Brian Meshkin Reflects on the 32nd Anniversary of Bicycle Laws in the United States

Over thirty years ago in April 1990, American states and local jurisdictions began passing laws mandating that children wear helmets when riding a bike. Today, twenty-one states have state-wide laws mandating helmet wearing for cyclists, while an additional sixteen states have mandatory bicycle helmet laws at the local level. As the thirty-second anniversary of the passage of the first bicycle helmet laws approaches, Brian Meshkin reflects on the impact of these efforts to reduce childhood mortality from bicycle accidents by over 90%, the personal meaning of this effort to him, and the key role he played in pushing legislators to protect cyclists from serious injury and even death.

Brian Meshkin

Meshkin was in middle school when he witnessed the tragic result of a tragic car accident that killed his friend, Chris Kelly, riding a bike down the road in front of his home. “We always knew that someday, someone would be injured or killed on the curve in front of our house, but never a child”, Meshkin said shortly after the accident. “Awaiting me was a child lying disfigured on the side of the road. Not even the neighbors could recognize him”, Brian Meshkin recalls that he and his parents stood on the side of the road for hours until a neighbor and her daughter came looking for their son Chris, who had been riding a bike in the area. The mother recognized her son’s bike but Brian Meshkin could not believe that Chris had been the one who was hit and killed. “I was sure that it was not Chris because I would have recognized him,” Meshkin said.

Rather than give in to grief, Brian Meshkin came to realize that life was a privilege and gift that could be quickly taken away. He later persuaded his fellow students to join forces with him and this student-led effort resulted in a successful legislative campaign, working with his local County Councilman, Charles C. Feaga, to lobby for a bicycle helmet law for children under 16 years of age.  After months of lobbying – which included phone calls, letters, meetings, and public testimony – they were able to successfully advocate for the passage of the nation’s first bicycle helmet law for children under 16 years of age in Howard County, Maryland.  Remember, this was 1989 and 1990 – long before the Internet, email, social media, smartphones, digital cameras, and other modern forms of communication.  Thus, his advocacy involved countless hours of in-person meetings, phone calls, letters, and public testimony.

It took time for the law to gain traction, but Brian Meshkin and his friends had help from the local police department and continued to fight off efforts to overturn the legislation.  Like all progress, this effort to help others invited critics.  Officers visited schools for several months after the law was passed, explaining the new law and its importance to school children of all ages and walks of life. Other states and cities followed suit, passing laws to mandate bicycle helmet wearing when riding a bike, and these laws have undoubtedly saved many lives.   Due to this new law led by Brian Meshkin and his fellow students in Howard County, Maryland, and the accompanying bike safety education program developed by students and distributed through the Howard County Public School System, researchers found that helmet use among people younger than 16 in the community increased from 4 percent to 47 percent. It was the highest rate of bicycle helmet use ever documented among U.S. children.  In a peer-reviewed publication in the journal Pediatrics, researchers suggested that a similar increase in helmet use among children younger than 16 years nationwide could prevent about 100 deaths annually, as well as 56,000 emergency-department-treated head injuries annually.

Recently, researchers from New York University (NYU) published an article for the History News Network, a publication of George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts & Sciences.  In this article, the researcher, Dr. Kathleen Bachynski, and her colleagues describe our efforts back then in Howard County, in comparison to the student efforts in Parkland, Florida dealing with school shootings.   In the article, the researchers compared the efforts of these high school students to the efforts we employed back in 1989 and 1990. The researchers stated, “In fact, the Parkland students are not the first youth galvanized by tragedy to take action that transforms a public conversation on policy matters. History shows that youth activism motivated by the death of a classmate can effect changes in laws that will protect the safety of children. Researchers found that after the passage of bike helmet laws, the mortality rate among bicyclists 1 to 15 years in age decreased by over 50 percent. In the United States, one of the earliest and most influential of these laws had its origins in Maryland student activism.”

As Brian explains it, “Getting involved not only bettered my community, but it made me better too. It gave me purpose and healed my heart. I yearned to do more and began volunteering for a myriad of causes and spent the better part of my high school years as a community organizer.” Brian Meshkin was honored to be selected as one of the Baltimore Sun’s five “Earthly Angels” for his contributions in the community, including “fighting prejudice, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence and cancer.” Additionally, his efforts were featured in the book, No Kidding Around: America’s Young Activists Are Changing Our World and You Can Too! by author, Wendy Lesko, founder of the ACTIVISM 2000 Project and School Girls Unite.  Following the efforts in Howard County, Brian worked closely with a new non-profit at the time, called the National Safe Kids Campaign, now called Safe Kids Worldwide, on advocating and enacting over 300 similar laws nationwide which have saved thousands of lives. These efforts came to define Brian and the direction his life would take.

Brian Meshkin is now an award-winning entrepreneur and tech executive, but his passion for making the world a better place has never died out. He has given generous monetary donations to worthy causes over the course of his career and served as a board member for the American Red Cross of Central Maryland Howard County District Board and the Columbia Festival of the Arts in Columbia, Maryland. Even so, he has never forgotten the lessons he learned as a 13-year-old, standing in front of his home in the wake of a fatal accident. Life is indeed short and Brian’s example of taking action to protect others from pain and loss shows that there are no limits to what can be accomplished when people actively do their part to protect and assist those in need.

[1] Norris P. West. Howard gears up for bike helmet law. The Baltimore Sun, September 28, 1990.

[2] Dan Byers. Setting Young Lobbyists on the Road to Influence. The Washington

Post, January 30, 1994.

[3] Brian Meshkin. Helmets Avert Tragedy. The Baltimore Sun, July 17, 1991.

[4] Cote TR et al. Bicycle Helmet Use Among Maryland Children: Effect of Legislation and Education. Pediatrics. June 1992, Vol 89, Issue 6.

[5] Kathleen Bachynski, Angela Turi, and Alison Bateman-House. Why Shouldn’t Kids Lead the Charge on Gun Safety? History News Network. George Washington University. Accessed February 20, 2019 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/168387.

[6] Wesson DE, Stephens D, Lam K, Parsons D, Spence L, Parkin PC. Trends in Pediatric and Adult Bicycling Deaths Before and After Passage of a Bicycle Helmet Law. Pediatrics, September 2008, Vol 122, Issue 3.

[7] Mary Corey. “Earthly Angels In the season of comfort and joy, celebrate those who comfort in despair.” Baltimore Sun, December 20, 1992.

[8] Wendy Schaetzel Lesko. “No Kidding Around! America’s Young Activists Are Changing Our World and You Can Too”. Information USA Inc (August 1, 1992)