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Some notes on mandatory bike helmet laws

Andy Thornley

I often hear, "Wouldn't a mandatory bicycle helmet law be a good thing?", from politicians, editorial letter writers, and even bicycle advocates.

Here's a little exercise for well-meaning citizens: Do you think a mandatory helmet law for pedestrians would be a good thing? All the data I've seen for urban trips indicates that a pedestrian is about as likely as a bicyclist to incur a traumatic head injury. Even if it would only help in a minor percentage of collisions, why wouldn't you walk around with a helmet strapped to your head, if it could help you in that case?

I'm guessing you wouldn't support this because it would make everyday walking look more dangerous than it actually is, and would codify a concession of massive public policy failure, and generally relocate the responsibility for traffic danger and crash survival on the most vulnerable party. You'd probably also object to such a law because it made one single measure of personal armor the focus of all personal safety practice, and distract from more effective measures such as looking both ways and waiting till the signal light was green before crossing the street.

This is the key argument against mandatory helmet laws for cyclists (at least for adults) — not that an individual potential cyclist will be discouraged by the prospect of messing up her hair, or that cops will spend any time writing tickets for bareheadedness, but that routine transportation cycling (distinct from bombing down mountainside fire roads or alleycatting) will be officially characterized as more dangerous than it actually is, and the whole business of routine cycling will be made to seem irresponsibly risky and "apart" from the life of a sensible responsible person. And that wearing a helmet (properly fitted or not) will somehow protect anyone who does choose to ride a bike from all the perils that modern motor traffic threatens, and we will neglect to spend adequate time or money promoting the many other measures which improve cyclist safety, starting with aggressive containment of motor vehicle danger.

Even without mandatory helmet laws we already struggle with these problems: the widespread misperception of the safety of cycling; cyclists plopping helmets on their heads (cockeyed and chin-strap loose to the sternum) and riding the wrong way down the street wearing headphones and dark clothing and no lights at 9:00pm through red lights and stop signs; tongue-clucking and finger wagging when a cyclist is slain by a careless speeding driver — "was she wearing a helmet when the cement truck crushed her? no? well . . ."

Auto traffic serves up a giant pie of danger for everyone, peds/cyclists/motorists, and helmet wearing at best only addresses a small slice of that danger for one of the vulnerable parties. Mandatory helmet laws institutionalize that inversion of responsibility and quietly but broadly discourage everyday bicycling while arguably making it less safe for those who do ride. We've got enough work to do in encouraging the next 5% of the population to become everyday transportation cyclists, don't let's spend any time substantiating the myths and misperceptions that are the biggest obstacles to growing routine cycling in the United States.

[also see Some notes on helmets and bicycling and public health]

[also see Always wear a bike helmet]

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