I Found the Holy Grail at the End of the Rainbow
Knowing, as my dedicated readers do, that my two favorite things to blog about are the nanny state and the fragmented nature of local government in Missouri (and especially St. Louis), I have long dreamed of the opportunity to comment on a newspaper article that perfectly combined the two issues somehow. My quest has been fulfilled, and I assure you that I just excitedly jumped up and ran around the office (fully clothed, unfortunately) while screaming “Eureka,” which is just delightfully clever in this situation.
The article I am referring to is in today’s Post-Dispatch, and discusses the issues regarding enforcement of St. Louis County’s child helmet laws within the various county municipalities. Readers might be confused by statements such as this in the article:
Maryland Heights Police Chief Tom O’Connor, when asked about helmet laws, said, “That’s a St. Louis County ordinance and we don’t enforce county ordinances.”
What? They don’t enforce county ordinances? That might sound strange to people, but it is quite normal.
Most county ordinances only apply in the unincorporated parts of the county. The 91 cities enact the local ordinances within their boundaries. There are crossovers, though. The county sets traffic laws on county roads, even those within municipalities. This occasionally leads to disputes, as the county has to count on local police to enforce the county traffic laws on the county roads within cities, and the question is what will the city police enforce if the city and county disagree on something like a speed limit? (Something very close to this happened when the Forest Park Parkway reopened after MetroLink construction, with St. Louis County, Clayton, and University City disagreeing on the new speed limits for the Parkway.)
The primary area in which county laws trump local control is in the health code. No municipality in the county is large enough to have its own health department. I believe a city has to have at least 70,000 people before it can have its own health department (that number is from memory; I don’t feel like looking it up). So, the county health code automatically applies within cities, which is why they enacted the helmet requirement under the health code rather than the criminal code. Cities can certainly enact tougher legislation in the area of health laws, like Ballwin’s smoking ban, but generally the county rules govern when it comes to public health issues. It is not hard to see why a city police chief might not be aware of this exception.
Whether or not they were aware of the rule, it is great to read some of the police officers’ comments exhibiting common sense and anti-nanny-state sentiments:
“Is it practical to enforce if you come across three or four kids out riding bikes without helmets? What the hell do you do, confiscate their bikes and then drive them all home to tell their parents? It ought to be the parents’ responsibility in the first place.”
Not surprisingly, the health department bureaucrat who has made it her mission in life to tell everyone else how to live their lives doesn’t agree:
The driving force behind it was Shirley Scatcherd, a county public health coordinator. She had worked for four years to extend to municipalities a regulation in effect in the unincorporated areas since 2001.
“The law was never intended to be punitive, but we do expect that it will be enforced,” she said.
Soon enough, my son will start riding bikes, etc., and when he does we will make sure that he uses a helmet. When he starts to ski, that will also be the end of my helmet-less time on the slopes, because I will have to set a good exemple for him. (The argument over “moral hazard” — or, whether the presence of a helmet will cause me to ski more dangerously than I would without one — is a topic for another post. Hint, the answer is: “guaranteed it will.”)
But I can once again feel my blood pressure rising with yet another example of a public official taking away our own individual liberties and responsibilities under the guise of “safety.” This case is particularly maddening, because she wasn’t happy enough just to enforce the rules in the unincorporated parts of the county. Nope, the nanny state must apply everywhere!