One of the toughest policies to discuss is one that directly impacts children’s safety. Helmet usage is a polarizing and controversial issue. The best way to approach it is to identify those goals that everyone in the community can agree upon and directing the discussion towards ways of achieving them.
Over 1,000 skatepark policies were surveyed. Of those, 37.7% indicated that helmets were required. In most communities, enforcement is lax; the helmet rule is a measure of legal protection for the city but there is little interest or resources dedicated to enforcement and measures designed to achieve a high level of compliance. It is estimated that a majority of skateparks that require helmets don’t strictly enforce the rule and therefore compliance is low.
Some fundamental helmet-requirement assumptions are helpful:
- A community will not achieve 100% compliance
- Enforcement is as important as the policy itself
- Everyone wants skaters to be safe and injury-free
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, education, and leadership. 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.
2. Stick Approach
The skatepark’s popularity will be used as an opportunity to improve helmet compliance through enforcement and, if necessary, punishment measures like park closures. 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 the helmet policy is critical (as with all essential policies), but will be meaningless without enforcement. Maintaining very strict and consistent enforcement will help convey the expectations across the local skateboarding community. Even when enforcement is consistent, there will always be individuals that aren’t aware of the policy, or presume that it isn’t strictly enforced (as is the case in most communities).
Local law enforcement may be unable to interact with local youth regarding helmets unless there is a local ordinance requiring helmets use. This is an ordinance that will be politically disastrous to revoke later as no politician wants the “PR liability” of putting youth at risk, so helmet requirements tend to be an “all or nothing” endeavor. Many communities are unprepared to discuss helmet policies in these terms and naively think that a sign near the skatepark entrance will be enough to achieve high levels of compliance.
Furthermore, if the skatepark requires helmets while skateboarding in the general sense, (say, to the corner store), does not, then skateboarders that feel strongly about not wearing helmets will avoid the skatepark for fear of getting a citation. Without a regional ordinance requiring helmets for ALL skateboarders while they are skating on public property, a skatepark-only helmet ordinance can negatively impact patronage at the facility.
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.
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 nonetheless mandated by state law. It is interesting to note that because helmet use is not required for skateboarding in the wider 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.
The risk assessor is a legal professional or department tasked with reducing legal risk to the city. The typical perspective of the risk assessor is that skateboarding is dangerous or is perceived to be dangerous, and therefore the skatepark encourages dangerous behavior. If a person is injured at the skatepark, the legal concern is that the injured person would 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.
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.
Skaters are accustomed to ignoring signs and rules. In any city you can easily find “no skateboarding” signs posted on the sides of buildings or listed as one of the prohibited activities on that property. These signs announce to the skater that there’s attractive terrain nearby. Most of these signs are not supported by any kind of local ordinance; they’re just signs that the property managers put up to discourage skateboarding. For years, public skateparks were rare and skateboarders would routinely ignore these signs. That behavior has become ingrained in skateboarding’s collective consciousness.
One unfortunate side-effect of this is that helmet rules at skateparks are often similarly dismissed by skatepark visitors. 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.”
Communicating how lenient the helmet policy is at the facility is the first step in achieving compliance. In facilities where 100% helmet compliance is absolutely expected, the expectation should be made absolutely clear through signage.
Enforcement can be considered an aspect of communication. Sadly, helmet enforcement is usually treated by local cops as an opportunistic activity. It is not considered a high priority by police, and enforcement will vary from cop to cop. Skateboarders that receive tickets then feel singled out, or chalk it up to bad luck. 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. Citations should be given only to repeat offenders.
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. Head injuries are not the leading cause of traumatic accidents, however. 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 install policies that make that facility less attractive to its intended patrons.”
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. It’s safe to say that some of them would have survived the ordeal. Herein lies the conflict: if a skater is going to not wear a helmet, it’s better to have them not wear a helmet in a skatepark than out in the streets. For every skater at the skatepark, it’s one less skater on the street.
For several generations of skateboarders, helmets have been unpopular and unfashionable. Older skaters, and particularly those that ride on steep terrain, enjoy a higher percentage of voluntary helmet usage. Street- and casual skaters have virtually no voluntary helmet usage. Younger skaters, particularly those not yet immersed in skateboarding culture, are more likely to wear helmets. Skaters seek social acceptance from fellow skaters, and voluntary helmet usage drops as skaters increasingly seek acceptance from their non-helmet-wearing 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).
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.)
It is understood that Parks administrators and governmental risk assessors cannot put the Parks Department (and the City) at risk of lawsuits. While it may lead to greater PUBLIC safety to not require helmets at the skatepark, it appears to put the Parks Department at greater legal risk. The question that cities should be asking is: Does a simple “Skate At Your Own Risk” approach 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.
Given the popularity of helmet policies at skateparks, it’s clear that many communities are responding to the perceived risk of skateboarding rather than the factual risk. Skateboarding, after all, looks dangerous…so it must be dangerous. Skateboarders can help direct the helmet conversation by meeting directly with City risk assessors to discuss the most challenging aspects of the skatepark’s design. This will help reduce the chances of important policies being determined by unfounded impressions of risk.
Skateboarding Injuries Recap
Most skateboarding injuries happen to skateboarders with little experience. Skateboarding injuries 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. (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) Relative to these other sports, skateboarding is safe. The common injuries among skateboarders happen to the ankles (26%) and wrists (74%) and primarily to skaters with less than a week of skateboarding experience. (These are individuals not prepared for challenging skatepark terrain, so most of these types of injuries are happening in driveways and sidewalks near home.)
When approaching the topic of helmet policy and skatepark safety, it’s valuable to look at how other skateparks are managed.
Several states have significantly more skateparks than others. These states have become good models of sustainable skatepark management. In all states, nearly all private (commercial) skateparks require helmets and/or a signed waiver. In all states listed below, enforcement varies from park to park. 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 276 skateparks.
88% of CA skateparks require helmets.
(See “CA Health and Safety Code 115800”)
No state-wide helmet requirements.
Approximately 159 skateparks.
19% of CO skateparks require helmets.
No state-wide helmet requirements.
Approximately 86 skateparks.
17% of OR skateparks require helmets.
No state-wide helmet requirements.
Approximately 203 skateparks.
19% of TX skateparks require helmets.
No state-wide helmet requirements.
Approximately 174 skateparks.
14% of WA skateparks require helmets.
(See “RCW 4.24.210”)