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    Late addition requires helmets for scooter riders

    The mammoth transportation bill being sent to Gov. Jeb Bush also would ban the motorized toys from sidewalks and streets.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Kids under 16 may soon have a new use for their bicycle helmets, courtesy of the Florida Legislature: They'll have to wear them when riding motorized scooters.

    Lawmakers slipped the helmet rule into the mammoth transportation package in the last days of the legislative session. If Gov. Jeb Bush signs the transportation bill, the requirement will kick in July 1.

    The bill also would ban the motorized toys from sidewalks and streets, although local governments could set aside specific roads and areas for kids to ride. Kids that age already are required to wear helmets when riding their bikes.

    "There was an explosion in injuries that was commensurate with the explosion in motorized scooters," Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said, explaining her push for the helmet law.

    Doctors say skyrocketing sales of high-tech motorized scooters and their muscle-powered cousins -- similar to a skateboard but with a handle -- have led to an increase in accidents to children. About 200 kids in Florida were injured by motorized scooters in January, Wasserman Schultz said she has been told.

    "These are not vehicles that were meant to be driven in traffic," she added. Wasserman Schultz said she agreed to drop manual push-powered scooters from her bill to improve its chances of passing.

    The helmet requirement was voted down in March by members of the Senate Transportation Committee, who said keeping children safe is primarily a parent's job.

    At the time, Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said it would be odd to require helmets for scooter riders when last year the Legislature removed a helmet law for motorcycles, which are more dangerous.

    But Rep. David Russell, who heads the House Transportation Committee, said by banning the motorized scooters from the roads and sidewalks, lawmakers have simply put the toys in the same, appropriate category as golf carts.

    "They just don't have the safety devices" that street vehicles must have, said Russell, R-Spring Hill.

    The new scooters, a far cry from the larger, slower models popular in the 1950s, are a high-tech version of the old standard. Most are made of lightweight aluminum. With small, low-friction wheels, they are capable of speeds between 10 mph and 30 mph. They can weigh less than 10 pounds and cost between $50 and $100.

    "Anybody on a vehicle that moves faster than a walking person should wear a helmet," said Stephanie Faul, a spokeswoman for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. She also supports taking the scooters off the streets.

    "As a driver, I would like to have to not worry about hitting a kid," Faul said.

    A child's death is what moved Hernando County commissioners in February to consider adopting a helmet ordinance. But they declined, suggesting instead that education is the best way to protect the lives of children riding scooters.

    About 400 residents signed a petition backing the idea after 12-year-old Stewart Abramowicz died in an accident while riding a non-motorized scooter along a road on Jan. 19.

    The bill hasn't yet been sent to Gov. Jeb Bush, who hinted Wednesday that he might veto it in protest of some of the last-minute amendments tacked on in the legislative session's last hours.

    Bush wasn't aware the helmet provision had passed.

    "Maybe we need to veto this just to get their attention," Bush said. He added that he likes Rep. Johnnie Byrd's idea to have a 24-hour cooling off period after lawmakers finish a bill and before its final passage. Byrd, R-Plant City, is the House Procedural and Redistricting Council chairman.

    Despite the last-minute confusion, Russell said, lawmakers managed to fend off any controversial amendments that some wanted attached to the transportation bill.

    "What we came up with was a very clean piece of legislation," Russell said.

    - Staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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