Chief becomes poster boy for helmet use
By JOHN RICHARDSON, Portland Press Herald Writer
Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Michael Chitwood, Portland's colorful and tough-talking police chief, knows how to face up to his mistakes.
The chief's familiar mug is decorated with scrapes, bruises and stitches after taking a spill off a bicycle Monday. Now he's using his wounds as a visual aid to teach about the value of wearing bicycle helmets.
Chitwood, you see, wasn't wearing a helmet when he flew over the handlebars and hit the pavement. Had he landed on his head rather than his face, Chitwood said, he could have been paralyzed or killed.
"There are so many children and so many adults in our Greater Portland area who ride bikes without helmets, and then here I am, knowing better and preaching public safety, doing the same thing," he said.
Chitwood was in North Carolina visiting his daughter and her family and decided to take advantage of the mild weather by borrowing her bike to take a ride by himself.
The chief puts a lot of miles on his bike each summer in Maine. And, he said, he doesn't take chances with his head, as a rule.
"I always wear a helmet. I'm a firm believer in helmets," Chitwood said. A helmet saved his life in a motorcycle accident years ago, he said.
But Chitwood rode off without a helmet Monday and cut through a parking lot to get to a bike trail. As he approached a speed bump, he stood up on the pedals and reached down for the extensions on his handlebars, forgetting that his daughter's bike doesn't have extensions like the ones on his bike. He hit the speed bump and flew over the handlebars "like a slingshot," he said.
He landed on his face and ended up on his stomach. At first he was worried he'd be too injured to move, but was able to get himself up. He took off his shirt and used it to slow the blood pouring out of his mouth and cheek, and tried to figure out how to get help.
Fortunately for Chitwood, a car appeared in the parking lot, and the driver called an ambulance. Chitwood was treated and released with eight stitches in his cheek. The more his face heals, he said, the more the rest of his body aches. But he feels lucky to have escaped injury to his unprotected head and neck.
The chief said he realized his face could persuade others to be more careful when he saw the look he got from his 5-year-old granddaughter, who immediately promised to always wear a helmet. Since then, he has spread the word on helmet use in interviews with local media.
It would be hard for anyone to hide the embarrassing evidence on Chitwood's face. But he's not one to try, anyway.
"I just want people to see stupidity," he said.