STARKVILLE — The group began gathering outside Perry Cafeteria on the Mississippi State University campus Thursday just before 7 p.m.
They rode in on their bikes three or four at a time until a group of about 30 had assembled, then headed en mass down the brick walkway between the Colvard Student Union and Perry Cafeteria toward town, laughing and joking along the way. Many wore shorts and T-shirts, while one rider donned a cow costume.
But as the riders headed up Barr Avenue and eventually made their way onto University Drive, they all had one thing in common: opposition to the safety helmet ordinance passed earlier this month by the Starkville Board of Aldermen.
The group gathered to protest the ordinance, which will require cyclists and riders of other alternative forms of transportation to wear helmets while operating their vehicles in the city of Starkville. The ordinance does not apply to the Mississippi State University campus or to Oktibbeha County.
Cars lined up behind the riders as they cruised through the Cotton District to shouts and cheers from places like Up Your Alley and Bin 612. Several observers, aware of the protest, jokingly yelled at the group to put on their helmets.
A house party at Jarnigan Street and University drive also drew cheers and, once the group arrived downtown, patrons of Zorba”s stared down from the balcony and took photos with their phones.
After a loop downtown, the riders headed back down Main Street and University Drive to the MSU campus.
Junior Nathan Johnson, of Texarkana, Texas, organized the event.
“I”m not really opposed to helmets; I actually bought one the day that ordinance came out because I just bought this bike,” Johnson said. “But I”m opposed to someone making me wear it if I”m wanting to just ride down University (Drive) or go to the grocery store or something like that. I think it should just be my decision if I want to bust my head open or not. If I really think I”m going to be unsafe riding a bicycle, I”m going to wear my helmet, but if I”m just doing something like I”m doing tonight, I don”t want to wear a helmet.”
Johnson hoped the group”s ride through Starkville would show students” opposition to the ordinance, which Starkville police and code enforcement officers are set to begin enforcing in November, but he also thought it would be fun to have a mass of people riding through town.
Not everyone agrees with the group”s protest.
“This is an area where I disagree with the sentiment,” Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said this morning, noting the ordinance is “an issue of safety regulation” and is consistent with other city policies aimed at encouraging bike riding on roadways.
“In order to do that and truly promote a healthier lifestyle in the city, it makes sense to pass some safety regulations that go along with that,” Wiseman added.
James McCormick, an instructor of marketing, quantitative analysis and business law, joined the riders on the MSU campus before they headed toward town, but he wasn”t there to protest the helmet ordinance. He called the group”s ride “irresponsible” and handed out information on how to become an organ donor.
“Why am I here?” McCormick asked rhetorically. “Because I think it”s ultimately irresponsible for people to encourage other people to ride bicycles without helmets.”
McCormick said he rides his bicycle every day and has for years. He used to race competitively and was vehemently opposed to the group riding into town and clogging up city streets.
“It”s stupid to ride without a helmet and these people are encouraging other people to do it, so I decided to come out here to give them information on how to become an organ donor,” McCormick said.
But McCormick”s opinion was in the minority Thursday evening.
Stephen Harris, a senior from Benton, was one of the students who joined the protest.
“Honestly, I just feel like it”s a waste of the city government”s time to try to enforce arcane rules such as that bicycle helmet law,” Harris said. “If I fall off my bike, it”s going to hurt me. It”s not going to hurt the city. It”s not going to hurt the mayor. It”s going to hurt me. It”s my fault. They”re my sores. I don”t need the city government telling me to wear a helmet.”
Matt Cameron, a junior from Madison, and Adam Lenz, a junior from Montpellier, Ind., also joined the protest. While they were against the helmet ordinance and the $15 fine for violators, they also came for the camaraderie.
“I almost just like the idea of people coming together and riding together,” Cameron said. “It”s just something cool to add to Starkville.”
The city”s Healthy Hometown Committee pushed for aldermen to pass the ordinance to improve the safety of riders on public property, but also to improve the city”s application for Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Mississippi”s Healthy Hometown competition, which judges municipalities on quality of life and other issues. The city could win up to $50,000 in the contest.