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Why We Don’t Support Mandatory Helmet Laws

Last night, we asked you to take action to oppose a mandatory helmet law introduced in the Maryland House of Delegates’ Committee on Environmental Matters. In response, some of you asked for additional information on the “debatable” effects on bicyclists’ safety and the negative impacts on cycling that a mandatory helmet law would have.

We vocally and overwhelmingly approve of helmets here at WABA. All of our staff and volunteers wear them, we require participants to wear them at all WABA events, and we teach how to wear them properly in all WABA education classes. Helmets provide an important last line of defense in the safety equation during a crash. When everything else has gone wrong, helmets have saved many bicyclists from more serious injuries or even death. We don’t get on our bikes without our helmets and we strongly encourage every cyclist out there to wear one.

However, mandatory helmet laws requiring all bicyclists to wear helmets are not effective at increasing helmet usage without significantly affecting ridership. There are many studies that show helmet usage increases when laws are passed—but critically, not without a negative effect on overall bicycle ridership. In Australia, ridership dropped 37.5 percent between 1985 and 2011 after such a law was passed. During the same time, population growth was three times higher than the growth of cycling, meaning following the passage of a mandatory helmet law, there was a net decrease in bicycling.

These laws negatively impact bicycle ridership by throwing up one more barrier (financially and behaviorally) to bike riding. Therefore, a potential bicyclist will be driven to choose another mode of transportation. Additionally, a recent New York Times article quoted Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney: “Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified—in fact, cycling has many health benefits.” Jong has studied the public health impacts of bicycling and has concluded that the positive health benefits outweigh risks of helmetless riding 20 to 1. In a country in the midst of an obesity epidemic, encouraging a few miles of bicycling everyday could lead to a considerable reduction in overall healthcare costs. And as jurisdictions like Montgomery County consider bikesharing programs, it’s important that those programs are accessible. Mandatory helmet laws in Maryland could potentially kill the momentum for bikesharing, as the law would promote a sense of danger for cycling, ignoring the obvious overall health benefits.

And finally, these laws are merely an easy “fix” for legislators that distract from larger safety issues—such as the lack of safe, separate and comfortable places to ride. Adults and kids need safe spaces to ride on our roads that are separate from cars. We at WABA believe there are better legislative ways to keep bicyclists safe, such as better and more targeted enforcement of current traffic laws (especially distracted driving), increased bicyclist education, and, most importantly, the construction of separated bicycling facilities.

Helmets are an important part of keeping bicyclists safe and WABA enthusiastically supports their promotion and use, but mandatory helmet laws do more harm than good.

The Maryland House of Delegates is considering removing the “under 16″ age requirement of its current mandatory helmet law in HB 339 to require all bicycle riders to wear a helmet. Please take a minute and contact the members of the Committee on Environmental Matters and ask them to oppose HB 339.

6 comments
chris4096
chris4096

Also, if you want to walk across a parking lot you should wear a helmet. Parking lots are very dangerous and it's not that hard to keep a helmet in your car for walking across parking lots. Also, I know people who have died in car crashes. Maybe if they wore a helmet inside the car they would be here today. NASCAR drivers wear helmets so everyone should probably wear them. In fact, it would be safest if people wore helmets everywhere.

BillCrandall
BillCrandall

Helmets make bicycling seem dangerous, which it is not inherently. If you ride dangerously - meaning fast, far, in traffic, for sport - you probably should choose to wear a helmet. If you toodle to the store to get milk to put in the basket of your upright 3-speed, the stats show negligible risk. Though obviously we need to make the roadscape safer for cyclists, with more separated lanes. A big problem is that currently many bikers are forced to 'swim with the sharks', or philosophically believe in the idea of 'vehicular cycling', that you should claim your lane, drivers be damned.

SallyBoulter
SallyBoulter

Just because some people still get injured while wearing a helmet doesn't negate the need for a helmet. In the case of both people I mentioned, they would be alive today if they had been a wearing a helmet. If a mandatory law encourages people to wear helmets, I'm all for it. I also support safe, separate and comfortable places to ride. A helmet law could be viewed as the beginning of the discussion on bicycle safety rather than an easy fix.

WHands80
WHands80

SallyBoulter, I have a friend who suffered a devastating brain injury three years ago, and has never recovered.  He was wearing a helmet.  I wear a helmet all the time, but I agree with WABA, mandatory laws are not the answer.  If you look at most of the cyclist fatalities in DC over the past 5 years, they are crushing injuries resulting from run-ins with cars, and a helmet wouldn't have made a difference.

SallyBoulter
SallyBoulter

I'm sorry but I don't agree. I have lost two people in my life who died because they weren't wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle. If you don't want to wear a helmet, you should choose another form of transportation.

jim1422
jim1422

 @SallyBoulter I think that supporters of this bill should consider that there are many different styles of bicycling and the need for a helmet varies depending on the style.  I ride a bicycle, built more for comfort than speed, which I use for local, low speed trips, mostly on bike baths, to the grocery, bank, library, and gym.  Requiring a helmet for each such trip would discourage me and others from engaging in this safe and healthy mode of transportation.  The vast majority of cyclists who ride at higher speeds with more traffic already wear helmets.  This should be a matter of personal choice.

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