Q: “I read recently about a woman who was charged with parental neglect for allowing her daughter to ride her bicycle without a helmet. Is this true? What are my responsibilities as a parent regarding my kid’s use of his bicycle?”
A: Dear Dawn, raising children is a difficult balance between educating and policing them. The law requires, to a degree, that you police your children’s behavior as society wants to make sure that parents act affirmatively to protect their children from harm. The case that I believe you are referring to involves a woman in Tennessee who was allowing her 10-year-old daughter to ride her bike to school unsupervised without a helmet. I cannot address Tennessee law but I can draw, by analogy, from California statutes on bicycling, helmets and parental responsibility to address your question.
California Penal Code Section 11165.2 defines unlawful parental neglect as follows: “Neglect means the negligent treatment or the maltreatment of a child by a person responsible for the child’s welfare under circumstances indicating harm or threatened harm to the child’s health or welfare. The term includes both acts and omissions on the part of the responsible person.”
So, the failure to follow a safety statute can be considered negligent treatment by omission, i.e., failing to follow a safety law designed to prevent harm to children. California Vehicle Code Section 21212 is the state statute that mandates the use of helmets by persons under 18. It covers bicycles, skateboards, roller blades and nonmotorized scooters. Section 21212 states that “a person under 18 years of age shall not operate a bicycle, a nonmotorized scooter, or a skateboard, nor shall they wear in-line or roller skates, nor ride upon a bicycle, a nonmotorized scooter, or a skateboard as a passenger, upon a street, bikeway, or any other public bicycle path or trail unless that person is wearing a properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet that meets the standards of either the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), or standards subsequently established by those entities. This requirement also applies to a person who rides upon a bicycle while in a restraining seat that is attached to the bicycle or in a trailer towed by the bicycle.”
The courts have interpreted this provision to also encompass riding on a public sidewalk. Although the vehicle code makes this a minor offense, resulting in a $25 fine, it also indicates that the parent has a responsibility to makes sure that their child is in compliance as demonstrated by the parents’ joint liability for the fine. Parents should also be aware that if they are riding their child as a passenger on a bike or are aware that their child is riding as a passenger on a bike, that “an operator shall not allow a person riding as a passenger, and a person shall not ride as a passenger, on a bicycle other than upon or astride a separate seat attached thereto. If the passenger is four years of age or younger, or weighs 40 pounds or less, the seat shall have adequate provision for retaining the passenger in place and for protecting the passenger from the moving parts of the bicycle.”
Again, failure to abide by these regulations may be seen as neglect.
I could find no California case wherein a parent had been charged with child neglect for allowing a child to ride without a helmet but it is technically possible that such a charge could be brought. It is doubtful, except in a case where there was a serious injury, or a pattern of neglect, that San Francisco police or Child Protective Services would use their scarce resources to make an arrest and more doubtful yet that the district attorney would seek to prosecute such a case.
However, despite the likelihood of criminal prosecution, I hope that readers, understanding the law, or better yet the need to protect our children, purchase and provide bicycle helmets for their children. If you cannot afford one, contact my office and I will help you to purchase one. Prevention is better than prosecution any day.
Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.