U.S. Congress Considers A Helmet Bill, Again

Aug 13, 2004 - 10:00 PM

ASTM/SEI-certified helmets have been a subject before the U.S. Congress since March 29, when Sen. Tom Daschale (D-S.D.) reintroduced for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd’s (D-Conn.) the Christen O’Donnell Equestrian Safety Act of 2004 (S.2254), which establishes a federal standard for equestrian helmets.

Dodd first introduced the bill in June 2002 after hearing about the death of constituent Christen O’Donnell, 12, of Darien Conn., on Aug. 11, 1998. O’Donnell fell from a horse while walking in a ring and succumbed to severe head injuries the following day. She was wearing a helmet, but it wasn’t ASTM/SEI-certified. The 2002 bill came as a surprise to those who had campaigned for years for improved safety helmets and was criticized for not including provisions for testing helmets and auditing the manufacturing process. There was also concern that the bill did not include penalties for manufacturers who didn’t meet the safety standards. Dodd’s 2004 bill, again co-sponsored by Sen. Lincoln D. Chaffee (R-R.I.), is an improvement over the 2002 version, said Pat Gleason, the Safety Equipment Institute president, who considered the 2002 bill to be a waste of taxpayer dollars. SEI staff members have since met with Dodd’s staff members to suggest improvements, which have been incorporated into the 2004 bill.

“The bill has improved over the previous version,” Gleason allowed. “We encouraged Sen. Dodd’s office to include money for grants for education.” The 2004 bill has a new clause that authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to grant money to states and organizations to promote the use of approved equestrian helmets. It also calls for an interim safety standard to be established for equestrian helmets manufactured nine months after the law is en-acted. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is charged with creating a final standard.

Any manufacturer found in violation of standards would be in violation of the Consumer Product Safety Act. Still, Gleason has concerns about creating a federal government safety standard for equestrian helmets. “If the federal government publishes a standard, as they did with the bicycle helmet standard, it’s very difficult to change that standard or improve it,” she said. “The federal government isn’t designed to be able to update effectively when they develop these types of standards. It takes an act of Congress, literally.” Gleason would prefer that regulating equestrian helmets be left to the American Society for Testing Materials, which has tested and approved equestrian helmets since 1989. “ASTM–that’s what they do. That’s their business,” Gleason said, adding that the equestrian helmet standard has been updated just about every year for the past five years.

Gleason compared this to the federal government’s bicycle helmet standard instituted in 1998, which she said has never been updated. Gleason is also concerned that Dodd’s bill, like the bicycle helmet standard, doesn’t include a clause requiring a third party (like SEI) to certify equestrian helmets. She said this will result in a reactive rather than proactive approach to safety since helmets certified by the company producing them are already on the market before random CPSC testing occurs. If a helmet fails, it must then be recalled. If a third party certifies helmets before they’re sold, faulty products never make it to the market, said Gleason.

Dodd’s bill looks to fix what isn’t broken, added Dru Malavese, who’s been involved in helmet safety research and testing for more than two decades. She would prefer that this version of Dodd’s bill also not become law–at least not in its current form. “We have a perfectly splendid [ASTM/SEI] standard, which was arrived at by consensus with input from people from the CPSC,” she said. “I really think it is a duplication of what’s been done before in a much less excellent way.”

Dodd’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but in his 2002 speech to the Senate he said the bill was necessary because the majority of the 15 million Americans who ride each year are not aware that there is no government safety standard for equestrian helmets. He added that in 1999 15,000 children under age 15 received emergency room treatment for equestrian injuries and head injuries accounted for 60 percent of deaths from those injuries. “I believe that Congress should establish minimum safety standards for all equestrian helmets sold in the United States so that all riders can obtain headgear that offers actual protection against head injury,” Dodd told the Senate then.

The 2004 bill has now been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation for further consideration.

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