University of Vermont AAHS


Enacting a Helmet Ordinance


Robert O. Dawson

Professor of Law

University of Texas School of Law

Secretary/Treasurer, AAHS

[reproduced from Caution: Horses, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1999]

 On January 27, 1999, Plantation, Florida became the first city in the United States to make the use of equestrian helmets mandatory.  It did so by enacting an ordinance requiring children to use approved helmets while riding horses on public property.  It also imposed a legal duty on parents and horse providers to make sure the children obey the law.  Plantation is a city of about 80,000 people near Ft. Lauderdale on Florida’s Atlantic coast.

 This law, like many laws, was enacted as an aftermath to tragedy.  On December 8, 1998, 15 year old Amanda Vranizan was riding her horse in Plantation when the horse bolted into a fire hydrant, throwing the teenage girl to the pavement.  She was not wearing an equestrian helmet and died of massive head injuries almost immediately.

 About two weeks later, Amanda’s 14 year old friend, Edrick McDonald, toppled off a horse and landed on his head.  He survived with only minor injuries because he was wearing a helmet.

 The county medical examiner said that a helmet might have saved Amanda’s life.

 Preventing Tragedies.  If you wish to take steps to prevent a tragedy like Amanda’s in your community, what can you do?  There are steps you can take in an effort to persuade your locally-elected officials to enact a helmet ordinance in your community.  You may not succeed in getting an ordinance enacted, but even if you fail you will have succeeded in raising the issue of equestrian safety headgear to public consciousness.

 Get organized.  Because elected officials are busy with numerous issues that command their attention, they are more likely to respond to group efforts at persuasion than to efforts by an individual.  Groups of voters attract their attention.  Start your persuasion effort with any local equestrian group that might be receptive: Pony Club, 4-H Horse Club, local horse show association, or just the parents of children riding at a particular stable.  Be aware that if your group is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, it cannot lobby for the enactment of the ordinance as a group.  Doing so would endanger its tax-exempt status.  Members of the organization can lobby as individuals, however.

 Agree on principles.  Try to get your equestrian group to agree on a set of principles regarding equestrian helmets, for example, that all children should wear approved headgear while mounted, that it is a proper function of government to require that principle to be observed when a child is riding on public property, and that parents and horse providers should be made legally responsible to enforce this requirement.

 Find a receptive council member.  You can propose an ordinance but you can’t introduce it before the city council.  Only a council member can do that.  You need to find one who is sympathetic to your cause.  If your council members are elected from districts, start with the council member who represents your district.  Other things being equal, council members are more receptive to the requests of constituents than of people outside their ward, precinct or district.

 Educate that council member and the public.  Chances are the council member you choose will know very little about equestrian safety headgear.  You will have to educate that person on the different kinds of headgear, about ASTM standards, and about the importance of approved headgear in protecting equestrians from fatal or serious head injuries.  Back issues of Horses in the News on the AAHS web site contain newspaper stories that detail head injuries from accidents to equestrians.  You can also contact the American Medical Equestrian Association through their segment on the AAHS web site to get assistance in educating the council and the public on equestrian safety headgear issues.  Of course, newspaper coverage of your efforts will be useful so contacting the local paper early in the process is usually a good idea.

 Know your opposition.  Any proposal to require equestrian headgear is likely to encounter opposition.  Some people will regard such a proposal as unwarranted governmental interference with an individual’s freedom to do what they want so long as they are not injuring others.  There may also be opposition from some members of the western riding community because there is no tradition of wearing protective headgear among western riders and the attire of western riders includes wide-brim hats, not helmets.  You should anticipate who your opposition will be and attempt to formulate responses to the arguments they will present in opposing to your efforts.

 Be prepared to compromise.  Although you may have a proposal that you think is eminently reasonable, there will be opposition and you may have to back off your proposal to get it enacted into law.  That is a normal part of the legislative process.  In the City of Plantation enactment process the ordinance was originally drafted to apply to everyone under 18 but was amended to make it apply only to riders under 16 years of age.  Anticipating the need to compromise, you should start with a principled position, identify those points where you are willing to back away and be prepared to do so if necessary to get the ordinance enacted.  Often weak laws are enacted and are strengthened by amendment in subsequent years.  For example, you may believe in principle that all children should be required at all times to wear protective headgear while mounted.  That is likely to be seriously resisted by western riding show participants.  It may be necessary, like it was in the City of Plantation to except organized shows on public property from the scope of the ordinance.  A compromise might require protective headgear while warming up but not when actually in the show ring.

 Give your lawmakers a written model.  It is much more difficult to make up laws from scratch than it is to modify an already-existing provision.  The City of Plantation equestrian helmet ordinance was modeled on an ordinance already in effect requiring children riding bicycles to wear helmets.  Many cities already have laws requiring children to wear helmets while riding bicycles or while skateboarding in public places.  We have included a copy of the City of Plantation ordinance for use as a model for your efforts.

 Be patient.  Even if you do not succeed in getting an ordinance enacted, you will have raised the awareness of your community to the issue of equestrian safety headgear and a few more children may as a result ride with helmets.  That is a success itself.  If you get a weak ordinance enacted, also be patient, because what you are really trying to do is to change people’s attitudes about equestrian helmets and the law is only one part of that effort.  Publicity surrounding the enactment will assist in changing those attitudes.

 The City of Plantation model.  Here is the ordinance as finally passed by the City of Plantation, Florida on January 27, 1999.  It went into effect April 1, 1999.

 Let us know.  Finally, if you make a helmet ordinance effort in your community let us know about it, whether or not an ordinance is enacted, and we will recount your story in this newsletter.  If you succeed in getting an ordinance enacted, send us a copy so we can post in on the web site.

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