal Democrat from an urban area and a very conservative rural Republican. This bipartisan backing brought supporters from both groups.

Both statistical information and anecdotes, such as personal stories told by victims or health care providers, were identified as very helpful to the bill’s passage. One legislator, who was considered a “hold out” by the bill’s supporters, changed his mind after a child in his district was hit by a car at the time hearings were underway; he also heard from constituents about the crash.

At an Oregon House of Representatives committee hearing, one witness showed videos of her brother taken before and after a bike crash. Before the crash, he was a college student majoring in pre-law. The video taken after the crash showed him struggling with questions such as: “How many fingers am I holding up?”

Of the statistical information presented to the legislature, the cost to society of a head injury appeared to have the most impact. Information indicating that the cost of a single severe head injury could exceed $2.1 million convinced legislators that wearing a bicycle helmet was not only a parent’s decision, it was a legitimate government concern, considering the potential cost to society.

State agencies had a role to play. Coincidentally, the spouse of the Democratic co-author also was the head of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

However, at Oregon’s Department of Transportation (ODOT), an internal struggle emerged regarding what ODOT’s message and stance on the bill would be. The Oregon Department of Transportation represents a wide range of stakeholders. In this instance, two committees to the department (Bicycle Advisory and Transportation Safety) took opposing positions on the matter. The bicycle use advocates did not want ODOT to support the law, arguing that it would decrease bicycle ridership. ODOT staff carried the committees’ opinions and supporting facts to ODOT management. ODOT management made a considered judgment and recommended support for the law. This process delayed ODOT’s presence before the legislature in support of the bill.

The role of the law enforcement community was very important. One objection to the proposal was that police officers “have enough to do.” One of the legislative authors brought in the police chiefs of two Oregon cities, who testified that the law was not a problem for them. The opposition of law enforcement “could have derailed” the bill, according to supporters.

The Subcommittee Experience.

Although the legislation was adopted in one session, it did not advance without modifications in the committee process. The bill as originally written would have required bicycle helmet use by bicyclists of all ages. At one of the first hearings on the bill, the authors were urged to limit the bill to cover only minors. They agreed to that change. One supporter would have preferred a bill that covered those at least up to age 18, but the compromise was to require bicycle helmet use for those under age 16. One reason for settling on this age were statistics showing a large number of bike crashes among boys between 11 and 14 years old.

Bicycle helmet use legislation had also been introduced in the House of Representatives, but those bills did not get scheduled for a hearing.

Two “last-minute” amendments were added to make the bill acceptable to legislators in the House:

  • Bicycle rental businesses would be required to make bicycle helmets available but would not be liable if people didn’t wear them.

  • Exceptions were made for children riding tricycles and for three-wheeled non-motorized vehicles operated on the beach.

Legislative advisors counseled against “cluttering up” the bill. When asked about potential provisions such as directing the use of any fines collected or requiring data collection or reports, one supporter said: “Don’t put it in the law. You want the cleanest bill possible.” Some supporters wanted to send the $25 fines to a fund for bike paths or similar activities, but that would have complicated and “killed the bill.” If the bill had had a fiscal impact, it would have gone to the Ways and Means Committee “and it would have died.”

Partisan considerations were taken into account in advancing the bill, not just in its introduction. In the 1993 session, the Republicans were in the majority in the House and Democrats in the Senate. When Senate supporters needed to visit with House members regarding the bill, they always made sure the top GOP Senate co-sponsor was with them.

The positions of key committee chairs strongly influenced the bill’s movement. Though the transportation committee could claim jurisdiction over the bill, that committee’s chair was not interested in advancing it. The bill’s supporters found a friendly ear in the judiciary committee and the bill was heard there.

Another very helpful point was the existence of similar laws in other states. Legislators asked: “What are other states doing?” Oregon legislators did not want to be the first to pass a law like this; they didn’t want to be “mavericks,” according to one supporter.

After the bill passed, The Oregonian newspaper listed it as one of the top ten positive bills of the session. The bill and its authors got “incredible good publicity.” One author said was it was biggest bill of his career in terms of long-lasting impact.

Constituencies And Arguments Pro And Con:

As mentioned above, a wide range of individuals and groups were identified as supportive of the legislation, including the Public Education and Prevention Subcommittee of the Area Trauma Advisory Board, Region 1, an active coalition of injury prevention professionals. Nurses (especially trauma nurses), emergency medicine professionals, and pediatricians were the professionals identified as most helpful in securing the bill’s passage.

The Oregon chapter president of the American Academy of Pediatrics testified, bringing along his son, who was a quadriplegic as the result of a bike crash. The state did not have a SAFE KIDS chapter at that time but the national organization sent a letter supportive of the bill.

Opposition to the bill included the bicycling adult community such as the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. They were concerned that the law would decrease ridership. At the time, the Alliance saw also it as a barrier to bicycle commuting but they have since moved away from this position. Opponents were also concerned that a bicycle helmet use law would create the perception that bicycle helmet use alone “solves bike safety problems” and could thus decrease efforts for other facets of safe biking such as training, bike paths, and sharing the road efforts.

The most influential arguments made by those who opposed the legislation were summarized as:

  • The law would decrease bicycling and therefore reduce the health benefits of bicycling; and

  • The law would infringe upon the right of parents to decide their children’s behavior. This argument was raised by many of the legislators opposing the bill.

Another argument presented was the “risk homeostasis theory”: the theory that, for example, people who wear seat belts will then drive less safely and take more risks. Noted researcher Dr. Frederick P. Rivara of Seattle’s (WA) Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center countered that argument, explaining that the theory had no validity.

The arguments for the bill that were judged to be the most persuasive were:

  • Personal stories told by victims and care providers;

  • The effectiveness of bike helmets in preventing injury and the cost of a single severe head injury; and

  • The responsibility that adults have to protect children.

A key legislative staff member working on the bill said the effort was different from the more common experience where a bill’s author could be successful just by working with a few powerful legislators in key leadership posts. This was a “tough battle” which was fought “one legislator at a time.” The bill had several determined opponents who sought to derail it.

According to that staff member, “so much of it is just one-on-one lobbying, learning your members and learning what is important to them.” For one legislator, the most convincing argument might be the personal tragedy of a child’s brain being damaged; for another, it may be the “hard-nosed” issue of cost and savings resulting from injury prevention.

The Role of the Media:

The bill’s supporters took advantage of some media opportunities. First, the introduction of the bill served as more than a necessary legislative step. It was the proponents’ first effort at media involvement, to begin the process of public education about both the proposed law and the need for the law. On the day of the bill’s introduction, the authors held a news conference in the Capitol. A local pediatrician gave a demonstration illustrating the fragility of the brain and its vulnerability to damage.

The bill’s authors wrote to the editorial board of every newspaper in the state, providing them with background information and a proposed editorial. A large number of papers printed the editorial verbatim. After the bill’s passage, the authors also asked for a bill-signing ceremony with the Governor. The event was crowded and made a good story, and essentially launched the yearlong education process before the law took effect.

Phase-In To Implementation:

The bill was passed in July 1993 to take effect in July 1994. The year’s delay was established to educate the public about the law and because of concerns about the ability of low-income children to afford bicycle helmets.

Once the law passed, the primary objective of the coalition that had supported the legislation evolved into implementation of the new law.

Transportation Safety Division staff worked with the Childhood Injury program at the Oregon Health Division to join this group with the Area Trauma Advisory Board Group to develop a bicycle helmet coalition. Supported by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Oregon Health Division created a three-year position for a Bike Helmet Coordinator (which has since ended). These funds allowed the Health Division to create and coordinate a “synergistic effort statewide,” according to one participant.

The Oregon Bicycle Helmet Coalition was formed and included a wide range of people and groups, such as non-profit organizations, businesses and insurers such as Kaiser-Permanente, in addition to government agencies.

Efforts to educate about the law and to distribute bicycle helmets were both initiated at the state level and emerged at the local level due to individual efforts. As a result, some activities were coordinated statewide; others were not.

The coalition conducted rodeos, gave out bicycle helmets, and printed and widely distributed a community-planning guide to all schools, hospitals and community organizations. Production of the Bicycle Helmet Campaign Community Planning Guide was supported by: State Farm Insurance Company, THINK FIRST Program, Safe Child Foundation, Oregon Medical Association, ODOT, Area Trauma Advisory Board I, Public Education and Prevention Committee, and Oregon Pediatric Society. The guide covers how to conduct bike rodeos and bicycle helmet giveaways and obtain subsidized bicycle helmets, and includes success stories, worksheets and resources. The guide is reprinted in Section IX E, page 168.

Bicycle helmet give-away programs that existed in advance of the law’s effective date were described as limited. After the law’s passage, THINK FIRST worked with other organizations on giveaways at targeted schools. For example, at schools with a high proportion of children participating in the school lunch program, Kaiser-Permanente would give a bicycle helmet to every child. Trauma Nurses Talk Tough sold bicycle helmets at reduced cost. Community bike rodeos were held in low-income schools where bicycle helmets were sold for $5 or given free. Some rodeos were held with law enforcement partners, some with fire fighters; many were held in conjunction with schools.

Both education and bicycle helmet give-away programs continued after the law took effect. Both Trauma Nurses Talk Tough and THINK FIRST continue to give away hundreds of bicycle helmets and sell thousands of bicycle helmets at a cost of $5 every year.

The new law received substantial media coverage, including stories that highlighted the experiences of victims. Retailers also posted information about the new law near bicycle and helmet displays.

In some communities, McDonalds’ restaurants continue to donate certificates for free food for law enforcement officers to give to children who are wearing bicycle helmets.

The bike helmet coordinator also worked through the state Department of Education to ensure that children were wearing bicycle helmets. For example, they contacted schools to determine if the schools had policies requiring bicycle helmet use by children bicycling to school.

Law Enforcement Involvement During Phase-In:

Law enforcement officers and agencies were involved in education and bicycle helmet distribution efforts before the law’s effective date. Many law enforcement agencies worked with injury prevention programs and Kaiser-Permanente to enforce through education and rewards.

Officers were trained to fit bicycle helmets on children properly. The bicycle helmet coalition provided bicycle helmets to be carried in the trunks of patrol cars, so that an officer could provide bicycle helmets to bicycling children on the spot. Officers could "cite" children who were wearing bicycle helmets by giving them coupons for free ice cream at the local McDonald’s. (The Hillsboro Police Department was mentioned as being deeply involved in this approach for several years).

Police agencies and THINK FIRST paired up in low-income housing projects and held bike rodeos in the parking lot of the projects and brought Spanish-speaking interpreters along. This model was used in several cities. Some agencies got out information about the law through their community service officer, who would talk about the law at community meetings.

To educate police officers about the need for the law and to encourage their enforcement efforts, a variety of steps were taken. The bike helmet coordinator developed a training video for law enforcement. A video where line officers would hear “from the top down” that enforcing the law was important and would learn about head injury was thought to be the best approach to educate and engage peace officers around the state.

The video, “Putting Safety on Top,” showed the governor (on a bike and wearing a helmet) and his wife, who was the honorary chair of the SAFE KIDS coalition, which had since been formed in the state. They were filmed at the governor’s mansion and spoke about head injury and bicycle helmet use. The Superintendent of State Police and the presidents of the state’s sheriffs’ association and police chiefs’ association were also interviewed. The experiences of two bicycle crash survivors were contrasted. One survivor was a 17-year-old who had been in a bike crash, with no helmet, at age 12 and had suffered a brain injury. He and his grandmother talked about what it is like to live with a brain injury. The other survivor, the son of a patrolman, had been in a crash under identical circumstances but had been wearing a bicycle helmet. He walked away from the crash without injury to his brain.

ODOT’s Traffic Safety Section funded the 11-minute video and the Department of Public Safety, Standards and Training section distributed the video to every law enforcement agency in the state with a training curriculum. Officers would get an hour of continuing education credit for watching the video. The video, described as “powerful” and “emotional,” was well received and is still being used.

The bike helmet coordinator also made a presentation at the state sheriffs’ association conference, asking for their help in enforcing the law.

One message emphasized to officers was that they could view the bicycle helmet use law as a positive way to relate to children, not as “oh, no, here’s another thing that makes us ‘the heavy.”

Bicycle Helmet Use Law Enforcement:

In spite of efforts to support enforcement of the bicycle helmet use law, observers report that little enforcement occurs. Sample comments included:

“Parents wish the police would stop and cite children. The police wish the judges would hear the cases. Many people think the law is good. Some don't.”

“Most police agencies don't want to ticket kids, because the Circuit Courts wouldn't hear the cases. Many police simply do not cite children for this infraction. Enforcement has been a major issue in compliance.”

“This law is rarely enforced, although some individual officers will drive a child home who is un-helmeted and then speak to the parents. I doubt that more than a handful of citations have been issued.”

This observation is difficult to confirm since it is difficult to track how many tickets are issued. Individual jurisdictions may compile the information, but it is not done statewide. According to one observer, “There is also no record-keeping.”

But one supporter believes that the number of tickets issued is not a primary concern. “We were much less concerned about tickets than helmet use; I didn’t care if they didn’t write a single ticket as long as helmet use went up.”

Several years after the law has been in effect, evidence of law enforcement’s commitment to the bicycle helmet effort remains. For example, most police agencies now have a budget line to purchase bicycle helmets to distribute to the children with the greatest need. And, as mentioned earlier, the training video is still utilized and considered effective.

One jurisdiction was specifically mentioned regarding enforcement: the Sunriver Police Department heavily enforces the law. Sunriver is a large resort community where alternative transportation modes were designed as part of the city. The jurisdiction is relatively unique in that it has more bike trails than roads and the bike trails are heavily used.

One unconventional approach to enforcement is reportedly successful. One observer states that the jurisdictions where “real” enforcement has been successful, compared with “educational enforcement” alone, are those that have peer courts. The students on those courts are willing to cite and give community service to fellow students found to be in violation of the law.

Effectiveness Of The Law:

The law did not define “effectiveness” nor require tracking, monitoring or reporting back to the legislature. However, the state received a grant from the CDC to study the impact of the law, resulting in the report, Evaluation Of A Statewide Bicycle Helmet Use Law by the Oregon Department of Human Resources Health

The Oregon Health Division conducted pre- and post-law bicycle helmet use surveys using direct observational surveys at both community and school sites, statewide telephone surveys of adults (as part of a behavioral risk factor survey) and classroom surveys of self-reported behavior.
Significant findings in that report included:

  • Post-law bicycle helmet use was about twice as high as pre-law bicycle helmet use. Bicycle helmet use increased from 24.5 percent to 49.3 percent in youth under 18 years old in the community-site observational survey and from 20.4 percent to 56.1 percent among children under 16 years old in the school-site observations. The increase was higher among female students, in urban areas, and in small towns.

  • An abrupt decline in bicycle-related head injuries (BHIs): The data revealed a sharp decline for the whole population when the law was implemented. In the first full year after the bicycle helmet use law was in effect, actual BHI cases were 70. The predicted cases were 121, meaning a total of 51 BHI cases avoided. The proportion of injured people wearing bicycle helmets at the time of crashes significantly increased from 16.0 percent (1992) to 30.4 percent (1994), whereas the proportion of BHIs decreased from 62.7 percent to 47.3 percent.

  • Significant savings in direct medical costs: The estimated annual savings was $2,591,456 to $3,577,336. Factoring in the cost of the legislation, the cost saving per prevented head-injury was $2,864 to $3,812.

However, the report’s author cautioned that some of these analyses were limited due to the lack of long-term injury death data.

Fortunately, even in advance of the bicycle helmet use law, the number of bicycle-related fatalities in the state was relatively low. During the years studied (1989-1994), fatal bicycle-related head injuries never totaled more than fifteen in any year and, among children, no more than five. The report found no specific pattern in the fluctuation of deaths across the years.

Another type of evaluation of the law was undertaken and deemed helpful. Although the Oregon statute did not require a report on the law, the state agencies implementing the law undertook the initiative to report back to legislators. They met with legislators and presented information on what was being done to educate the public about the law, bicycle helmet subsidy and give-away programs, and other efforts.

Bicycle Ridership:

The state evaluation cited above did not look at effects on ridership. In the analysis of bicycle-related head injuries, the author assumed a steady status of bicycle ridership from 1989 through 1994, citing data from ODOT observations at four sites in the state.

These ODOT figures show an increase in the number of bicyclists of all ages observed at these sites from 1989 to 1994, but a decrease in the proportion of riders identified as “youth.” However, the report does not discuss these figures, whether they accurately reflect ridership in the state, nor about factors that may be associated with this possible decline in child ridership. According to the observations, bicycling among youth began to decline after 1987, several years in advance of the law.

Evaluation Of The Law:

The Oregon Health Division’s evaluation was aided by the CDC grant. The agency used existing sources of data, but needed to provide resources for staff. Without CDC funding, evaluation of the law would have been much more limited.

The CDC grant had an impact not only on measuring the impact of the law, but directly on its effectiveness, according to one state official. The three-year grant also funded the position of the bicycle helmet coordinator. Without that position, “the work of the coalition wouldn't have moved forward, the legislative follow-up wouldn't have happened, nor the police training, nor the evaluation of the effectiveness of the law. The evaluation was at selected schools throughout Oregon, in multiple counties, and this work actually boosted bike helmet efforts at those schools, so it was an important factor in increasing both the distribution and education of/about helmets.” The CDC funds provided resources for the Health Division to provide leadership in creating and coordinating this synergistic effort statewide, according to the official.

Retrospective Analysis:

When asked what could have been done differently to support bicycle helmet use more effectively in the state, the respondents had a variety of responses:

  • In drafting the law, rather then a fine, “I would make education the sanction for violating the law. Maybe then law enforcement and the public would be more supportive.”

  • Begin with “a state-wide, organized, coordinated, effort”; look far and wide for partners, figuring out a strategy early, working through SAFE KIDS and others.

  • On-going efforts are necessary, even before bicycle helmet use legislation is introduced, to provide “information on the physical laws that make helmet use necessary. We don’t have a choice about the laws our earth has” yet most people don’t understand that. Once a law is in place, the physics behind the law should be emphasized more than the law enforcement aspect.

    “I believe, based on my experience with the public, that they truly do not understand the physical reasons for the law. They do not really understand, either, why a brain injury is such a bad thing. When parents really understand the need and are reminded that the most important job they have is to protect their child, they will do it.”

    As the state’s evaluation concluded, “half of child bicyclists are still un-helmeted and do not support the law, indicating the need for helmet use education.”

  • “Less emphasis on ‘do it or get a ticket’ and more on the need to protect our children.”

  • “There has to be enforcement of the law on multiple levels--schools mandating that kids riding to school wear helmets, neighbors enforcing the law on their own streets, and support by judges to allow police to ticket.”