Monday, October 22, 2012

More Thoughts on Bicycle Helmet Laws

A few posts back, I wrote about the suggestion by a pair of writers that helmet requirements were impeding the growth of bicycling.  They argued that mandatory helmets make bicycling seem more dangerous than it really is, thereby discouraging new riders.  Also, they noted that a helmet requirement adds a complication to the otherwise simple task of getting on a bike and pedaling.

On my own website, the post passed without comment.  Not so when the post was re-published on Petaluma Patch.  There was a flurry of comments, some of which defended the safety value of helmets.  Unfortunately, those comments sort of skipped over the point that I was trying to make.  So I’ll try again.  In fact, I’ll spend the next few posts on bicycle issues.

In case anyone is wondering about the connection between urbanism and bicycling, a bicycle is an effective way to get around town while putting less demand than a car on the infrastructure or on other residents.  A bicycle help fills the huge gap in the transportation spectrum between walking and driving.  Therefore, anyone who cares about cities should care about role of bicycles.  Whether or not they ride.

Back on the subject of bicycle helmets, I agree that helmets are an effective safety measure.  I join one of the people quoted in the first article in wondering why we often require helmets for bicycling without requiring helmets for activities which are probably more dangerous, such as climbing ladders.   But that is a question into the philosophy of government that quickly grows beyond the topic of urbanism.  For today, we’ll leave the philosophical question aside and stipulate that bicycle helmets have a valid safety function.

But the question being posed wasn’t whether bicycle helmets were safe.  Nor was it whether they should be required.  Instead, the question was whether mandatory helmet laws may be having an effect on the growth of bicycling.  It isn’t inconsistent to argue that helmet laws are good while also admitting that they impede the expanded use of bicycles.

And I suggest that the two writers make moderately good cases that mandatory helmet laws do interfere with the market penetration of bicycling.  A good enough case that it can’t be dismissed out of hand.

However, it seems improbable that the relatively low rate of bicycle use in the U.S. can be ascribed solely to helmet laws.  It seems likely that many other factors are in play, some of which I’ll explore in coming posts.

For the moment, however, let’s stay focused on helmet laws.  If we assume that helmet laws do have the suggested inverse correlation with bicycle adoption, what might be the appropriate regulatory response?  Of course, we can’t ignore the safety issues.  Any approach to helmet laws must find a balance between safety and bicycle encouragement.

With one possible exception, I don’t have any magic pills to offer.  Mostly, I conform to the existing orthodoxy.  I have three thoughts to offer, one on the use of helmets by minors, another on the use of helmets by adults, and a third on an approach to liability that may affect how we view helmets.

With what I know right now, I support mandatory helmet laws for minors.  I believe that children lack the life experiences to adequately assess risk.  Therefore, it is appropriate for us, through government, to protect them from their own possible misjudgments.

At the same time, I also believe that it’s reasonable to allow adults to make their own judgments.  I’d recommend that everyone wear a helmet.  But if someone can’t find his helmet and chooses to make a three-block ride to the grocery store with a bare head, I wouldn’t condemn him.   And on the far end of the risk spectrum, if he takes a 30-mile ride on a shoulderless rural highway without a helmet, I’d prefer not to consider him a criminal, although I would consider him stupid.

I argue that it becomes important to give individual latitude because of special conditions that sometimes apply in cities.  In both New York City and Chicago, proposed bikeshare programs, by which someone can rent a bicycle, pedal a half-mile to a business meeting, and leave the bicycle at another bikeshare station, have been deferred until next spring.

Various reasons for the delays have been given, but there is speculation that local helmet laws and attitudes are a part of the problem.  Many business people don’t carry a helmet during their day.  So they would need to rent a helmet to use a bikeshare.  But handling helmet rentals and returns adds a significant complication to bikeshare programs, where most of the stations will be unstaffed.

Personally, I’d be hesitant to peddle a half-mile in the Chicago Loop without a helmet.  But if allowing someone to do so is needed to get a bikeshare program up and operating, that’s okay by me.

Thus far, I think my positions are consistent with California law.  But now I’ll offer a thought that may be outside of California law.

This article from Metropolis Mag introduces the European concept of strict liability.  Simply put, in a collision between two dissimilar modes of transportation, car and bike, car and pedestrian, or bike and pedestrian, the less vulnerable mode is initially considered to be at fault.  If a car strikes a bicyclist, the driver is considered to be at fault unless he can prove that the blame lay with the bicyclist.

The one exception to the application of strict liability regards helmets.  If a car strikes a bicyclist in a traffic situation where a bicycle helmet was prudent, then strict liability doesn’t apply.  Perhaps it’s not a finely honed tool, but it seems to put the incentives in the generally correct places.

I don’t know if this idea can be grafted onto the American ideal of innocent until proven guilty, but it seems a reasonable concept.  And it might have had great effect on the criminal proceedings in two recent San Francisco bicycle/pedestrian accidents.  If anyone has experience with strict liability, please write.

Meanwhile, as in other areas of life, technology is at work to change our relationship with helmets.  From this article in AOL Tech, an alternative to the helmet may be on the horizon.  A neck collar is available that would inflate during a collision to pad the head.  Effectively, it’s an air bag for a bicycle.  This version seems interesting but perhaps not fully mature.  However, it’s good to see that people are looking outside the box.

Similarly, this article from Atlantic Cities introduces a bike helmet that calls for help, through your cellphone, if you’re in an accident and need assistance.  Once again, I’m guessing that the product isn’t ready for the mass market, but could be a step in the right direction.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. I never know where to comment, or if I'm the only reader here...

    Just one note on helmet advocacy: I think the evidence is fairly clear that mandatory helmet laws impede cycling uptake. I think helmets are a good idea for a lot of cycling.

    I'd like to see better statistics and information gathering that might guide policy on these before making any particular pronouncements. I think I know that high speed crashes on road cycling are something where helmets can prevent greater injury, but I also think that getting rear-ended is my greatest risk, and though the stats are mixed on what sorts of bicycle-car accidents actually occur, all of them agree that less than half of all collisions are cars rear-ending cyclists (and some go as low as 3%).

    So what I'd really like to see is better statistics on which we can evaluate the costs and benefits of policy decisions, rather than arm-chairing policies that may be a boon for the helmet manufacturers, but in practice do nothing for cyclist safety.

    1. Dan, you're definitely not the only reader here. The readership of this blog on this site is creeping toward 100 per post. However, many readers have told me that they can't find a way to make comments. It's a problem to which I haven't yet found a solution.

      I agree with you on the need for more data. Indeed, there are few areas of life in which more data wouldn't be useful. But I also caution that we rarely have as much data as we'd like and sometimes we must combine limited data with good judgment to make the best decisions that we can.

    2. My fear is that, as that as that Bicycling article you link to a few posts up so vividly illustrates, "good judgement" often flies in the face of reality.

      Humans are absolutely awful at risk assessment, making policy based on "good judgement" that usually isn't has resulted in a *ton* of bad expensive policy.

      (And, yes, as I read through "Pocket Neighborhoods" there's a long rant in here on falsifiable hypotheses and data, but I need to do a little more reminding myself on a couple of sociological studies before I unleash that.)

    3. Dan, your point is valid. The question often is not only what good judgment might be, but who gets to decide.