Friday, April 3, 2015

Mandatory Helmet Use - Coming Soon To A State Near You

Many of you probably wear a helmet when you ride, at least most of the time. Great. Good for you. A helmet may protect your head in the event of certain types of falls or impacts.

But should helmet use be required by law?

If you're thinking, "Why not - I already wear a helmet" then you're not seeing the bigger picture. Helmet laws are just the first step in policies aimed at redirecting all blame and responsibility away from drivers, and onto cyclists by adding more and more restrictions and regulations -- supposedly in the name of safety "for their own good" -- until the time comes when cyclists are no longer permitted to ride on the road at all.

Think I'm being paranoid? The proposed laws are already reaching further than just helmets. Don't kid yourself that it won't continue.

From StreetsBlog LA
One law under consideration in California, SB192, proposed by Sen. Carol Liu, would make helmets mandatory for all cyclists in that state, regardless of age. But it would also require high-visibility reflective clothing to be worn after dark. It's worth noting that if the CA law is successfully implemented, other states will likely use it as a model for similar legislation.

Another law proposed in Wyoming, HB 0206, would also require cyclists to wear "not less than 200 sq. inches of high visibility fluorescent orange, green, or pink clothing visible from the front and rear of the bicycle," along with flashing lights at the rear of the bike, and would also require cyclists to carry government issued photo identification.

Just wait -- mandatory bike license and registration will be next. You know, because cyclists supposedly don't pay for the roads (which is actually a car-centric myth that gets thrown around as unchallenged fact). As it is right now, bicyclists use the road by right - motorists use the road by license. If someone drives badly, accumulating too many violations, they can lose their license to drive. But they cannot be prevented from riding a bike. Not yet.
From Outside Online.

But I'm digressing -- because it all starts with helmet laws.

The way I see it, mandatory helmet laws are anti-cyclist laws -- as in, laws designed to reduce the number of cyclists on the roads. And as European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam (where nobody wears a helmet) can demonstrate, cyclists are safer on the roads when there are more cyclists.

Many states currently have laws mandating helmet use for children, and those states have seen a reduction in fatalities among children on bikes. However, it is also documented in research that those states have also seen a significant reduction in children riding bikes at all. So it's difficult to know whether those fatality reductions are because of the helmets, or because there are fewer kids riding bikes.

Much of the evidence about helmets saving lives is anecdotal. "I wouldn't be alive if I wasn't wearing my helmet." Maybe. Maybe not -- there's really no way to prove it. There are statistics about helmet use and fatalities, but those statistics are often flawed or incomplete.

People who actually study helmet safety -- the standards and the testing methods -- know that a helmet may protect a cyclist in certain types of accidents, like a basic fall (the kinds of accidents that children and other inexperienced riders are most likely to have). But if that rider's head goes through the windshield of a speeding car, with or without a helmet, he or she is likely going to be DOA. Bicycle helmets simply are not designed to protect in that kind of impact. Cyclists know (or should know) that. Motorists probably don't.

Mandatory helmet laws side-step the real dangers faced by cyclists in favor of the distorted perception of danger by people who do not ride. I mentioned in an earlier post about how for people who don't ride, helmet use is everything. People who drive and never ride ignore the fact that the most dangerous thing they do day after day is get behind the wheel of a car. It is dangerous to themselves, and to the people around them. But in their minds, cars are safe. Bicycles are dangerous. And helmets are the difference. To these car-centric thinkers and legislators, as long as we can get every cyclist to wear a helmet, then we won't have to do anything about the real dangers cyclists face -- from distracted drivers, speeders, and even from bad road design/infrastructure.

Think about it. Where are the distracted driving laws? Texting-and-driving laws? The previous governor of Texas, Rick Perry, was absolutely adamant that he would not sign any anti-texting laws in his state because he didn't want to "micromanage adult behavior." In my state, Ohio, we have what our governor called the toughest texting-and-driving law in the country, yet it is only a secondary offense, which means that it's almost impossible to be pulled over for texting while driving. In other words, it's only illegal if you get caught doing something else. The law has done nothing to curtail the practice.

Recommended Reading - BSNYC
And speeding? And red light running? Look how automotive clubs and advocates have taken to trying to dismantle any attempts at enforcing speed limits and red lights. Look at how those same people have been fighting against 3-ft. passing laws. My state, like many others, is still debating such a law -- and opposition from automotive interests is strong. Some states have passed 3-ft. passing laws, and now the automotive interests want mandatory helmet laws as some kind of tit-for-tat give-back.

In an editorial in the Contra Costa Times, the editors chastise cyclists who oppose California's SB192. "A vocal contingent objects for reasons that are sometimes mind-boggling. Interestingly, even many of them wear helmets . . . They just don't want a law requiring it. We wonder if they felt the same way about the three-foot passing rule, that it's a good idea but motorists shouldn't be required to follow it. Probably not."

See what they did there? It's all equal. You're going to make us pass a law that says we have to use some common-sense caution when we drive our 2-ton weapon of mass destruction, so now you've got to give us something in return. You get your 3-ft. passing law -- but now you've gotta wear your helmets. Like it's all the same thing.

I'm also shocked at some of the cyclists arguing in favor of helmet laws. The cycling blog Red Kite Prayer (which I usually enjoy) had this to say on the subject. "I agree that making someone put on a helmet for a trip to the neighborhood store is kind of ridiculous. Here's my problem with opposing a helmet law: we already have a PR problem with motorists, and opposing mandatory helmets only makes it worse."

So, what is our PR problem? RKP continues, "They see people who run stop signs, weave in and out of traffic, ride in packs, take up a lane, and so on. It's not a pretty picture. Sure, most of us are wearing helmets as we bend rules and traffic laws, but that's not what the pissed off drivers see. So when they hear cyclists are opposed to a helmet law, it only furthers their belief that we are selfish, unpredictable, and dangerous."

The way I see it, this argument is self-contradictory. "Sure, most of us are wearing helmets as we bend rules and traffic laws, but that's not what the pissed off drivers see." Exactly. Drivers see the bad behavior -- and the helmet doesn't make it OK. Want to do something about the PR problem? Stop "bending" the rules. Stop for lights and signs (and that goes for group/club rides, too). Don't weave in and out of traffic. Ride like traffic -- or better.

Keep in mind through all of this that I'm not saying don't wear a helmet. It's a good idea, but don't ever over-estimate what a helmet will do for you. I insist that my children wear them. I wear one most of the time -- though I don't feel the need when I'm riding along in my neighborhood to pick up some take-out, or running to the store. I'm capable of making that choice, and I'd like to keep it that way.

If your state is considering a compulsory helmet law, I'd encourage you to make as much noise in opposition as possible. Don't think for a minute that it's okay to appease them and hope that the legislators will be satisfied with their helmet law and then leave the issue alone. I'm not just talking about "slippery slope" and being paranoid. The other requirements and restrictions -- like clothing, flashing beacons, and licenses and registrations -- are all out there already and being considered. If we allow helmet laws to happen, the rest is only a matter of time.


  1. Thanks for the reminder of at least one reason to be thankful I live in the Lone Star State.

  2. I just tried to imagine a scenario in which I'm plunking along a rural gravel road, surrounded by ranchland as far as I can see. Nothing around me but barbed wire fencing, prairie grass, and cattle. Then I notice a distant cloud of dust accelerating toward me at alarming speed, and the flashing lights becoming apparent. Busted. The Sheriff's Deputy pulls me over, tells me he had just received a 911 call from a rancher reporting some scofflaw riding a bicycle by his gate with a straw cowboy hat and NO helmet. Then he issues a citation, forces me into the back of his pickup truck, and delivers me back home to my wife in humiliation.

    It's hard to imagine, but I totally agree with your post. I've already seen lawmakers step into the realm of ridiculousness.

  3. I agree 100%. Your's is probably the best article on the subject that I've ever read. I too wear a helmet but like you, I'm certain that the helmet law will bring on another and another law until bikes are prohibited from road use. They are inching that way now.

    1. Thanks Guys. I expect there will be people who disagree -- but it could get very difficult to ride a bike if some people get their way.

  4. There are car safety belt laws, requirements to wear a PFD while boating, and there are motorcycle helmet laws. Those were put in place because of data showing those laws could reduce a very large number of fatalities and injuries.

    The data from the NHTSA does not indicate bicycle fatalities are a huge problem. Sure, in 2012 there were over 700 bicycle fatalities, and I grieve for the families of all those victims. However, the NHTSA data indicates only 63% of those cyclists were sober. So instead of helmet laws to reduce fatalities, it might be better to enforce drunk cycling laws instead. If we did away with all the drunk cyclists, we could reduce the 2% of all traffic fatalities by 40% !!!

    A research paper from the American Journal of Epidemiology indicates if cyclists should wear helmets, pedestrians should too because the risk factor is the same or higher per person-trip in many categories.

    What data is being presented to justify the need for a bicycle helmet law ? To me it appears to be a solution looking for a problem. There are probably a lot more broken collarbones from bike crashes, why not some sort of protective wear for that more common cycling-related injury ?

    FWIW, when I raced in the 1970's and 1980's, I wore a snazzy patent leather helmet. Now I use a Bell hardshell helmet when commuting to work and back.I can't say I have always ridden with a helmet, however I have broken my collarbone while cycling.

    I have had one racing teammate killed by a pickup truck that ran a stop sign. It was an intersection of a gravel road and paved county highway, not a urban location. He was wearing a helmet at the time. Another friend was killed during a bicycle tour of Europe ( the same year - 1988 ). He was hit by a drunk driver while walking back to the hotel from dinner.

  5. Even I am in favour that helmets should be made compulsory. In certain countries like Australia, they are. They only increase safety factor when you are on road. My cousin woks with a DUI lawyer and often tells me how helmets save life of many cyclists when they are hit by drunk drivers.

    1. Australia has seen a remarkable decrease in bicycling since their compulsory helmet law went into effect. As far as DUI lawyers go, I'm not sure they have (or anyone else, for that matter) the ability to say with certainty that someone would have lived or died because of a 6 oz foam hat. Wear your helmet, but don't ever over estimate what it can do for you.

    2. Yes, Beware.
      Australia and New Zealand have had mandatory bike helmet laws since 1991.
      Talk about unintended consequences in the big picture of health in society as a whole.
      Only now is there the very beginning of a fight back against them.

    3. New reader of this fascinating and well-written blog. And I agree entirely with this anti-helmet law opinion. I wear a helmet on most rides, and was thankful to have been wearing it when I had a bad crash (rendering me unconscious for several minutes) earlier this year. But I don't want bureaucrats dictating to me how to manage my personal safety. Nor do I want cyclists to be legislatively made responsible for insulating ourselves against the dangers posed by the careless actions of others, when in fact we alone cannot assure that.
      -Rob, in VA