Partially in response to the recent death of a Kenai boy, the Kenai City Council on Wednesday discussed making helmet use mandatory for all children under the age of 18 aboard bikes, skateboards or other wheeled vehicles within the city.
Kenai Mayor John Williams introduced the ordinance, which would hold parents liable for a $25 fine if their child is found to be in violation of the law. Williams said at Wednesday's council meeting that he believes the law is needed because far too many area children are put in harm's way by not wearing protective helmets.
"It is a deep interest of many members of the community that this ordinance be brought forward," Williams said.
Under the proposed law, a first violation would result in a $25 fine being charged to the child's parents. A provision in the ordinance also provides for the fine to be dismissed if the parent shows a helmet has been purchased. A second offense would result in a $35 fine, while each additional violation would result in a $50 fine.
Several people spoke in favor of the proposed ordinance, including Nolan Compton, a Kenai man who was the driver of one of two vehicles that struck 10-year-old Bobby Bushnell last month in Kenai.
Bushnell who was not wearing a helmet while crossing Willow Street on his bike died as a result of head injuries sustained in the accident.
"I feel it is absolutely necessary for an ordinance of this nature," Compton told the council.
Compton said he's been haunted by memories of the accident and believes that had a helmet law been in place, the boy's tragic death may have been avoided.
"Maybe I wouldn't feel what I feel today if there had been an ordinance," Compton said.
Compton pointed out that Bethel recently passed a similar helmet law and said Kenai should follow suit.
"It would be a shame for our community not to pass this," he said.
In addition to bicycles, the ordinance would mandate helmet use for children on skateboards, roller blades, scooters, tricycles, toy motorized vehicles, unicycles or any similar vehicles on public property or private property open to public use.
Although most of the public testimony Wednesday was in favor of the law, a couple council members said they may have a hard time supporting the ordinance when it comes up for a final vote in two weeks.
"I'm going to have to give this a lot of thought," said council member Rick Ross.
Ross said he strongly believes in helmet use, and credited a helmet for saving his life on at least one occasion. However, he also said he's not sure helmet use is something the city should be mandating.
"I have a basic philosophical problem," he said.
Ross said he's not sure it is the city's place to tell parents how to do their job.
"We're saying, in a sense, we think we need to step in and do your work," he said.
Council member Jim Bookey also said he has problems with the ordinance and wondered how enforceable it would be. Bookey asked Kenai Police Chief Chuck Kopp for his thoughts on the ordinance, and Kopp admitted it would be difficult for his officers to enforce all the time.
"Realistically, it cannot be the highest priority," Kopp told the council.
Kenai Fire Chief Scott Walden pointed out that the public safety departments already hold a number of public education events on bike safety and suggested the council might be better served by putting more resources into similar programs.
"The programs that we're already doing locally can be enhanced by the council," Walden said.
Williams said he's sympathetic to Ross and Bookey's arguments, but said passage of the law is worth the small restriction it places on personal choice.
"This law is a benefit to society if it saves one life during its entire existence," Williams said.
The ordinance was introduced by a unanimous vote of the council. In two weeks, the council will hold another public hearing, after which it will vote on whether or not to adopt the law.
In other action Wednesday, the council:
n Renewed the contract of City Manager Linda Snow through July of 2005, and approved Snow's $98,440 salary for the coming year.
n Authorized the purchase of new equipment, including a $100,000 replacement bucket truck for the city and a $108,362 mower for the airport.
n Awarded fuel contracts to Alaska Oil Sales and Jackson Enterprises to furnish diesel and unleaded fuel to the city.
n Awarded a $1,225 per month contract to Cleanway for a year's worth of janitorial services at the Kenai Library.
n Authorized Public Works Manager Keith Kornelis to move forward with a possible land trade with The Conservation Fund.
The proposed trade would give the city title to land to be used for a new boat launch facility exit road, in exchange for city-owned wetlands.
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