STARKVILLE — The Starkville Board of Aldermen approved a controversial safety helmet ordinance Tuesday, despite complaints of too much “big government” involvement coming from opponents of the measure.
The board approved the ordinance 4-3, with votes against it coming from Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Ward 2 Alderwoman Sandra Sistrunk and Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker.
Parker said he received an “overwhelming response” from Ward 3 residents against the ordinance and doesn”t believe aldermen should force citizens to wear helmets while riding bicycles and other alternative forms of transportation in the city. The ordinance does not cover Oktibbeha County or the Mississippi State University campus.
Sistrunk, on the other hand, said she would “prefer we use our efforts toward education,” while Carver shared a sentiment similar to Parker”s.
“I just don”t think that I can sit on this side of the table and you”re on that side of the table, and I have the right to tell a grown man (to wear a helmet),” Carver said to a packed courtroom in City Hall. The first-term alderman also said he would have been more likely to support the original helmet ordinance, which would have applied only to persons under 16 years old.
Along with bicycles, the ordinance passed Tuesday applies to persons of all ages riding skateboards, motorcycles, ATVs, in-line skates, roller skates, Segways and unicycles.
The regulations will be enacted in 30 days, but Starkville police officers and code enforcement officers will not begin enforcing the measure until six months after it is enacted, which will give residents time to purchase helmets and read up on the ordinance.
Violators of the ordinance also will have the opportunity to purchase a helmet in lieu of paying a $15 fine.
The fine and lack of helmet requirements outside Starkville city limits, however, caused concern among aldermen and citizens.
Some felt children could be traumatized or look poorly on law enforcement if they receive a citation for riding a bicycle without a helmet. Others felt Mississippi State University students will be targeted as they travel to and from campus, where helmets aren”t required. Still others felt a helmet requirement would decrease the number of cyclists in a town promoting cycling and physical activity.
The main argument, however, was the loss of personal freedom.
“I think it”s a slippery slope when the government tells people what they can and cannot do on issues that don”t affect other people,” said Mike Allen, who ran for the Ward 5 alderman seat last year.
But the ordinance had the support of Dr. Ron Cossman, a member of Starkville”s Healthy Hometown Committee, which has pushed for the ordinance as part of a Healthy Hometown Award competition, but also to promote safe cycling around town.
“As I”ve been saying over and over again, this is all about consistency,” Cossman said after the meeting. “If we”re going to promote cycling in the community, we have a responsibility to make cycling as safe as we possibly can. By requiring safety helmets, we”re doing all we can to prevent or minimize brain trauma injury.”
When asked about the argument that a helmet ordinance would cause cyclists to stop riding and start driving automobiles, Cossman said it”s all about changing the attitudes of local riders.
“I think it”s a matter of culture and once it becomes the culture to wear a helmet while you”re on a bike in this town, people won”t think twice about it,” Cossman said. “It”s going to require that we change habits. Every year we”re going to have a new freshmen class that comes in (at MSU) and they”re going to have to learn about the bike culture that exists in Starkville. Once they do, they”ll fall right in line with everyone else.”
Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey, Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas, Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn Sr. voted in favor of the ordinance.
“The simple matter of us being responsible for the public safety, health and welfare of the community really set the standard with me,” Dumas said. “If you look through most of the things we do, a lot of it deals with the public health, safety and welfare, and impacts the personal freedoms of a lot of people, but not everybody in the city of Starkville.”
“I do have a heart for freedom, I do have a heart for liberty,” Dumas added. “I do have all those things at heart, but at the same time I think you have to look at what”s good for the entire community and that”s why I support this.”
Over the past three years, three accidents between cyclists and automobiles in Starkville have sent cyclists to the hospital, Starkville Police Department Chief David Lindley said.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.