Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

SB 192

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.


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14 thoughts on “SB 192

  1. “(2) slow down motor vehicle speeds by redesigning roadways to increase safety;”

    Actually it’s simplier than that! Enforce the law by giving out tickets for drivers going over the posted speed. Not for drivers going 15mph or more over the speed, but anyone going over 5mph over the posted speed limits. By making this a priority you reduce accidents for ALL. You reduce accidents for the driver, the other drivers, the cyclists, and the pedestrians. Basically for anyone that is using the streets. Another thing nice about this is you don’t need any “infrastructure improvements” or introduce some bill. All that is needed is a mandate to enforce the law!

    Too bad the senator couldn’t make this realization. Would make an excellent platform to get noticed. That is unless you are advocating breaking the law……………..

  2. Dianne Patrizzi on said:

    Unfortunately, helmuts are no match against a car with a distracted driver, and the streets are full of them.

  3. I am not a bicyclist but I am a pedestrian, and I am the mother of a pedestrian who was killed by a careless driver who did not pay full attention to his entire surroundings. My son was taken from me because that driver couldn’t wait a few more seconds to allow us to safely (and legally) cross the crosswalk. I agree that we need to change the behaviors of drivers and make people realize that automobiles truly are motorized deathboxes. Driving is a privilege, not a right!

    • Debbie, thank you so much for your comment. I agree with you. Getting or keeping a drivers’ license is far too easy. There are so many people hurt, maimed, or killed by automobiles every year and yet society tolerates it. I see hopeful signs this may be changing, with “vision zero” policies and stiffer penalties for hit-and-run, but we still have further to go.

    • My heart goes out to you Debbie. A mother should never have see their offsprings go before them. I feel for you.

      My opinion is that a driver should loss their ability to drive on our streets if they take a life with their careless behavior on the roads. If this ever happened to me, I’d probably take myself out.

      • Thank you…My son’s case is an exception where the driver is actually being prosecuted. Most at-fault drivers (in California) who kill pedestrians do not lose driving privileges and do not receive any real penalties. Can you believe that?! More cities need to adopt Vulnerable Road User laws and Vision Zero, instead of governors vetoing bills that would make the streets safer for everyone to use. If anyone can help me make this a higher priority in our society, please contact me.

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  5. Benjamin marrtin on said:

    What can i do to stop this bill?

    • Great question. First, email the senator and communicate your opposition. . If she’s not your state senator, you can go to the California state senate website and find yours. Also, you can write a brief letter to the editor of your local paper. Finally, there’s only so much each of us can do individually. Ultimately, we must work together. If you’re not a member of the California Bicycle Coalition, it is a great time to join and make the organization a stronger voice in Sacramento.

      • Kevin R. on said:

        As a person who has been commuting by bike for 39 years in Cincinnati, mostly without the benefits of bicycle infrastructure that many cities in California have, I would support a mandatory helmet and specific hi viz clothing requirement for cyclists in Ohio. While your comments re the study are correct, there is no down side to requiring helmet and vest use. The law will save lives if it gets only a few more people to wear a helmet or be more visible at night, or those who are occasional helmet eschewers to wear one 100% of the time.

      • Thanks for the comment Kevin. I applaud you for your long time bike commuting in Cincy, though I’d say California still has a way to go to get the bike infrastructure we need. I’m not opposed to people wearing helmets or hi-viz (in fact, as I mentioned, I do so myself), but I think the mandate ignores the other ways cycling can be made safer (primarily through road diets and the aforementioned bike infra), and the studies I’ve seen in places that do have helmet laws indicate two problems (1) they don’t get enforced, or disproportionately affect the poor; and (2) they tend to be another barrier to cycling, reducing the number of people willing to leave the car at home from time-to-time. I’m less worried about the regular cyclists like yourself than I am those who are willing but not confident.

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  7. Reblogged this on Nothing Adventured and commented:
    Excellent points!!

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