“I’m not going to go to jail for this, am I?” my husband looked at me pointedly. I had tasked him with installing our infant car seat in the front box of my bakfiets-style cargo bike.
I can imagine my neighbor watching us, waiting for another opportunity to call the authorities.
“Um…no?” I wasn’t exactly sure.
“You should find out.”
I don’t blame him for asking. We’re a bit sensitive about the legality of various parenting choices and the perceptions of the neighborhood, ever since an anonymous tipster reported us for letting our kiddos play outside – directly in front of our house – because we don’t stand watch every minute. We believe it’s our right to let our kids play outside, just as we think we should have the right to bike with our baby. But does the law – and a jury of our neighbors – agree?
I can imagine my neighbor watching us, waiting for another opportunity to call the authorities. I can just picture the phone call, as soon as she sees the infant car seat in the front of my cargo bike… How much trouble could we be getting ourselves into?
Admittedly, I know we aren’t exactly in the clear. Laws vary by state. New York law specifically prohibits babies under the age of one from riding on a bike. Oregon law doesn’t explicitly forbid infants from bikes, but Oregon does require all children under age 16 to wear a helmet (ORS 814.485). That law feels like a de facto prohibition against riding with an infant, because new babies can’t [safely] wear helmets. Infants that lack full head/neck control may not be able to hold up their head with the added helmet weight, which could force down their chin and restrict their airway. Nevertheless, according to the law, if folks bike with an unhelmeted baby in Oregon, they are in violation of the statute. (Interestingly, there is a religious exemption, if wearing a helmet would violate one’s religious beliefs. There isn’t an exemption, however, if wearing a helmet would violate one’s breathing ability.)
Of course, it seems like our family situation – biking with a baby in a car seat in a box bike – probably wasn’t considered by legislators. I want to claim that the car seat should count as “protective head gear,” but it doesn’t fit the technical definition. And I don’t think, “the law is dumb” and “the legislators don’t know what they’re making laws about” is going to be a good defense, should hubby or I need one.
To find out how worried we should be, I contacted two personal injury lawyers and longtime supporters of BikePortland: Chris Thomas of Thomas, Coon, Newton & Frost; and Charley Gee. To begin, I confronted them with the most important, extremely technical and legal question: did they bike with their babies? And if so, were they worried about being pulled over?
After all my fretting, I was surprised when they readily – and happily – recounted biking with their wee ones. Gee pulled a baby in a bike trailer, and Thomas carted his youngest baby in a car seat strapped to a box bike, followed by other child-schlepping bike configurations.
“I did have a neighbor who would yell ‘Child Endangerment!’ whenever I rode by with my kid in a Yepp seat,” Thomas recalled with a bit of a chuckle. (Gee assured me that, whatever the neighbors may yell, biking with a child would not fall under the definition of endangering the welfare of a minor.)
As it turns out, neither lawyer lost any sleep over the decision to bike with a baby (I asked) – which for me felt momentous, after months of reading and worrying over biking-with-baby blogs.
Neither Gee nor Thomas had ever heard of a citation being issued for biking with an unhelmeted baby. They had never heard of the law being enforced against infants or their caregivers.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Gee.
“If people were getting tickets [for biking with an unhelmeted baby], the overwhelming consensus would be that this is silly,” asserted Thomas.
I want a baby exemption from the helmet laws.
I was still nervous. But what if? I pressed the issue. Just in case.
Gee and Thomas provided further clarification and comfort (that’s really why I called, wasn’t it?) Biking with an unhelmeted child is not a crime; it’s a violation. The offense is “failure to wear protective headgear” (ORS 814.485) in the case of the baby and “endangering a bicycle operator or passenger” (ORS 814.486) in the case of the grown-up biking with an unhelmeted baby. These offenses come with a fine of $25.
In other words, in the hopefully worst-case scenario, we could get pulled over and issued a $25 citation. Maybe two times over: $25 for the baby’s violation and $25 for the parent’s violation, if the policeperson is in a particularly peckish mood. This type of citation would generally go to traffic court. Admit guilt, pay the fine, and go home. No stint in jail.
“Good news!” I told my husband after talking to two different lawyers. “You won’t go to jail for this.”
Does that mean I’m satisfied? Absolutely not. I want a baby exemption from the helmet laws. I want biking-with-baby to be a legally protected form of family travel.
I have more to say on that… next week. In the meantime, we’ve just about got my bike, and baby, ready-to-roll. Baby’s first ride. Mommy’s… civil disobedience? If that costs me $25, it’s a price I can pay, but I definitely don’t think I should have to.
Shannon is a 36-year-old mom of five who lives in downtown Hillsboro. Her column appears weekly. Contact her via email@example.com