Police across Boston focus on helmet safety

By Patrick Kelleher-Calnan

“Helmets, helmets, helmets” said Officer Dennis Rorie, Community Service Officer for the Boston Police Department’s C-11 district in Dorchester, describing what he thinks is the most important message of the Summer Safety Day and Bike Rodeo, an event put on every year by the BPD with the help of neighborhood groups like Dot Bike.

Much of the responsibility for educating the city’s youth on safe cycling rests with the Boston Bikes program, which will work with 2-3,000 kids this year, according to director Nicole Freedman.  But while the BPD collaborates with Boston Bikes frequently, some events — like the bike rodeo, which took place earlier this year on June 11 — remain the purview of the BPD.

“Everything we’re doing is free,” said Rorie, “And everyone is welcome.  You don’t have to be from Dorchester.”

Bike rodeos are targeted at children ages 4-12, and include an agility course where kids can practice skills like braking and looking for traffic, free food, advice on making a bike easier to identify in case its stolen, raffles for new bikes, and, of course, free helmets.  The event attracts a crowd, and Rorie estimates Saturday’s Rodeo saw 200 kids before being rained out.

Family events like this are as much about educating parents as children, Rorie explains.  “I’ve had parents who are cyclists show up, and they have four kids all wearing helmets, but they aren’t.  What sort of message is that sending?”  When kids tackle the agility course, parents are asked to work along side their children, to find out what skills to work on at home.  The rodeo has been an annual happening for decades in Dorchester, and districts around the city hold similar events.  The Kiwanis Club in East Boston partnered with the BPD to hold their annual Bike Safety Day in May, reaching over 250 kids, according to BPD Media Relations.

Asked about what opportunities city kids have to ride their bikes, Rorie suggests they mostly ride for recreation, not transportation, and stay within their neighborhoods.  For any given group of kids at a rodeo, he expects “maybe one or two” ride their bikes to school.  For these types of riders, he’s not sure if the changes to the city’s infrastructure have made much of an impact.  “I’m all for lanes, but most kids aren’t going to use them.”

In some ways, the efforts of district C-11 contrast sharply with the situation across town at Boston University, where Boston Police – along with members from BUPD and Brookline Police – have also been involved in educational efforts.  Here, the “kids” are college students, most cyclists ride for transportation in addition to recreation, and there’s a strong advocacy community.  James Boggie of the BU Student Union says Freedman has credited BU support for the Comm. Ave bike lane as an “impetus” for changes across the city, and Webb Lancaster of BU Auxiliary Services cites strong partnerships between the university and local shops, advocacy groups, and government.
But some of the challenges are the same.  Theft, often due to use of inferior locks, is a problem found in Dorchester neighborhoods and college campuses.  Lancaster said BU’s bicycle safety committee also found that many cyclists on campus eschewed the use of helmets. To address the problem, the committee teamed up with the local police departments for a Helmet Day. Officers pulled over bikers to hand out mock tickets (“You have the right to take a deep breath, this is only a warning”) and free helmets. Many of the officers were part of their department’s bike patrol. “We wanted people who ride bikes out talking to bicyclists,” according to Lancaster, who thinks bikers are more receptive to a message that is not coming from “a guy in a cruiser.”

The event was “very well received” said Lancaster, with about 100 helmets given away on a rainy day. BU plans to repeat the event in September, according to Lancaster, who has also heard talk of replicating the program elsewhere in the city. If the BPD did decide to experiment with more mock ticketing, Officer Rorie – who listed more helmet education as number one on his list of things the city could do to make cycling safer for kids – would presumably be pleased.

[Given the confusion in the media surrounding BU’s enforcement/free helmet event (multiple outlets reported that not wearing a helmet was illegal in the city of Boston) the Boston Cyclists Union asked BPD to explore a friendlier method of handing out helmets as an alternative to the mock ticket, and subsequent events in August have proven less confusing to people. — Ed.]

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