Last week, CA state senator Carol Liu proposed a mandatory helmet law for California. First, let me say that I almost always wear a helmet when I ride my bike. I say “almost” because there are a few times when I don’t. Riding the quarter mile to the bus stop, for example, most of which is on an off-road path where I’m unlikely to encounter any cars. I also generally wear a hi-viz vest when I ride at night and I have two sets of lights for the front and rear of my bike, as well as a helmet-mounted light set. I want to see and be seen when I ride. That said, I think most mandatory helmet laws are misguided at best and pernicious at worst.
Senator Liu’s proposed bill (SB 192) would mandate helmets for all bicyclists as well as hi-viz clothing for anyone riding at night. Currently, bicycle helmets are required for anyone under the age of 18 riding a bike. Liu’s bill would expand that requirement to adults and also require hi-viz clothing for anyone riding a bike after dark, or be slapped with a $25 fine.
Senator Liu’s office claims her bill was drafted in response to a recent Governor’s Highway Safety Association report which found that the number of bicycle fatalities increased nationwide between 2010 and 2012. The report caused a predictable scary media reaction, such as that of the near-hysterical headline in the Los Angeles Times,”Bicycle Traffic Deaths Soar” complete with a sensationalistic photo showing a crash test dummy on a bicycle flying through the air.
As a number of analysts pointed out, however, there were serious problems with the GHSA report, including short-term cherry-picked years that distorted the rise in bicyclist deaths, ignored local variations and the long-term decrease in the rate of bicycle fatalities on America’s roads. In other words, as more people ride bikes for transportation and recreation, the US saw a short-term uptick in the total number of bike fatalities, but a drop in the rate of fatalities. For the individual on a bicycle, riding is getting safer, especially because of the increased number of cyclists on the road and the spread of good bike infrastructure. The GHSA report focused on the total number rather than the decrease in fatality rates and erroneously concluded that helmets for bicyclists were the solution to this alleged “problem.” This raised yet another inaccuracy in the use of the GHSA data: there was absolutely no evidence that helmets (or lack thereof) were the primary reason for the fatalities, or how many of the fatalities could have been prevented by a bike helmet. It’s easy enough to make that inference only if you assume that bicyclist behavior is the main safety problem. The GHSA report ignores the elephant in the room: motor vehicles. The main culprit gets off scott free.
Statistically, the number one thing we could do to decrease roadway deaths (of all kinds: drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists) is to reduce the speed of cars. As motor vehicle speed increases, fatality rates increase, helmets or no. Of course, infrastructure also matters. In bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and elsewhere, most people on bikes don’t need to wear helmets or hi-viz because the infrastructure is designed to accommodate them. As a result, their road fatality rates are significantly lower than the U.S.
The other thing we can do to improve safety is to increase the number of people riding bikes, because research has shown that when drivers expect to see people on bikes they drive more carefully. Unfortunately, where mandatory helmet laws have been enacted (such as New Zealand), they have been shown to reduce the number of people who ride.
The GHSA report came from a typical windshield perspective: blame the victim and don’t change the destructive behavior of the “kings of the road.” As the old saying goes, figures don’t lie, but liars figure. Both Senator Liu and the GHSA report offer what seems to be a nice quick fix: change bicyclists’ behavior rather than that of motorists (or heaven forbid, build some protected bike lanes and road diets to slow traffic speeds and increase road safety for all). That way you can appear to be doing something for roadway safety.
If Senator Liu is really interested in increased safety for people on bikes, there are other ways: (1) secure more funding for California cities to build networks of bike lanes—especially protected bike lanes; (2) slow down motor vehicle speeds by redesigning roadways to increase safety; and (3) encourage more people to ride by working with bicycle advocacy organizations like LACBC and CalBike on safety campaigns. Mandatory helmet/hi-viz laws are not themselves going to increase safety.
In fact, a good case in point is the case of Senator Liu’s own nephew. According to the Sacramento Bee story on her proposed helmet/hi-viz law:
Liu’s nephew, Alan Liu, was killed in 2004 by a drunk driver while riding in Sonoma County. Liu was wearing a helmet.
With all due sympathy and respect to the Senator and her family for their irreversible loss, was Alan Liu’s tragic death the result of not wearing a helmet?
Another case in point was my own experience riding home on my evening commute from work last week on the very same day the Senator’s bill was announced. As I approached a red light, the driver of a late-model minivan decided she had to beat me to the red light, gunned her engine, sped around me into the oncoming traffic lane, and swerved in front of me dangerously close before slamming on her brakes to stop at the red light. Wouldn’t it have been safer for her to take her foot off the gas pedal for—literally—three seconds and arrive at the red light after me? I was riding fast enough that it wouldn’t have inconvenienced her to slow down behind me. Her life-threatening driving had risked my life and saved her exactly no time on her drive. It’s not the first time I’ve had to deal with shit like that when I ride. Here’s the kicker: I was wearing a helmet and a hi-viz vest, as I always do on my commute home. I was riding legally, visibly, and predictably, as I was taught to do in the numerous bike safety courses I’ve taken and taught. As I mentioned, I also have 2 sets of bright lights in the front and rear of my bike as well as a helmet-mounted front and rear light.
Question: what was the glaring “safety” issue here? Lack of a helmet? Lack of hi-viz clothing? Lack of safety training for the bicyclist? Or dangerous, irresponsible, impatient, and possibly distracted driving?
Look, nobody’s a bigger advocate for roadway safety than I, especially now that I ride a bike, and I’m generally a supporter of wearing a helmet and being visible on a bike. California state law already requires lights and reflectors on bikes. If a driver isn’t paying attention enough to see a cyclist with lights, how is further shifting the burden/blame onto the cyclist going to change things? I think people on bikes should be encouraged to wear helmets and reflective material (especially at night), but a requirement that everyone do so will be a burden to many lower income riders and result primarily in lower rates of bicycling. Perhaps this is really what Sen. Liu wants. Discourage cycling and you reduce the “problem,” right?
The real safety problem on our roads has very little to do with what people on bikes are wearing, but dangerous, unsafe, and illegal behavior by people driving shiny motorized death-boxes.
It’s not the bikes, it’s not the helmets, it’s not the hi-viz. It’s the cars, stupid.