Helmets and Safety

One of the toughest discussions advocates, cities, and the surrounding community can have is around the issue of children’s safety and helmet usage.

Helmet usage is a polarizing and controversial issue. People with little knowledge about skateboarding will casually presume that because skateboarders fall, helmets should be worn. They may not necessarily be wrong, but they should also understand what kind of risks confront the average skateboarder before they influence policy in the name of skater’s safety.

The best way to approach the helmet topic is to identify the goals that everyone in the community can agree upon and stay focused on methods for achieving them.

On average, only about one-third of public skateparks in the United States have posted helmet requirements. In most communities, helmet enforcement is lax.

Helmet rules are generally created as a means of protecting the city from legal risk. Unfortunately that protection is undermined when the city doesn’t consistently enforce the rule. In other words, the helmet rule sounds like a good idea to the city but it doesn’t want to dedicate law-enforcement resources to it and so the skatepark visitors are getting a mixed message; the city requires helmets but they don’t enforce it. Skaters, seeing people in the skatepark without helmets, accurately perceive that helmets aren’t required.

Helmet compliance is almost as low at skateparks with helmet rules that aren’t enforced as it is at skateparks that don’t require helmets at all. It is estimated that a majority of skateparks that require helmets don’t actively and consistently enforce the rule. The value of helmet requirements at skateparks is open to debate.

Some fundamental helmet-requirement assumptions are helpful:

  • A community will struggle to achieve 100% compliance. How much compliance would be acceptable?
  • Enforcement is as important as the policy itself; without enforcement by authority figures, (e.g., parents, police, park rangers), compliance will be low. What will the city and community do to encourage helmet compliance?
  • Everyone wants skaters to be safe and injury-free; nobody wants to see people exposed to more risk. How will the city and community recognize, evaluate, and respond to risk factors?

How a community protects its youth is a source of anxiety. From individual to individual and group to group, people will have different opinions about helmet strategy. Most approaches will fall into one of two categories:

  1. Carrot Approach
    The skatepark itself will improve public safety simply by drawing youth off of the streets. Encouraging the use of helmets will be achieved through positive incentives (rewards for desired behavior), education (workshops on the benefits of head protection), and leadership (focus compliance efforts on older, popular individuals within the skateboarding community). Helmets have not been an issue while skaters were in the streets, so why should it be an issue now? (It should come as no surprise that most skateboarders prefer this approach.) This perspective prioritizes risk to the community due to skateboarding in inappropriate areas. For example, small items can be given to skaters that don’t need to be told to put on their helmets.
  2. Stick Approach
    The skatepark’s popularity will be the setting for a campaign to increase helmet usage through enforcement and, if necessary, punitive measures like temporary park closures, citations, and skatepark bans. It’s a reasonable expectation that skaters are permitted to use the park provided they follow the rules. (Skatepark administrators tend to prefer this approach.) This perspective prioritizes the legal risk of operating a skatepark.

Communicating any helmet policy is critical — as with all essential policies — but the policy will be meaningless without enforcement. Maintaining strict and consistent enforcement will help convey the expectations across the local skateboarding community that the helmet policy is serious. Even when enforcement is consistent, there will always be individuals that aren’t aware of the policy, or presume that — like most skateparks across the nation with compulsory helmet use — the policy is not enforced.

Helmets are required at fewer than half (38%) of the nation’s skateparks. The number of those facilities that actively enforces the rule is much smaller. For many communities, the skatepark’s helmet rule is seen as a measure of legal protection (and not supported in a way that produces greater helmet usage).

It bears mentioning everyone wants skateboarders to be safe, especially skaters! The evidence suggests that the small number of parks requiring helmets but not enforcing this policy is undermining the efforts of those facilities that ARE enforcing the rule. Meanwhile, the skateparks with no helmet requirement are most successful at drawing skaters off the streets. Helmet policies, as they’re currently presented to skatepark visitors, are not meeting anyone’s goals.

If helmets are required within the skatepark but not outside of it, then skateboarders that are not wearing helmets will be wary of using the skatepark. If the helmet policy is inconsistently enforced, skaters will avoid the skatepark for fear of getting a ticket. As a result there will be skaters not using the skatepark, and not wearing helmets. The purpose of the skatepark was to provide a safe and sanctioned place for skaters to go and, due to a poorly handled helmet policy, the facility is failing to meet its potential.

How Helmet Policies Are Determined and Implemented

Every community working on a skatepark must determine what the helmet policy will be. Deciding on a final policy requires the input of several agencies. Each agency is responsible for a particular area of study.

State Regulation
Some states, like California, have established state-wide codes mandating helmet use at all public skateboarding facilities. While a majority of California towns don’t strictly enforce the helmet rules, the requirement is mandated by state law. In other words, it’s legal to skate without a helmet OUTSIDE of the skatepark but when you are skating INSIDE the skatepark, you are legally required to wear a helmet.

It is interesting to note that because helmet use is not required for skateboarding in the general sense, a skateboarder that prefers not to wear a helmet reduces his or her exposure to infractions by not skating at the skatepark. This is certainly not a desired result by state legislators, but few politicians would take the controversial position of repealing helmet requirements or revising it in a way that provides more individual liberty to decide whether or not to wear a helmet.

Risk Assessment
The risk assessor is a legal professional or department tasked with reducing legal risk to the city. Most towns have a risk assessor or city attorney on staff. (They are not hired directly to address skatepark concerns.)

The typical perspective of the risk assessor is that skateboarding is dangerous or is perceived to be dangerous, and therefore the skatepark encourages risky skateboarding behavior. If a person is injured at the skatepark, the legal concern is that the injured person might accuse the city of encouraging the kind of behavior that led to the injury and therefore the city shares some of the responsibility for the accident. A parent of an injured skater may want to see the city pay for some or all of the skater’s medical bills. This exposure to legal risk is precisely what the city attorney (or risk assessor) is trying to reduce.

The risk assessor will make recommendations to the city that introduce layers of legal protection to the city. This often includes a mandate that helmets must be worn at all times. Risk assessors typically have little concern for the cultural context, popularity, or likely degree of compliance for the policies they provide input on.

The best way to provide a city attorney with skatepark “risk” data is to encourage them to look at skateboarding-related lawsuits and outcomes state-wide. They will certainly find that the degree of skatepark-related risk is less than most other recreational facilities.

For decades most skaters had no sanctioned place to ride their skateboards. While “no skateboarding” signs began appearing, sanctioned places to skate did not. As a result, skateboarders began to routinely ignore “no skateboarding” signs. Most of these signs were not supported by any kind of local ordinance; they’re just signs that the property managers bought somewhere and put up to discourage skateboarding. There are few, if any, requirements to putting up a sign and skaters have few, if any, incentives for honoring them. Due to the proliferation of inconsistent and confusing “rules” governing where skateboarding is and is not allowed, ignoring rules signs has become ingrained in skateboarding’s collective consciousness.

One unfortunate side effect of skateboarders’ history with unsupported signage governing skateboarding is that skaters casually dismiss rules, particularly when they have little relationship to activity, (e.g., “take your turn”). The willful defiance of helmet rules at skateparks is that it undermines compliance with other rules. The logic goes, “if helmets are required and not enforced, then it’s probably okay for me to smoke a cigarette in the skatepark even though it’s prohibited.” When one rule is not enforced, it’s a good indication that the other rules won’t be enforced either.

A sign near the entrance may announce that helmets are required, but the severity of the infraction may not be clear. This is particularly true if there are also “rules” that are vague and unenforceable, such as “take care of the park” or “be courteous.”

Law Enforcement
Enforcement can be considered an aspect of communication. Sadly, helmet enforcement is usually treated by law enforcement as an opportunistic activity. Skaters wearing helmets is not considered a high priority by police and enforcement will vary from cop to cop. Skateboarders that get tickets often feel singled out, chalk it up to bad luck, or perceive that the cop is a jerk. The actions are perceived by skaters as an inconvenience, at best, and harassment, at worst.

For enforcement to be most effective, it must be consistent and impartial. However, it must also be reasonably applied. A skateboarder sitting on a ledge taking a break in the summer sun should not be expected to wear a helmet, for example. Fines should be appropriate to the number of offenses so that habitual offenders understand the increasing penalty.

In some communities, helmet policy enforcement is taken to the extreme. For example, a father was ticketed at a skatepark in California for not wearing a helmet while he supervised his 5-year-old son at the skatepark. Although the $275 fine was suspended in court, the citation held.

Where Injuries Happen

Traumatic head injuries do occur while skateboarding just as they do while bicycling, baseball, and other recreational activities. A majority of skateboarding-related deaths involve a motor vehicle. In other words, most skateboarding-related deaths happen because people are skating around cars. A powerful incentive for creating the skatepark in the first place is to draw skateboarders away from places where skateboarding is inappropriate or dangerous. So, strict helmet policies send an interesting message to the community: “we are creating a skatepark to improve public comfort and safety, then we’ll create policies that restrict its appeal to its intended visitors.”

While most skateboarding deaths involve a motor vehicle, it’s not clear how many of those would have been prevented had the skateboarder been wearing a helmet. Herein lies the conflict: if a skater is not going to wear a helmet, it’s better to have them not wear a helmet in a skatepark than in the streets and around motor vehicles. For every skater at the skatepark, it’s one less skater on the street. Therefore, the skatepark — even without a helmet requirement — will improve public safety. And requiring a helmet at the skatepark will reduce the skatepark’s ability to draw skaters off of the streets as the policy might deter visitors that choose not to wear a helmet, particularly if that policy is enforced with citations.

For several generations of skateboarders, helmets have been unpopular and unfashionable. Older skaters, and particularly those that skate in deeper bowls and halfpipes, have a high percentage of voluntary helmet usage. It’s rare to see a vert skater not wearing a helmet.

Street- and casual skaters have no widespread, voluntary helmet usage. Street skating is much slower than vert skating and usually done on shorter structures. A typical street element at a skatepark will be around 18-inches tall. It’s easy to see how skaters would not see a need for a helmet when most of their tricks are done on virtually flat ground. Longboarding down long, winding roads will often result in higher speeds and those skaters often wear helmets, as do vertical skaters doing aerial stunts. Helmet use within skateboarding is often a reflection of the kind of skateboarding being done.

Younger skaters, particularly those not yet immersed in skateboarding culture, are more likely to wear helmets based on the urging of their parents. Skaters seek social acceptance from fellow skaters, and voluntary helmet usage drops as skaters increasingly seek acceptance from their peers. Eventually, conventional wisdom about personal protection reestablishes itself and the older skater begins wearing a helmet to reduce risk of injuring themselves (rather than because Mom told them so or the skatepark required it). The kind of behavioral conditioning required to get widespread, voluntary helmet use is beyond the reach of a single skatepark.

Skateparks featuring terrain that older helmeted skaters are drawn to can help introduce voluntary helmet usage to skaters that might not be receptive to the same encouragement from the City. (Helmet acceptance is only one of many benefits of attracting older skaters to the facility.)

Does a simple “Skate At Your Own Risk” rule lead to greater legal risk?

The answer, by statistical averages, is no. When a skatepark is policed consistent with other park attractions, the Parks Department presumes no responsibility for the patron’s safety (outside of routine maintenance expectations). This should not be interpreted as legal advice, but data indicates that skateparks with helmet policies have no less incidents of injury nor incur fewer lawsuits. There is no clear pattern suggesting that skateparks with no helmet requirements are more at risk than those with strict helmet requirements.

Skateboarding Injuries Recap

Most skateboarding injuries, (i.e., accidents requiring medical attention), happen to skateboarders with less than a week of skating experience. Skateboarding injuries requiring hospital visits happen to about 2% of participants per year, while injuries strike 22.4% of basketball players, 11.6% of baseball players, and 6.2% of soccer players (according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission). Relative to these other sports, skateboarding is safe.

The most common skateboarding injuries occur at the ankles (26%) and wrists (74%). Beginning skaters are exposed to the most risk. Beginners are inexperienced at falling safely.

When approaching the topic of helmet policy and skatepark safety, it’s valuable to look at how other skateparks are in the area are managed.

Some states have more skateparks than others. Many of these states have become good models of sustainable skatepark management. Enforcement varies from park to park, and from region to region. In the cases where there is no state-wide helmet requirement, it is because skateboarding is listed as a “hazardous recreational activity” within the state’s recreational statute and indemnifies those providing lands for public recreation from liability.

State-wide helmet and full-joint protection (i.e., elbow and knee pad requirements).
Approximately 400 skateparks.
88% of CA skateparks require helmets.
(See “CA Health and Safety Code 115800”)

No state-wide helmet requirements.
Approximately 150 skateparks.
19% of CO skateparks require helmets.
(See “Colorado Recreational Use Statute Title 33, Article 41”)

No state-wide helmet requirements.
Approximately 100 skateparks.
17% of OR skateparks require helmets.
(See “ORS Title 10, Chapter 105”)

No state-wide helmet requirements.
Approximately 250 skateparks.
19% of TX skateparks require helmets.
(See “Texas Code Title 4, Chapter 75”)

No state-wide helmet requirements.
Approximately 200 skateparks.
14% of WA skateparks require helmets.
(See “RCW 4.24.210”)