A bill in the California Legislature that started out as a public health mandate for all bicycle riders to wear helmets has been revised to call for a statewide study of bicycle helmet use.
SB 192, by Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge), was changed last week in the face of widespread, organized opposition to a mandate.
“Carol still believes helmets are a good idea, but a lot of bright, well-meaning people are saying this isn’t the right way to go without more information and Carol believes in consensus-driven policy,” said Robert Oakes, legislative director in Liu’s office.
The bill now directs the state Office of Traffic Safety and California Highway Patrol to conduct “a comprehensive study of bicycle helmet use, including, but not limited to, determining the percentage of California bicyclists who do not wear helmets, and the fatalities or serious injuries that could have been avoided if helmets had been worn.”
The California Bicycle Coalition (CBC) and the California Association of Bicycling Organizations (CABO), the state’s largest, most active cycling advocates, oppose helmet mandates.
A central argument against forcing bike riders to wear helmets is linked thematically to a global cycling movement known as “critical mass.” Starting first in Sweden in the 1970s and spreading to the United States in the ’90s, the series of critical mass cycling events attracted hundreds, sometimes thousands, of cyclists to ride together in a show of force aimed at making roads safer for non-motorized two-wheeled transportation.
Basically, the theory is the more people who ride bikes in California, the safer they’ll be because motorists will be more conscious and conscientious about sharing the road. Forcing people to wear helmets will discourage some from riding and won’t make the streets safer in the long run, mandate opponents say.
“That’s certainly part of the argument,” said Dave Snyder, executive director of the CBC, “but there are other reasons that mandatory helmet wearing is not good for public health. A helmet law — even in the short term, as far as we can tell — will not make a dent in the head injury problem. In places where there already are helmet laws — Australia, British Columbia and in California for children — studies show that helmet wearing goes up, but head injuries don’t go down proportionately.”
Snyder’s theory is that “in the kind of bicycling that calls for helmet wearing, most people are already wearing helmets. You see all those people in spandex riding really fast on country roads, they’re all wearing helmets. But if you go into poor areas and see people riding slowly, they’re not wearing helmets, usually.”
Cycling advocates point to the growth and relatively safe operation of bike-share programs in many parts of the country as indications that helmets are not needed.
“Since bike-share programs have been around, there have been almost 24 million bike rides and not a single fatality,” Snyder said. “Most of those people are not wearing helmets.”
Bike-share programs, mostly in urban areas, offer rental bikes that riders can hop on in one part of a city and leave in another.
Helmet mandates would discourage riders from using bike-share bikes, opponents say.
Helmet mandate opponents also point to problems of enforcement, saying uneven application of the rules can take on social implications.
The city of Dallas last year repealed a helmet law for adults, partly in response to allegations of uneven enforcement of the law.
An analysis by the Dallas Morning News showed that no citations were issued in wealthy, white neighborhoods, but more than 300 tickets and more than 60 arrests were made in poor, minority neighborhoods.
“The reality appears to be that police often use the ordinance not to safeguard the welfare of bicyclists, but in essence as a crime-fighting tool to stop and question individuals,” the newspaper concluded.
The CBC and CABO say California’s policy makers should be putting their public health efforts elsewhere when it comes to cycling.
In a letter to Liu opposing the first version of her helmet bill, CABO officials lobbied for more education on the rules of the road — for motorists and cyclists.
“Bicycle helmets certainly may contribute to safety in a crash or fall, but represent only the final area of protection when all other safety measures fail,” CABO officials wrote. They said more attention should be paid to preventing accidents rather than surviving them.
The CBC, which aims to double the amount of bicycling in California over the next two years and triple it by 2020, is actively lobbying in Sacramento, weighing in on most or all of the more than a dozen bills dealing with cycling in the Legislature this session.
According to Snyder, California’s public policy decisions on cycling are paying off.
“We’re making progress. Riding a bike is safer now in California than it used to be, especially recreational riding,” Snyder said. “Bike accidents and injuries have gone done 40% over the past decade, and I think that trend will grow, especially for everyday riders going to work or getting from one part of town to another or just having a nice leisurely ride.”
“We’re on the right track,” Snyder said.