By NATHAN GREGORY
Despite complaints from cyclists who say they’re less likely to ride their bikes in the city due to the safety helmet ordinance, Starkville police officers say the law was designed to encourage more people to ride bikes.
The ordinance, passed by the Starkville Board of Aldermen in 2010, requires all bicyclists riding on public streets to wear a helmet. Violators are subject to a $15 citation if they are caught riding without head protection. On the first offense, violators who show evidence that they’ve bought a helmet during their hearing have their fine waived. Offenders who have violated the ordinance three times are subject to assessments to be decided by the administrative hearing officer.
Two public hearings were held this summer on amending the ordinance to allow for cyclists who are at least 16 years old to bike without helmets. In the first hearing, several citizens spoke in favor of and against amending the code. An overwhelming majority of comments in the second public hearing were against changing the law, with only one citizen speaking in favor. The first public hearing was held during the last week of the Mississippi State University spring semester. The follow-up hearing was held in June, when many students are not in Starkville.
Starkville Police Chief David Lindley said he and bicycle officers have heard from MSU students who believe the officers are targeting the bridge connecting the campus to University Drive. He said enforcement is focused throughout town and not on a particular area.
“We enforce it all over town. There is no one age group or demographic we enforce it on. It’s just as simple as if you’re on a bicycle on a public street and you don’t have a helmet on, you’re subject to the ordinance,” Lindley said. “We have more violations close to the university because that’s where a majority of our bicycle traffic is.
“We enforce in subdivisions. We enforce on Highway 12. We try and enforce it just like any other law: equitably, fairly and in all locations of the city,” he added.
Lindley said during a six-month grace period immediately after the ordinance was passed, signage reminding cyclists of the ordinance was placed in areas such as Whitfield Street, University Drive and Montgomery Street.
“We try and let everybody know that this is a municipal ordinance here in the city of Starkville and not a state law. Starkville passed it as a progressive move for public safety. We passed it because there had been injuries here over the years involving bicycles,” Lindley said. “When you put a bicycle interacting with automobiles in traffic, that’s where the problems start.”
MSU student Rachel Jacobs said she’s received two tickets — both on the University Drive bridge — and will no longer ride her bike to class. The first time she was assessed a ticket, she said, there were three officers patrolling violators of the helmet law and two the second time.
“They already had someone else pulled aside and they were giving them a ticket. They told me to stop, and I did. They asked me if I knew there was a helmet ordinance and I said ‘Yes.’ They asked me if I had a helmet, and I did not,” Jacobs said. “They told me to wait and that I was going to get a ticket. I waited about 15 minutes before they finally wrote the ticket out to me. I had told them I was on my way to class.”
Jacobs said if she had known there would be a public hearing this summer she would have been in attendance to say why she feels the ordinance needs amending.
“All of the students I’ve talked to they disagree with the helmet ordinance mainly because it seems like the police officers are just after students and they basically just put up a roadblock for bicycles,” she said. “I could go out and buy a helmet, but I think that should be my choice. I think Main Street is a pretty safe road, and I don’t ride my bike on the highways. I think maybe if they had a helmet ordinance for busier streets, that would be different.”
Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey, who brought the idea to amend the ordinance to the board, said though a public hearing on the matter has not recently been held, he would push for a third if he received enough input from people who wanted to speak for changing the law.
“If there were a number of students who felt like they missed a chance to speak on this issue, then I would encourage the board to listen,” Corey said. “If the board is unwilling to hold another public hearing then I would encourage those students to come and speak anyway during citizen comments.”
Jacobs said she’s glad there is an emphasis on safety, but she thinks the focus needs to be not on penalizing riders without helmets, but improving the bike paths themselves.
“At one of the lights (on University Drive) the bicycle lane just ends and doesn’t go all the way … to my street. If they were really trying to make it safer, maybe they could do something about the bike lanes all the way down Main Street,” she said.
Officers Laura Hines-Roberson and Brandon Gann, who have recently received certification as bike officers, say they try to patrol in areas near signage so when they’re faced with violators who claim they don’t know about the ordinance, all they have to do is show them how easy it is to find out.
“From where we wrote the tickets we could point to where the sign was that said (the ordinance is in effect). Some said ‘We just moved here,’ ‘Where’s a stop sign or a road sign’ … It’s marked on University Drive,” Hines-Roberson said. “Within 100 yards of where we wrote the ticket there was a sign that said helmets are required.”
“The law has been passed since 2010 so they’ve had plenty of time to know about it,” Gann said.
Lindley said though there are numerous violators of the code, they are the exception and not the rule.
“What we’re trying to do is actually encourage more people to ride bikes. We just want them to do it safely. That helps in cutting down on motor vehicle traffic,” he said. “It’s more frugal and convenient to use a bicycle to go back and forth wherever you might be in the city. I think the compliance is very high and most people are really cooperative with it.”