Police "ticket" kids to promote bike safetyby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
Nisswa, Minn. — Hoping to prevent injuries, police throughout Minnesota are on the lookout for bicycle riders -- and their helmets.
According to the Minnesota Safety Institute, head injuries account for two-thirds of bicycle-related deaths. Bike helmets can reduce the risk of head injury by as much as 85 percent.
Persuading people to wear them isn't always easy. But this summer, 50,000 Minnesota children received a little encouragement to wear their helmets.
One of the front lines of that effort is the north central-Minnesota town of Nisswa, where the population of 2,000 swells to 10,000 during the busy resort season. Visitors like to bike along the flat Paul Bunyan Trail, 100-mile route that connects Brainerd to Bemidji along an old rail line.
As riders pedal past lakes and resorts and cabins, they might be surprised to see a white squad car heading their way.
Officer Brandon Rothwell checks to see who is wearing bike helmets.
"Looks like we've got a family with some little kids but I don't know if I see any helmets," Rothwell said during a recent patrol. "Maybe a little guy way up there has got one on. Either that or he's got a big head."
Rothwell guesses about half the children he sees on the trail wear their helmets. That's a little better than national statistics showing less than a quarter of kids wear them.
On a section of the trail that crosses a road, Finally, Rothwell found what he was looking for:
"Oh! There we go, the girl in the pink," he said. "These two right here."
The Benson family of East Gull Lake looked a little startled to see a cop turning off the highway to stop them on their bikes.
"The reason I wanted to talk to you guys today is I saw you guys are wearing your bike helmets," Rothwell told them. "We like to see people doing that and being safe so I have a surprise for you. Got some coupons for some free ice cream cones from Dairy Queen."
That prompted a rare expression of gratitude to a cop on his beat:
The four Benson kids - Kate, Owen, Caroline and Lauren -- gratefully reached for their DQ coupons.
Their mom, Tina Benson, was relieved to learn the purpose of the stop as she had just gone past a stop sign.
"At first I thought he was going to get me for not stopping and I thought, 'no wait, I did stop!' -- rolled through a little bit but I stopped," she said.
The "I Got Caught" program is sponsored by the AAA motor club, the Minnesota Police and Sheriffs association and Dairy Queen.
Before the Bensons resumed their ride, Rothwell had one more surprise: the "magic manners box." At the word "please" it dispenses police badge stickers. Rothwell later admitted the box was his own embellishment to the program as an amateur magician who's worked with kids before.
"You're welcome," he tells the bikers. "You guys have a safe ride, OK?"
The Benson kids received the last four promotion coupons given out for the summer in Nisswa. Rothwell said he thinks it's been a worthwhile program:
"You know it encourages the safety, but it makes for kids what more than likely is their first contact with law enforcement a positive one, which I think is a really good thing," he said. "You know, [for] a lot of people, their contact with law enforcement is negative, whether they're getting trouble or someone's hurt.
AAA plans to continue its sponsorship of rewarding children for being safe this fall with a campaign aimed at encouraging teenagers to wear their seat belts.
Police won't be giving out kiddie cones though. Teens who wear their seat belts will be rewarded with tickets for burritos and music downloads.
- Morning Edition, 08/30/2010, 8:40 a.m.