Time to dust off all those compelling arguments for why mandatory helmet laws are counterproductive. A bill in the Maryland House of Delegates would require all cyclists to wear helmets. What's worse, the bill is cosponsored by a majority of the members of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Environmental Matters Committee, to which the bill has been referred.
I heard at an MDOT meeting a few months ago that a mandatory helmet law might be the price of fixing the 3-foot law, and almost every cyclist in the room said they would rather see both laws fail than both pass. But some state officials (not from MDOT) were more sympathetic. I was meaning to ask you for help in persuading some of those state officials, who advise departmental heads who, on occasion, have endorsed mandatory helmet legislation.
While I sometimes post articles on the Washcycle related to things I have been working on, in this case, I am soliciting input on a matter where most of what I know I have learned from you.
The obvious argument is that the requirement to wear a helmet will keep certain law-abiding citizens from riding a bike when they don't have their helmet. That will kill bikeshare in Maryland--and it may prevent alot of other cycling. The reduction in cycling will mean that some health and environmental benefits from cycling will be lost.
What we need, is an estimate of the actual effect of a helmet law: Presumably, it has little effect on people riding with hemlets anyway. For those rides where a cyclist lacks a helmet today, what portion of those rides
- are unchanged--the cyclist ignores the law
- are cancelled due to lack of a helmet
- take place with a helmet as the law induces the cyclist to wear the helmet
The less obvious arguments, for which maybe someone has a good citation, concerns the circumstances in which a helmet has no net safety advantage. If you know you will ride under some branches 2 inches above your head, you will be better off without the helmet. Are there circumstances where someone would reasonably decide that this particular ride is safer without the helmet? Otherwise, what is the incidence of accidents when helmet make things worse, compared to making things better?
The state official sitting next to me chuckled when I told him: You would save more lives by requiring small children to wear helmets when riding cars on interstate highways. I have no data to back that up, it just seems likely that small children benefit from helmets so much more than adults that there are circumstances where children would benefit from helmets more than an adult cyclist. Should I have suggested that children wear helmets before crossing the street? Is there any research to make such a point on relative risk?
Finally, if they really want to help cycling safety, I wonder whether there are other equipment options that would do more good. For example, requiring tail lights at night and enforcing the law on headlights? Would raising the age where helmets are required from 16 to 18 be reasonable? How about prohibiting pedestrians walking with their back to traffic at night from being entirely dressed in dark clothing?
Like it or not, Maryland is a state where people agree with the mandatory seatbelt and airbag laws. At first glance, mandatory helmet seem to be similar--and cyclists arguing against those laws sound like the libertarians that opposed seatbelt laws. We need to learn how to explain to legislators and other state officials that actually, the helmet laws are very different.
(Jim Titus is a bicycle advocate from Prince Georges County)