Ledyard mother who lost her son in skateboard accident, pushes new helmet law

August 27, 2018

Ledyard — On a recent trip to New York City, Holly Irwin saw two bare-headed teenagers riding skateboards in Central Park.

Irwin went up to them and showed them a photo of her son, Conor, who died in November 2016 after falling off his skateboard. After imploring them to wear helmets, they hugged her and shook her hand before walking out of the park carrying their boards.

It’s a conversation Irwin said she has all the time now, pulling over on the side of the road to tell skateboarders about her son and criss-crossing Connecticut and Rhode Island to tell skate shop employees to not let anyone else make the same mistake she did: buying a child a skateboard without leaving the store with a helmet.

“We asked about what size of skateboard, what size of wheels,” she said, remembering their trip to buy Conor’s board. “A helmet didn’t come up.”

In the months after her son’s death, Irwin’s impulse to educate people led her to advocate for a new law the state legislature passed in May. The law, which goes into effect October 1, requires children 15 years or younger to wear protective headgear when skateboarding, roller skating or in-line skating. The measure, she said, is just as much about enlightening parents about the risk of skateboarding as it is about enforcement.

“It’s not about it being a law, it’s about bringing attention to it,” she said at a news conference Monday where local politicians and town and Mashantucket Pequot tribal officials oversaw the donation of the first of 100 free helmets to local kids. 

Irwin said she didn’t skip buying Conor a helmet because of the cost, or because her son wasn’t willing to wear it.

“It’s that the thought didn’t even cross my mind. Nobody wants to feel this way, ever,” she said, pointing to her chest, as her daughter Gretchen stood by her side.

To promote the law, which the legislature passed this spring as part of a larger transportation bill related to road safety concerns, State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, enlisted the donations of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to pay for 75 helmets — good for riding bikes and skateboarding and approved by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission — to give away to local kids.

Eastern Connecticut Savings Bank donated funds to buy 25 additional helmets.

A handful of parents with young kids and teenagers stood at the periphery of a news conference on Monday afternoon outside Ledyard’s police department. When the speeches were done, Irwin and Jeff Blayman, the owner of a Norwich skateboard shop, started putting helmets on their heads. Irwin took special notice of the young boys who stepped forward to collect their new helmets, telling one child his hair was the same shade of blond as Conor’s.

The Montville, Ledyard and Norwich police departments and the resident state troopers in North Stonington, Preston and Sprague will distribute the remaining helmets to skateboarders they come across or people who come to the police department who cannot afford to buy one.

A high-quality helmet will usually cost between 50, said Blayman, whose shop ordered the helmets.

Blayman said the employees in his store called Ideal Skate Shop, usually encourage people buying skateboards for their children to buy a helmet too. The new law, he said, will give them an extra reason to convince buyers to walk out with a helmet.

“No one will every have to learn by trial and error again,” he said.

Ledyard police Chief John Rich said Monday that the law, like the state law requiring all kids younger than 16 to wear a helmet, is more of an educational tool than an enforcement tactic. When officers see skateboarders wearing a helmet, “we try to give them a little pat on the back,” he said.

“It is enforceable,” Norwich police chief Patrick Daley said at Monday’s event. Under the law, police can issue a verbal warning to the parent or guardian of a child who skateboards without a helmet.

“But that’s not the goal,” he said. “The goal is to get them to 15, and then 16,” he said.


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