Mandating Bike Helmets Could Decrease Safety

Helmet-Averse May Stop Cycling, Safest When Riders Are Plentiful

Courtesy Photo

A proposed bill would make helmet use mandatory for all California cyclists. Supporters cite research showing that helmets can drastically reduce head trauma in biking accident victims. But, opponents say the law would decrease ridership, eroding the “safety in numbers” effect.

Andie Bridges

Senator Carol Liu proposed the bill, which would make California the first state to mandate helmet use for adults. Liu has a history of supporting bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly legislation. Two of her family members were in serious cycling accidents, one of whom died after being hit by a drunk driver. She believes the law, and a $25 fine for breaking it, will help prevent future tragedies.

According to the CDC, bicycle crashes cause approximately 150,000 emergency department visits per year, and bike-related head injuries cause 400 deaths annually. There is substantial debate about the best way to promote cycling safety and decrease these numbers.

Helmets are often seen as the most effective protective measure for cyclists. Studies by Dr. Tobias Mattei from Brain and Spine Center, Invision Health in Buffalo, NY, have shown that helmets reduce impact acceleration by 87 percent. As a doctor, Mattei is well acquainted with the effects of crashing without head protection. “Although some unhelmeted bicycle riders may undergo low-energy accidents without major consequences, as a neurosurgeon I tend to see the other, dismal side of the spectrum.”

While helmets can provide protection in a collision, there is some evidence that motorists tend to behave more recklessly around riders wearing them. Dr. Ian Walker of the University of Bath conducted research in the U.K. on motorist behavior and proximity to bikes. His study found that motorists tend to overtake helmeted cyclists an average of three inches closer than those riding without helmets.

Walker was struck by passing vehicles twice during his research rides. In a later study, he found that gear and clothing choices of cyclists did not alter the riskiest driving. His team concluded, “ … there is little riders can do, by altering their appearance, to prevent the very closest overtakes; it is suggested that infrastructural, educational, or legal measures are more promising for preventing drivers from passing extremely close to bicyclists.”

The California Bicycle Coalition would prefer this broader approach to increasing safety. The group opposes the helmet measure, stating, “This mandate sends the wrong message about bicycling and will produce the wrong result: It will discourage bicycling, making our streets less safe and Californians less healthy.”

Statistics have shown that the best way to increase biking safety is to increase biking numbers. Cities with the highest number of people biking and walking have proportionally fewer pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.

The more cyclists are on the road, the more drivers tend to expect their presence and alter their driving in anticipation. With more people pedaling, there are greater opportunities for establishing clear rules for cyclists, and greater social pressure to adhere to those rules.

Greater numbers of cyclists also inspire a cultural shift. When cycling is seen as a means of transportation, bikes are no longer viewed as an inconvenient impediment to car travel. There are increased opportunities for education and mentorship.

Requiring helmets would probably have little effect on lycra-clad recreational riders, but it could discourage lay cyclists and young adults from making short trips around the neighborhood. Fear of a fine might be enough to sway them off of the bike and into the car, decreasing physical activity and increasing traffic for everyone. Such a fine would unfairly burden low-income riders, many of whom commute to work by bike and do not have resources for new equipment.

Helmets save lives, but insisting that everyone wear one will not necessarily benefit our state or our community. Substantially increasing safety will require a much more comprehensive approach. Protected bike lanes, well-maintained roads, bike share programs, and education all help to promote safer travel. Investing in these areas will strengthen our state, encourage tourism and enhance the well-being of residents far more than helmet laws.


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