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Skating safely: Police Chief Torpy addresses helmet law

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By Jennifer Garcia

The skate park in front of Mesa Public Library opened last month, much to the delight of local youth.

So far the reaction to the opening of the skate park has been mostly positive, however, as Police Chief Wayne Torpy will attest, there have also been some complaints.

The complaints Torpy is receiving stem from some of the skate park users not wearing helmets while at the park. Torpy was in council chambers on Tuesday night to brief council on the New Mexico Child Helmet Safety Act.

The Child Helmet Safety Act of 2007 states that all minors under the age of 18 must wear helmets when riding bicycles, skateboards, scooters, skates and tricycles.

According to a document from the New Mexico Department of Health, the Child Helmet Safety Act is very similar to existing state laws in that it does not require helmet use by adults, nor is there any intention to emphasize enforcement or punishment.

Five existing state laws have no provision for enforcement or require verbal warnings only, while all the other state laws allow for small fines, usually no more than $25-$50 that typically can be waived with proof of helmet purchase.

New Mexico has a maximum of a civil fine (no record) of $10 that can be waived with proof of purchase of a helmet and a municipal option of “verbal warnings only.”

The intent of the bill is to protect and educate children and their parents, not punish them. Primary enforcement is intended to be implemented by parents, teachers and recreational supervisors, not law enforcement.

“There have been lots of concerns and questions about the helmet law,” Torpy said. “The Legislature said this is not intended for police (to enforce). They were trying to encourage parents, teachers, etc. to encourage young people who roller skate, rollerblade, etc., to wear helmets.”

He went on to explain that if a child does not wear a helmet, then the citation would actually go to the parents of that child, rather than the child himself. He also said that he and his staff examined the Act closely when it was established in 2007.

“If it’s an encouragement act, how can we encourage it,” he said.

Torpy said that he and his staff worked with former Home Run Pizza owner, Mike Luna, to come up with a way to encourage children to wear their helmets.

As a result, Luna gave the Los Alamos Police Department gift certificates to his pizza establishment. In turn, the police officers used the certificates to encourage young people to obey the law.

“When we see a young person who is complying with the law, we give them a “good” ticket to go get a slice of pizza,” Torpy said.

He also said that since Luna sold his business, the police department now purchases the certificates through a line item for motor vehicle safety so that they can continue to hand them out to children who comply with the law.

“Helmets are required by law for those under 18. The consequences for not following the rules include being asked to leave (the skate park),” Torpy said. “We can tell them to put on a helmet or leave the park. Every law that’s put on the books is not intended for police action. Each law doesn’t have a civil penalty attached,” he continued.

He went on to say that some people in the community have asked why he can’t force children to wear their helmets.

“The legislature tells us that they don’t intend for this to be a police law,” he said.

Councilor Nona Bowman was concerned with liability at the skate park and asked County Administrator Max Baker about signage at the park.

“Max, do we have a sign out there saying that if you skate in this par, we’re not legally responsible? I worry about that.”

“The signs that are there say that you’re skating at your own risk and helmets are required,” Baker said.

Council Chair Jim Hall commended Torpy for the way he is handling the situation.

“I really do agree that the way to deal with this is through positive reinforcement,” he said. “I’d much rather have you figure out who robbed the dry cleaners than have you out trying to find a kid’s parents to ticket them for not having a helmet.”