Is a Mandatory Bike Helmet Law the Answer?

State Senator Carol LiuState Senator Carol Liu recently introduced a bill that would require every bike rider regardless of age to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. Though a well-intentioned safety measure, SB 192 and its helmet mandate has spurred a backlash among some riders and several established statewide bike advocacy organizations. Why the opposition? Why not mandate helmets for adults?

On first look, helmets can only increase safety by wrapping the noggin in plastic. So it might seem like a common-sense safety measure to require riders to wear them. Accordingly, SB 192, if it became law, would “require every person, regardless of age, to wear a bicycle helmet when operating a bicycle… [and] require a person engaged in these activities in the darkness to wear retroreflective high-visibility safety apparel….”

Proponents argue that if all riders wear a helmet, we could reduce the too-high incidence of bike-related crash fatalities that can surpass 150 (statewide) on a particularly bad year. Of course, even one crash fatality is too high, we believe, but is a mandatory helmet law the means to getting to vision zero? After all, if children benefit from head protection (as required under existing law) shouldn’t adults benefit too?

Of course it’s not that straightforward. In fact, the California Bicycle Coalition says that this bill “sends the wrong message about bicycling” and the mandatory use of helmets would “discourage bicycling.” The bill, they note, makes it a ‘crime’ to violate the provisions. Is it appropriate to criminalize helmet-less riding when so much more threatening driver misbehavior goes unpunished every day? From their call to action:

There are proven ways to make our streets safer while encouraging bicycling — reducing speed limits on key streets, building protected bike lanes and bike paths, and educating motorists and bicyclists on how to drive or ride safely, to name a few. A mandatory helmet law is not one of them.

It’s not helmets per se that has advocates so exercised, as many riders already wear them. Nor is it the proposed $25 fine that goes with the misdemeanor citation. That’s a relative pittance compared to running a stop sign, say, which many riders despite the possible penalty of $300 (or much more with court costs) and license points. Even the bill’s nighttime reflective clothing requirement isn’t a deal-breaker as many riders already take measures to increase their visibility. (Reminder: state law requires a headlight and side reflectors.)

No, behind the opposition to this bill is concern that other crash factors are far more important to rider safety than a plastic helmet. For example. speed kills, we’re told by law enforcement. In any collision, the chance for injury and death actually outpaces the increase in vehicular speed. So nobody should be surprised that on wide streets that are seemingly designed for vehicular speeding, riders do die with much greater frequency than they do in areas (like Beverly Hills) where congestion, say, might keep a lid on speed. Those wide streets are dangerous by design, according to a report by that name from Transportation for America, and that there is an opportunity for lawmakers to take the initiative.

Reduced speed limits for motor vehicles increase bicycling in two ways: by increasing the speed of bicycling relative to the speed of driving, and by increasing the safety of bicycling. Most studies, though not all, show an increase in bicycling with lower automobile speed limits. per purcher infra programs paper

Then there’s the paucity of safe bike-friendly improvements. Here in Beverly Hills, despite our congestion and relatively high crash injury rate, only two streets boast a bicycle lane that separates riders from motor traffic: Burton Way and North Crescent. And each includes just a few blocks of lanes. We’ve got some sharrows on Crescent too, but riders lived with poorly-placed sharrows there that guided us right into the scrum of fast-moving motor traffic. (It took us six months of prodding to get the city to fix it.)

Bicycle lanes and even safety signage could really address the threat of harm on our most congested crosstown corridors. And for years we’ve pressed our city to take such a step. But the opposition to bicycle lanes suggests the challenge of realizing a more bike-friendly Beverly Hills. One of our busiest corridors, North Santa Monica Boulevard, for example, is a transit corridor and designated truck route; it carries about 50,000 vehicles daily. Yet both policymakers and staff opposed lanes there. It’s the kind of thinking that keeps Beverly Hills one of the more dangerous small cities in California for riders. (Recently we gained some traction in the North Santa Monica lanes campaign, however.)

For advocates smarting over policymaker inaction, the notion that riders should have to protect themselves from dangerous streets with a plastic helmet is pretty galling. And then there’s the argument made by bill proponents that helmet use is effective in reducing crash fatalities. Hogwash!

Are Helmets the Answer?

Helmet laws were first adopted in the United States by state and local governments in 1987; today 21 states require young riders to wear a helmet (typically children under age 16). But there is no existing model for Senator Liu’s legislation: according to the Bicycling and Walking in the United States Benchmarking Report (2014), published by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, no state yet has adopted an adult helmet law.

With no law in place, we can’t compare before & after adoption fatality rates through a study of the data. But we can look to other places to see how they minimize fatalities. For example, European countries show much lower injury and fatality rates. Yet helmets are rarely used there at all. “In the Netherlands, with the safest cycling of any country, less than 1% of adult cyclists wear helmets, and even among children, only 3–5% wear helmets,” say John Pucher and Ralph Buehler in Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from Europe (2008). The solution in those places appears to be streets engineered for user safety.

Even worse, Pucher and Buehler say, mandatory helmets may work against our policy objective: safer cycling.

The Dutch cycling experts and planners interviewed for this article adamantly oppose laws to require the use of helmets, claiming that helmets discourage cycling by making it less convenient, less comfortable and less fashionable. They also mention the possibility that helmets would make cycling more dangerous by giving cyclists a false sense of safety and thus encouraging riskier riding behaviour. – Pucher & Buehler

Another study offers some support for that proposition. “Where cycling is safe, a helmet law is likely to have a large unintended negative health impact,” says Piet de Jong in The Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws (2012). “In jurisdiction where cycling is relatively unsafe, helmets will do little to make it safer.”

Whether or not academic studies find merit in helmets, does local data support Senator Liu’s argument for mandatory helmet use? Thankfully a Beverly Hills rider looked at the state data. Yet he saw no correlation between bare-headed riding and the likelihood of dying. And not only is there no evident correlation; there is considerable noise in the state data as about one-fifth of all bike-involved fatality crash reports don’t even record whether a helmet was worn (or not).

We looked at that data and see considerable variability in rider fatalities from one year to the next too – variation that can’t be correlated with helmet use. For example, the year 2006 saw a ten-year-high of 155 rider fatalities; just three years later in 2009 the number dropped to a ten-year low of 107 fatalities. But those years the proportion of riders who donned a lid remained constant (just above one-fifth). Why did so many more die in 2009 despite the consistent use of helmets?

Moreover, look at the trends in helmet use among crash victims in California: they’re moving in a positive direction. The number of fatal crash victims not wearing a helmet is on the decline while the number of victims wearing a helmet is on the increase. Does this suggest that helmets are necessarily working to prevent fatalities? Or in light of the upward trend in helmet use, that we need a law to mandate it?

Trends show that non-helmeted victims in California are fewer while helmet use by crash victims is on the rise. Chart from data generated from the SWITRS database by Brent Bigler.
Trends show that non-helmeted victims in California are fewer while helmet use by crash victims is on the rise. Chart from data generated from the SWITRS database by Brent Bigler.

Now take a look at the proportion of those killed while not wearing a helmet: it too is one the decline.

Chart of Californa crash victims (helmeted versus non-helmeted)
Ratio of non-helmeted to helmeted victims in California crashes from 2001 to 2012. Chart from data generated from the SWITRS database by Brent Bigler.

Indeed in 2012, the most recent year for which fatal crash data is available, more than one-third of those killed wore a helmet. That’s well in excess of decade’s average of 21% and suggests that we don’t need a law to compel helmet use. Perhaps an outreach campaign can increase the proportion to much more than one-third to appease the pro-helmet folks.

Looking again at the numbers, to what extent is the helmet working to prevent crash fatalities among riders? That same year of 2012 saw a record number (49) of California riders killed while wearing a helmet. And despite an upward trend in helmet use, the state recorded a record number of fatalities (146) that year, which is considerably higher than the 20% decade’s average.

If riders appear to reach more often for a helmet than they used to, but wearing a helmet seems not to attenuate the number of fatalities, is there sufficient correlation to support a mandatory helmet law? For us to support it we’d like to see a much stronger correlation between bare heads and fatalities in crashes.

Advocates seize on the weak support of the state’s data. “Whatever comes of Senator Liu’s legistration,” says local rider Brent Bigler, we should make sure that incomplete data don’t lead to bad statistics used to justify bad policy enshrined in unhelpful laws.” We agree!

We can focus our attention on other contributing collision factors, however, like speeding. Consider that we’re not taking the necessary steps to ensure that we’re keeping riders safe, as has European nations. According to the Alliance’s Benchmarking Report, California dedicates only 2.4% of federal transportation money to bicycling and walking infrastructure projects. That put us near the middle of the pack among US states. Can’t we do more to create safer streets before we explore a mandatory helmet law?

Federal dollars for bicycling and walking via Alliance (2014)
Reprinted from Bicycling and Walking in the United States Benchmarking Report, published by the Alliance for Biking and Walking.

The Gall!

Michelin Man helmeted
If Senator Liu has her way, under state laws all riders will one day dress like the Michelin Man for our own safety.

One aspect of the helmet policy debate that really galls bike safety advocates is the hypocrisy of legislators who are charged with making our streets safe. While they are quick to prescribe one or another obligation for riders (like mandatory helmets or rider licensing or liability insurance), they generally fail to take action.

Now Senator Liu in the past has been a supporter of safe streets policies. Perhaps she can move a bill that would create a standalone statewide bicycle master plan (as 13 states already have).

In looking at the helmet issue, the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee agreed that policymakers should first focus on other opportunity areas, such as rolling out bicycle-friendly infrastructure (like bike lanes) to separate non-motor from motor traffic, among other measures.

While we wait for legislation that will make streets safer for riders, each of us can do ourselves a favor by at least knowing the rules of the road and educating ourselves in safe-riding practices. We recommend the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s Bicycling Skills Workshop series. It’s free for LACBC members ($35 for the general public) so join as a member and RSVP here! The next one is focused on women and will be held on March 14th from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at LACBC Headquarters, 1st floor Edison Room – 634 S. Spring St., Downtown L.A. A mandatory helmet law might not keep you from becoming a statistic, but riding with skill most likely will.