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Concern about scooters bubbles up

Ideas for protecting children who use the popular toy range from building a skate park to requiring helmets.

By JAMIE MALERNEE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


Parents and neighbors of 12-year-old Stewart Abramowicz are asking a lot of questions following the middle school student's death.

In their grief, they ask each other why Stewart had to die. And in frustration, they are asking local and state lawmakers what can be done to prevent such accidents.

Since the boy was struck and killed by a car while riding his scooter on middle Pinehurst Drive, petitions have been popping up throughout the community. Residents are advocating numerous changes they say will make the neighborhood safer for kids. Everyone seems to have a list of signatures behind an idea, which range from lowering speed limits to requiring children to wear helmets when on scooters and skates.

But what chance do these proposals have? Politicians have thanked activists for their interest and efforts and have expressed sympathy for Stewart's family. But so far, many disagree about what needs to be done -- except to say that more research is needed before any promises can be made.

"One death is too many," said state Rep. Dave Russell, R-Brooksville. "But we first have to determine if there is a need for these (changes)."

One possible scooter solution: a skate park at Pioneer Park

No parent wants to outlive her child.

Some days, Stewart's mother thinks she may fall apart from the pain. But as she tries to piece her family back together, Amber Costa has championed a cause that her twin boys began before the Jan. 19 accident that killed one and injured the other. She wants the county to build a skate park at Pioneer Park, near the accident site. She hopes it will give children a refuge.

"They have nowhere else to go, and no matter what, the big thing is scooters and skates," she said, her voice wavering.

Costa says her sons had wanted a skate park for a long time and had gathered a petition with 300 signatures before the accident. Now, their mother claims, she has more than 1,500 people signed onto the idea. She has enlisted the help of family members and friends and even spoken on Bubba the Love Sponge's radio show last week to drum up support. For the most part, she said, she has received positive feedback. The only critic was Bubba, who criticized her parenting skills and blasted her for going on the radio while the surviving twin, Anthony, was in the hospital. (The boy has since returned home.)

Costa has yet to go to county commissioners with her proposal, but other community members have in the past -- without success. Parks Director Pat Fagan said officials rejected the idea about five years ago because of liability concerns. In the late 1980s, Brooksville officials also said no to such a park after a group of local children gathered signatures for it.

Although officials said they don't want to seem callous to any parent's safety concerns -- particularly Costa's -- some county commissioners expressed doubt that the county will build such a park. Some cited legal problems, others the high cost, anywhere from $200,000 to $800,000.

Commissioner Nancy Robinson said that she would worry a park would bring additional injuries.

"A park out there might lead into even more tragedies. It just opens the doors," she said. "It shouldn't be in the same conversation (with other safety proposals)."

This response is in contrast to how Citrus County greeted the idea of a skate park. There, the idea, also started by a group of children, was approved with little controversy. A $130,000, 12,000-square-foot facility opened in September in Beverly Hills. Those who use the park have to sign waivers. So far, no one has sued.

But Costa is not without some support. County Commissioner Diane Rowden said she plans to encourage the idea of a skate park for the same reason Citrus County approved one: because "we need to provide these kids with recreation."

Fagan, the county's parks director, said he will look into the suggestion. Although a park might ultimately prove too expensive, he said he thinks it is a great idea in theory.

"There are an awful lot of kids who get in trouble (skating) in our parking lots, and this would get them off the streets," he said.

'Playground Ahead' signs, sidewalks, a lower speed limit

While Costa faces an uphill battle, the activist who has made the most headway in her quest to make Pinehurst safer is Spring Hill resident Diane Bell. Days after Stewart's death, Bell already had county workers out to Pinehurst putting up "Playground Ahead" signs. Then she started an online petition to urge the county to improve safety on the street where the twins were hit.

"It's sad to say, but out of tragedy will come community support for this," Bell said. "Parents need to be more diligent . . . but we also want to make this park a safe place for our children."

On Tuesday, she and her daughter Aslee, 11, went before the County Commission requesting that the county reduce the speed limit by the park, where it is now 30 mph, as well as add sidewalks and crosswalks.

Commissioners immediately latched onto the sidewalk proposal and told the county engineer to research an estimate. Unless the price turns out to be unusually high, commissioners say they will throw their weight behind the proposal.

"It's a purely residential area on a (busy) road with a park. I think sidewalks are more than appropriate and would raise community standards," Commissioner Robinson said.

As for lowering the speed limit in the area, officials seem less enthusiastic about that idea. Several said that 30 mph was slow enough and that they might not be able to justify a decrease to state officials.

Helmet laws for scooter riders similar to those for bicyclists

Rachel Rodriguez recalls the night Stewart was killed. Fifteen minutes before the accident, she and her husband were sitting out on their porch and saw the twins ride by.

"I told them, 'Be careful on those things,' " she said.

A short time later, back inside her house, she heard the crash and turned to her husband. She knew exactly what had happened.

"We're losing too many kids to those things," she recently said of the scooters.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, four children -- including Stewart -- have been killed on kick-powered scooters, and thousands went to emergency rooms with injuries last year. Officials say the new scooters are more dangerous than skateboards and traditional scooters because they are faster and have a narrow wheel base that makes them less stable.

To Rodriguez's way of thinking, the solution is to require kids to wear helmets when they ride the scooters, as they do with bikes.

Locally, Rodriguez's suggestion has gotten mixed reactions. When she proposed the idea at a School Board meeting on Tuesday, board members got behind it. But they also noted that they have no control over such laws.

County commissioners, who have the power to create a local ordinance requiring helmets, are split on the issue.

Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley said he thinks that Hernando County should follow in the footsteps of Miami-Dade, which has already created such an ordinance.

"My daughter has a scooter, and she crashed on our driveway and was hurt worse than she ever has been on a bicycle," he said. "I think it's something that's pretty necessary at this point."

But other officials disagree, saying helmets are the responsibility of parents rather than government.

State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said she would not support such legislation.

"How much parenting do you want the government to do?" she asked. "A responsible parent would look out for the child's safety and welfare."

But Rodriguez is undaunted. She is taking her petition, on which she has gathered at least 300 signatures, to the County Commission at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

"I won't give up," she said. "I'm doing this for the children."

On the agenda

Hernando County commissioners are expected to discuss scooter safety at their weekly meeting Tuesday at the Hernando County Government Center, 20 N Main St., Brooksville. The discussion is set for 11 a.m.

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