Child passenger prohibitions — Massachusetts law, Oregon bill

Eli Damon, who lives in Massachusetts, as I do, has drawn attention to a bill introduced into the Oregon legislature to ban child passengers under 6 years old on bicycles. Eli cited an online article:

No Biking With Kids Under Six in Oregon?!

There’s a history to this kind of legislation here in Massachusetts. Eli’s message continues:

In Massachusetts it is illegal to carry passengers under one year old.
Either way, it arbitrarily paralyzes car-free/car-lite families. Eli

The below-one-year ban in Massachusetts occurred around 1990. Its wording was developed in a meeting in Washington, DC, organized by the Bicycle Federation of America (now the National Center for Bicycling and Walking). I’m not sure I have all of the details exactly right, but more or less, the BFA was the successor to the BMA (Bicycle Manufacturer’s Association), which represented the interests of a large segment of the American bicycle industry.

When domestic bicycle manufacturing fell on hard times, the BFA took more of its income from writing government reports. It still maintained a friendly relationship with industry — it championed the “more people on bicycles” — more bicycle sales — approach to bicycle planning, with the accompanying lack of concern for cyclists’ rights and responsibilities and for shortcomings of special bicycle facilities.

The League of American Wheelmen, as a cyclists’ membership organization, was more confrontational with the industry, especially around 1980 with John Forester as president. His complaints about special bicycle facilities and about the industry-backed CPSC all-reflector nighttime safety equipment requirement made the industry wary even as industry-friendly Board members took over in 1983 — leading to a substantial decline in League membership. By 1989, the leadership had shifted again and the League had substantially recovered, but it still did not have the strength, will or perspective always to uphold members’ interests. The child-seat issue is a prime example of this.

The industry’s interest in prohibiting carrying of infants on bicycles, as with the all-reflector system, was in shedding liability risk by establishing an equipment standard which could place responsibility on the consumer. Child-seat manufacturer Troxel was most concerned about the transportation of infants, because Troxel didn’t make any product suitable to transport them. Infants can’t hold up their heads, so helmets also came into the discussion. Never mind that a “baby pod” rigid papoose-like device can easily be imagined which would carry an infant far more safely than any open child seat. That is, you could crash, slamming such a pod onto the ground and sliding it along and afterwards, only have to wipe away the baby’s tears, assuming that you didn’t need serious medical attention yourself.

The League was at the table for the meeting at the BFA, and there is an informative article about it in a League magazine from 1989 or 1990 — sorry, I don’t have my copy right on hand. The League did not rise up against the ban, as is evident from the merely reportorial tone of the article.

Goofy bills — often, ride-on-the-left bills — can be introduced naively because some legislator or constituent has a bee in his or her bonnet about some safety concern. But that was not the case with the Massachusetts ban. It resulted from industry lobbying, through Safe Kids, and stemming out of the DC meeting.

The 1990 Massachusetts helmet and child-seat law did not include a liability exclusion for failure to use a helmet, though the seat belt law did include a liability exclusion: a person who causes a crash can’t dismiss a lawsuit by another, injured person who only fails to wear a seat belt. After four years of lobbying and making connections with safety advocates, cyclists did manage to get a liability exclusion into Massachusetts helmet law, but also, the maximum age requirement for helmet use went up from 12 to 17 years — political horse trading.

What is the case with the Oregon bill? I don’t know. It bears looking into. There would certainly be no consensus in the industry. The bill impacts more of the industry than the Massachusetts law, including Oregon trailer manufacturer Burley and bicycle retailers — especially Clever Cycles in Portland, which specializes in the kind of equipment whose use would be made illegal. The bill also impacts a larger percentage of the bicycling public.

The 1990 Massachusetts law was mostly an example of non-cyclist interests’ having taken the initiative, while cyclists weren’t paying enough attention. One argument for increasing the numbers of cyclists is that they then become a more powerful political force. That can sometimes, ironically, work against cyclists’ interests, if the recruits are mainly people with an unsophisticated understanding of their interests. Neglect of cyclists’ rights issues and support of poorly-conceived bicycle facilities feed on this dynamic. The lobbying for 1994 Massachusetts law and the current pushback against the Oregon bill are, on the other hand, what we would hope for: an active and well-informed cyclist constituency standing up for cyclists’ interests as best we can.

One response to “Child passenger prohibitions — Massachusetts law, Oregon bill

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention John S. Allen's Bicycle Blog » Child passenger prohibitions — Massachusetts law, Oregon bill --

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please answer this to show that you are a human!... *