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Skate free and/or die 

Alex Keaveny started skateboarding 23 years ago. "Right around the time of Expo 86," he says. "My first skateboard magazine, that was on the cover." The magazine was Transworld Skateboarding. Keaveny thinks it was a picture of the Expo vert ramp.

Today Keaveny is 36, with two kids, and he works as a lawyer at prominent Halifax firm Stewart McKelvey. He says he'll easily skate for another couple decades.

One blip in that amateur skateboarding career happened in 2003, when Keaveny was at the Charlottetown skatepark and hit his head.

"I tried to ollie down one of the banks over a garbage can and I just sort of jumped off my board because I wasn't going to make it. But one foot landed back on the board so I went right down. I hit my head, and there was a bit of blood," he says. "It wasn't a big deal. I got a couple of stitches."

He started wearing a helmet after that, occasionally, "and eventually it became regular.

"I would prefer not to," he says. "It feels good to be just sort of all stripped down with just your clothes and your sneakers and your skateboard."

But, "I figure if I hit my head, it will do damage and I will feel like an idiot afterward," he says. "I know it makes sense."

Still, Keaveny is a strong and eloquent defender of the right of skateboarders to not be required to wear helmets while skateboarding. It's as much a function of his profession, perhaps, as his passion.

"Most skaters, if you ask them about it, they might not say it's a civil liberties issue. But the way they describe it makes that crystal clear," says the lawyer.

"If they set up traffic cameras all around HRM and any time someone went 51 in a 50 they got a ticket? Well, I think the citizens would revolt against that unnecessary state intrusion into their lives. And I don't think this is any different."

Keaveny says "there are lots of laws out there that are meant to protect us that are not enforced with any vigor."

Keaveny's personal safety gear picks aren't mere habits or obstinacy. This is thought-out personal risk assessment.

"The helmet?" he says. "I'm skating on concrete. I'm getting older. I'm falling more."

But Keaveny doesn't wear kneepads. "I don't think the way that I skate it makes a difference. Is it foreseeable that I would fall a certain way and that one time fall on my knees and that the kneepads would be helpful? Of course. But I choose not to wear them because I accept that risk. And I feel that wearing them hinders my enjoyment of the activity. The only reason I do it is because I love it."

Simply, Keaveny says, "it should be a choice."

The Nova Scotia Legislature passed Bill 86 in November 2006. The amendment to the Motor Vehicle Act meant helmets became mandatory for operating all non-motorized wheeled devices---skateboards are mentioned specifically, as well as scooters, in-line skates and roller skates.

In 2007, there was little strict enforcement of the new law in Halifax. By 2008, the amendment was making a big difference in daily life at the Commons Skatepark.

"June was when we started," says constable Shawn Currie of the Halifax Regional Police. "For about two or three weeks we went out and gave warnings."

The sign for the Commons Skatepark has always recommended helmet use; education campaigns have taken place in 2004, 2006 and 2007. But there's a difference between encouragement and legislation. A $135.75 difference.

There were 120 tickets for skateboard-related offences given last year between June and December.

Constable Currie has been community relations officer for the downtown Spring Garden area since December 2007. He is a bike cop who visits the Common in nice weather "two or three times a day." Currie doesn't know how many of the 120 tickets were helmet violations "but," he says, "most were."

This year, there have been 11 violations. "I just wrote a couple today," he says on his phone from a perch on the main branch library wall.

There have also been skateboard confiscations---lasting 30 days and legal against anyone in violation---and skatepark bans---the verb is "to PPA" someone; it's a reference to the Protection of Property Act and it's a written warning to stay clear for six months.

These actions, many skateboarders say, are making skateboarders choose to leave the Common. "Being a long-time skateboarder and knowing the joy it brings to people," says Alex Keaveny, "I don't think there's much that can stop people who love skateboarding from skateboarding."

Those skateboarders, Keaveny and others say, are instead choosing street skating---not literally in the street, but riding sets of stairs and other outdoor structures---using architecture and the urban environment as a skatepark.

Keaveny street skates sometimes, but he calls migration away from the skatepark "a real shame.

"This facility should be used."

Keaveny was vice president of the Halifax Skatepark Coalition when the organization was working to get the $600,000 park built.

"The city has been very helpful," he says, "councillors and Recreation. But the amount of people using the park? That's the whole point, to have it full of people."

Thick in the thorns of this rosebush of clashing safety concerns, activity promotion and civil liberties is Halifax's Recreation department.

Claudette Levy is an area coordinator for Recreation. She declined an interview on the topic of the skatepark ticket crackdown and its ramifications for sport.

In her stead, city spokesperson Shaune MacKinlay says HRM supports "safe activity and adherence to the law" when it comes to enforcement possibly deterring skatepark use.

The Nova Scotia Department of Health Promotion and Protection is another group theoretically caught in the wheels here, at the junction of whether helmet enforcement trumps encouraging active lifestyles or vice versa.

Julian Young, coordinator of injury prevention and control, wants to wade right in.

"We always talk about unintended outcomes," he says.

"There are always questions around: How do we promote physical activity and maximize the benefits of physical activity but at the same time encourage people to do it in a way that's safe and doesn't increase their likelihood of getting hurt. Because, then, there is no health benefit."

The Department of Health Promotion and Protection, Young says, wants "to work with skateboarders so they can understand it's not about controlling their behaviour; it's not about being mean or trying to ruin their activity. It's about saying, as a society, we can't afford to bear the cost of that person's [potential] brain injury."

And here's where we really get into it.

The legislature's debates on Bill 86, the mandatory helmet revisions to the Motor Vehicle Act, are recorded as 13 pages of procedural glad-handing. Little of the discussion specifically addresses moving about the world on self-powered wheels; even less relates to skateboarding.

"I read the Hansard," says Alex Keaveny. "I don't think, sadly, one can expect any kind of meaningful debate in a setting where no one sees any political gain in opposing this kind of an issue."

NDP member for Dartmouth East, Joan Massey, supported the bill. But she also put forward a lone, if lukewarm, poke at the numbers her fellow members were tossing around in support of the bill, in particular that injuries cost Nova Scotia $570 million per year.

"I'm not sure if [minister Barry Barnet] was saying those were all caused by skateboarding [or] in-line skating," Massey said. "He didn't actually mention how those injuries had happened...I'm not sure on those numbers."

Neither is the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

Patients who visit the emergency department aren't entered into a database that allows tracking based on sports.

Emergency physician Kirk Magee takes a breath in. "I can't even give you a ballpark," he says. "You could put in 'head injury' but you would get every single head injury that came in."

In Magee's experience with skateboarders, "the biggest category by far would be musculo-skeletal injuries---both fractures and sprains. We also see a fair number of lacerations from falling or crashes."

Last comes head injuries.

"But although they are the least common, they are the most serious to a person in terms of impact and recovery."

Magee has only seen one serious head injury from skateboarding. It was last summer. "He had serious lacerations and other injuries that took him some time to recover from," Magee says.

The man was wearing a helmet. "The striking thing was seeing the damage done to it. We were certain if he hadn't been wearing it he would have moved very quickly from seeing me to seeing the trauma team."

Magee's emergency department only allows him to offer anecdote; Brett Taylor, emergency pediatrician at the IWK Health Centre, has numbers.

But first he has an opinion.

"Skateboarding," Taylor says, "is cheap, relatively. It's accessible. And it's received a really inappropriate rap in the past. And if I was a city designer I would be putting more skateboard parks in. It's a cool sport. People are attracted to it. The people who do it are fit and they are not burning carbon when they are getting to school---they are using their boards. There is so much about this sport that is positive."

Not only that.

"It has a very low risk of hospitalizable injury," Taylor says. Most injuries he treats---just as Magee sees with adults---are broken and sprained ankles and wrists. "Facial smash," he says, "is really, really common."

"Skateboarding is .28 admissions per year, per thousand. So when you start to look at numbers that small---we see 30,000 visits a year at the IWK---any one practitioner will live a very long time before they see a devastating skateboard injury."

There's more.

Taylor cites an American study from the October 2002 Journal of Trauma (did I mention the doctor is a Masters candidate in Health Informatics?) indicating about one out of every five hospital admissions from skateboarding includes either a head injury or a concussion. "It's about 18 percent."

Taylor likes the study because instead of looking at straight injury numbers, it rates injuries per participant, which, he says, is fairer.

"It actually shows skateboarding is about two-thirds of the risk of snowboarding, about half the risk of bicycling and about one and a half times the risk of basketball," he says.

"It shows that compared to sports that really we don't hate that much, and cycling, which we don't hate at all, [skateboarding] is a pretty reasonable sport." (Child Safety Link's Heather McKay has a different interpretation: "A basketball player might come in with a sprained finger," she says, "get treatment and get sent home. Whereas it's more likely a skateboarder's injury will be so serious, he will have to be admitted. It's not that more are coming in, it's that the ones that are coming in are more serious.")

Taylor---who is evenhanded in the utmost despite being the survivor of a snowboarding head injury from which it took him six months to recover---says it's worth considering there are a lot more head injuries that don't get into the data. "Kids are walking around who didn't go into hospital who still have some degree of disability that can last anywhere from weeks to months to permanent." In Vancouver, he says, citing a 2006 study, there are roughly 14 admissions a year where skateboarders stay at least three days in hospital or die.

"So what I would say is this: If you choose not to wear a helmet, what are you saying? You are saying to the people who will grieve you or who will have to take care of you that your fashionable coif is more valuable than their peace of mind."

Remember Saturday before last? Sunny with a brisk spring wind? One of the first bright pockets of weather this season?

Liam Cook was at the Commons Skatepark, with scores of other smiling, frolicking Haligonians---some riding scooters, others on BMX bikes, and others on in-line skates; there were four-year-olds and 40-year-olds.

Cook, a 21-year-old Dalhousie Bachelor of Community Design student who's been skating for almost a decade, was not wearing a helmet as he ran across the park, one hand on a skateboard, the other extended to greet me. Other times, though, you might see him there with it on.

"I judge it on financial risk, pretty much," he says.

If Cook is riding past the police station on Gottingen Street on his way to work, he wears his helmet. That's where in 2007 he got the first of his two tickets. On a Monday morning at 7am.

The weather can also affect whether he wears it.

"Today, it's packed with kids. The cops can't single out people, and if they are going to ticket, they have to ticket everybody."

Safety is part of the decision, too.

Cook always wore a helmet for his first three years of skateboarding and he still wears a helmet and kneepads if he's skating larger ramps (it's rare to see skateboarders who don't). "Stairs, I've been doing for half my lifetime. I know my limits," he says. "There is a very, very small chance some freak accident is going to happen, but over my nine years of skateboarding, I have never broken a bone or needed stitches."

Saturday was only Cook's third time out this season. Some of his friends, he says, have already been ticketed.

"I've seen unfair behaviour," he says. "I've seen police come when kids are doing different drugs"---marijuana, he says, and ecstasy---"sitting in the deep end of the bowl over there. Or underage smokers. Or people drinking in public. And the cops will just come and ticket the skateboarders."

The elephant in this skatepark is the perception that cops dislike skateboarders. That sense of persecution is pervasive in skateboard culture. And in the case of helmet tickets at the Commons Skatepark, skateboarders I talked to are unified in their argument: They are being targeted and ticketed while police turn a blind eye to everything else.

Constable Jeff Carr of the Halifax Regional Police says it's simple---when the Motor Vehicle Act was broadened to include skateboarders, officers started ticketing. "It's not because we like to pick on skateboarders."

Constable Currie agrees. "We're there for everything---criminal activity, drug activity." Skateboarders riding without helmets is just "one of the things we see on a regular basis.

"If I see alcohol or drugs, that is the first place I will stop before I even reach the bowl."

Trying to compare skateboard tickets with banned substance violations wouldn't make much sense, Currie says, because drug and alcohol infractions during concerts would be included in the numbers for the Common.

Criminal enforcement is just one perceived double standard. Cook is calm and diplomatic: "There are a lot of other sports that would benefit from the use of a helmet," he says. "[Like] figure skaters."

"I think that's a really good comparison to make," says Jacquie Thillaye, a 46-year-old mother of 16- and 18-year-old skateboarders. "No one is ever going to force a figure skater to wear a helmet. And that's because it's different people attached to that."

Thillaye is in a unique position.

She doesn't skateboard, yet she's a fervent advocate for Halifax skateboarding who served four years as president of the Halifax Skatepark Coalition. As for helmets? "I think that people are kind of foolish not to wear them," she says. "But I don't know that legislating it and a heavy hand is the way to go with it."

Thillaye has heard that skateboarders are ditching the park for the street, where they are less likely to catch a ticket. "Or they are not riding as much. Which means that they are getting less physical activity, probably. It defeats the purpose."

To Thillaye, "there is probably more benefit in developing stronger positive relationships with youth than in ticketing, or worse, for helmet violations...and I'm sure the police would rather be somewhere else than down at the skatepark creating bad vibes with a bunch of youth. There's no buy-in for them."

But there is buy-in for constable Currie.

Last year in June he estimates only about 25 percent of skateboarders were wearing helmets.

"Early this morning there were about four or five there and all of them had helmets on. The second time I drove by there were probably about 20 people there and only two didn't have helmets."

Now, he says, "maybe 20 percent of them are not wearing helmets on a given day."

Constable Currie rejects the notion that a compliance boost could be because attendance is down and the skateboarders left are mostly ones who were always wearing helmets. "The park," he says, "is full."

The Halifax Recreation department doesn't keep records on skatepark use.

Does that strike you as odd? A two-year-old, $600,000 facility on a central---perhaps the central---public space on the peninsula and no one's keeping track of who's using it, how often and when.

And what about how often and when police are there?

Thillaye, remember, is pro-helmet. But, she says, "that seems like a lower [priority] to me, given that we have crime issues and assault issues and all of these things. I would rather know [police] are attending to that."

Skateboarder Keaveny must have a reasonable understanding of effective use of police resources; he's a former crown attorney. "It seems like a waste," he says.

So how do cops end up on the Common?

Constable Jeff Carr says for the skatepark, "it's a balance between us responding to calls for service and enforcement." Public affairs supervisor Theresa Rath says statistics for those complaints aren't readily available---they get coded as a general youth complaint.

"Last year," says constable Currie, "we had received complaints from a concerned father that people were not wearing skateboard helmets."

Enough to merit visits for 120 tickets? "No. Since then we've just continued it on."

Keaveny characterizes skateboarders at the Common as "low-hanging fruit."

One day last summer, says Cook, handing me an envelope of photos, "there was actually an undercover cop car stationed right there." Cook points to Trollope Street, in front of Citadel High School.

He points to a shot of the skatepark with a line of seated skateboarders facing a row of standing officers. "That day there were four or five bike cops, one undercover cruiser, two normal police cruisers and one of the SUVs. And two beat cops. They all showed up at the same time."

Currie was one of the officers there. He recalls he asked the other officers to attend the skatepark with him that day.

"We were there to do helmet enforcement," he says, "and that day I think we had around seven or eight people. So we just came in with enough officers to write the tickets and we were gone."

Cook describes another scene at the skatepark.

"We were here, probably 10 to 15 kids, early to mid-afternoon. Beautiful day. Nice and sunny. We noticed cops coming toward the park on bikes. They usually come from that way." Cook gestures to the Pavilion footpath.

"One gentleman had received a ticket before and was, I wouldn't say aggressive, but he had been vocal with the police about the helmet law. They definitely knew him. And basically there's a three-strike policy with the helmet tickets. The third time they take your skateboard.

"The cop asked for his skateboard. And he threw it down on the ground in an attempt to snap it in half. The police threw him down on the ground and put him in handcuffs."

That skateboarder was Kevin MacDonald.

"I was just going to break it and let him take it, because if they are going to take it for a month I'm obviously going to go get another one," says MacDonald. The 22-year-old has been skating for 10 years and never wears a helmet. ("Outside in a public area, I just feel it's wrong to force something like that on people, to not give them a choice.")

"I could understand why he did it," MacDonald admits. "Because maybe he thought I was trying to be rude, or that I was disregarding that he was a police officer. But I felt that the way he went about it was a little excessive."

MacDonald is fighting his charges---including a ban---in court. But he never lodged an official complaint about the incident.

Constable Carr checked if there were any complaints about skatepark incidents: "Nothing logged with the Professional Standards Office in recent memory."

"We have 25---or something---unsolved murders in the city, MacDonald says. "I would think that would be a little more important---finding murderers and drug dealers instead of yelling and screaming at kids and giving them tickets and ruining their days."

"There's been a lot of talk over the last decade or so about community policing," says Keaveny. "And improved relations between the police and the citizens they are there to serve and protect."

Situations like the one at the skatepark, Keaveny says, mean youth "are less likely to call the police; if they see the police coming, they are less likely to see the police as someone who is there for them. And it's going to be counterproductive in terms of the police's ability to actually police in the way they should."

Constable Currie isn't blind to this. "Most of the skateboarders are young---under 20. Meeting me this way is negative. It's a negative image and that's not something I want to portray."

He says he'd rather arrive at the skatepark, find everyone helmeted, and stay for a bit to watch. "I would enjoy that," he says.

"But, there's not much we can do. We have to enforce it."

"That, to me, is the whole problem with this approach," says Keaveny. "It seems to focus on one activity, but without realizing that the negative effects far outweigh any positive benefits."

Though he couldn't give stats on skateboard injuries at the QEII Emergency department, physician Magee calls those benefits "huge."

"I certainly don't think we should stop doing risky activities. That's what makes being a human so much fun. But we should be mitigating those risks," he says.

"I struggle with the personal freedom aspect. But this is one of those things that is an easy problem to solve."

Emergency pediatrician Taylor emphasizes that he doesn't "want to come across as somebody who thinks skateboarding is terribly dangerous. Because it's not. Or," he says, "that it's got a high, high risk of head injury. Because compared to others, it doesn't."

But, he says plainly, skateboarders' heads are at risk. "There is no argument for not wearing a helmet."

"Is the goal to keep people safe at all costs?" wonders Keaveny. "That doesn't seem like sensible public planning to me." Instead, he calls it "missing the larger picture."

Life is about choosing what's acceptable, says Keaveny. "I could drive 40 kilometres [an hour] slower and I could only drive in the daytime. I could do things to make my life very, very safe. But I don't, because it strikes me as ludicrous to be that safe."

But the 36-year-old does wear his helmet at the Commons Skatepark.

"I guess," he says, "it depends what the goal is."

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