Berkeley has long had a law mandating skateboarders to wear helmets and other protective gear, but it has been ignored, largely due to enforcement limitations.
But the city’s Parks and Recreation Department is stepping up efforts to provide effective enforcement to change that.
At a meeting last week, Scott Ferris, manager of the city’s Recreation Division, presented the Parks and Recreation Commission with a report outlining costs for additional staff who would enforce helmets at the 18,000-square-foot Berkeley Skate Park on Fifth and Harrison streets.
The city, Ferris said, adopted state law that requires all skate park users to wear a helmet, elbow pads and knee pads, before it opened the Berkeley Skate Park in 2003. If they don’t, they can be cited.
The law also requires the city to post signs informing people about wearing helmets.
“When some commissioners toured the Berkeley Skate Park on June 28 they were concerned that most skateboarders were not wearing helmets or other safety equipment,” Ferris told the Planet. “Questions were raised about liability for the city and about the safety of park users. The report gives an idea about how much it would cost to bring in more staff to enforce [wearing] helmets.”
The city spends $69,000 on monitoring the park two to four hours every day and running skateboard camps, lessons, contests and movie nights.
Additional staffing could cost the city anything between $209,917 and $247,555, Ferris said. The park is open every day, 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
“The majority of the users don’t wear helmets,” Ferris said. “Some of the younger kids do. The Berkeley Skate Park is the busiest skate park in the East Bay. It’s not uncommon for the park to have over 200 skaters per day and have 40 or more skaters in the park at any given time.”
Ferris said park staff recommend but don’t require participants to wear protective gear. “Right now we don’t do anything if park users don’t listen to us,” he said.
Lisa Caronna, deputy city manager and former parks and recreation director, said that, although she was not aware of any serious injuries at the park, it was “clearly in the best interest of the city to enforce the rules.”
“I have heard of one kid fracturing his forearm when I was director,” she said. “Clearly the rules say you have to wear helmets, and we expect people to wear them.”
When the park first opened, safety concerns led the city to fund part-time staff who monitored the park 18 to 20 hours every week to enforce state law, informing the police in case of illegal activities and calling the authorities when someone was injured, the report from Ferris stated.
“Police often ticketed skaters who did not comply with the state law, but this resulted in numerous complaints from participants and parents and resulted in hostile conflicts between the police, city staff and skate park users,” Ferris said.
A recommendation from the Parks and Recreation Commission to the City Council to stop enforcing the law followed in October 2005, but no action was taken.
Complaints from parents and park users forced the Berkeley police to stop issuing tickets to skateboarders for not wearing safety gear, the report said, and the absence of police backup and sporadic staffing made it increasingly difficult for park staff to enforce state law and remove BMX bikes .
“Staff would try to remove skaters from the park who did not comply with the regulations,” Ferris said. “The results were mixed. Many skaters would simply wait outside the park and come back when the staff person’s two-hour shift was over, or just ignore staff altogether.”
Ferris said the Berkeley Skate Park over the next two years turned into a “rogue park,” which was soon “plagued by drug use, BMX bikers and many older skate park attendees who often threatened or intimidated younger skaters.”
Parents and skaters started complaining to the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department, and the majority of the complaints centered around the BMX bikes in the park which often collided with skaters, the report said.
Ferris said the Berkeley Police Department stepped up enforcement at the park over the last 16 months, assisting staff in removing bikers from the site.
“We don’t have the money to police skateboarders,” Lisa Stephens, a parks and recreation commissioner, told the Planet. “The amount of money we are putting into it is a quarter of what is required to staff it. It would be nice if skateboarders got together and enforced the helmet rule on their own. Right now with the lack of funds in the city, we are in a tough spot.”
Stephens said BMX bikes in the skate park were also a big problem.
“The skate park is not designed for them,” she said. “Having skateboarders and bikes together is not a safe situation. It would take one serious injury to shut the place down.”
Berkeley High graduates Dylan Carlone and Bantu Zuhir both said they did not wear helmets at the skate park.
“It’s obvious that everybody is falling, but I don’t understand why people don’t see that and start wearing helmets,” Dylan, 18, said. “It’s more of a ‘cool’ thing’ I guess. Helmets are not cool. I remember when they started giving tickets, people just sat down or stopped skateboarding. But now no one tells me to wear my helmet anymore, so I don’t.”
Bantu, who has been using the skate park for the last four years, said enforcing helmets at the park made sense because of its many ramps and slopes.
“I like how they have a sign saying, ‘Skate at Your Own Risk,’” he said. “I used to wear a helmet when I was younger. But a helmet is a big bulky thing that just gets in your way, so I don’t wear it anymore.”