Helmet laws are not the answer

It is campaign season again, and there are a number of candidates running for the Board of Aldermen in our sleepy little town of Carrboro, NC (right next to Chapel Hill, NC).

Just a few days ago, Sierra Club held a candidates forum. One question they asked the candidates was how they might improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians. While we found all of the responses to be lacking (perhaps in part due to the reporting in the newspaper), one particularly stood out. Randee Haven-O’Donnel is claimed to have said we should pass an adult helmet law, mandating that we all wear helmets.
NO WE SHOULD NOT PASS A MANDATORY HELMET LAW! I rarely if ever yell in this blog, but this one warrants a big yell.
Many places have tried mandatory helmet laws, and it has been a miserable failure wherever and whenever tried. Australia is the biggest case in point. Seven years after the mandatory helmet law was passed, the cycling population dropped by 22%. At the same time, the total number of bicycle injuries increased.
Some may be scratching their heads. How could that be? Why didn’t this law instantly make people safer?
Because one-size-fits all laws like this usually have unintended consequences. One consequence is discouraging people from riding at all. And study after study has shown that cyclists have safety in numbers. The numbers go down because of helmet laws, and safety goes down. There may also be a factor of risk compensation – people riding faster and more aggressively when wearing a helmet. But the reasons really do not matter. Because the facts are the facts – and those facts aren’t unique to Australia.
The same experiment was born out in New Zealand, which also passed a mandatory helmet law, and also saw a reduction in cycling by 51%, and saw only a 51% drop in fatal accidents. In other words, less people are biking, and less accidents are occurring, by the same amount. The helmet law is making people no safer, while it is preventing many people from biking.
We’re not anti-helmet, we’re anti-helmet law. In fact, all the owners and employees of Cycle 9 regularly wear their helmets. We help many of our customers get fitted out with a helmet.
But helmet laws just don’t work. And worse, they promote a nanny-state mentality that every risk we might take must be proscribed by legal decree. We believe bikes are about freedom, not laws. Maybe that’s why less people cycle when helmet laws are passed – the association of riding a bike with a sense of freedom becomes diminished.
Biking should be a free activity. An adult should be able to choose how she regards his or her own risks and rewards from either wearing or not wearing a helmet. This would be true even if helmet laws did work. But it is especially true since mandatory helmet laws don’t work.
I hope that Ms Haven-O’Donnel and the other Aldermen/women don’t go down that route. It may benefit certain helmet manufacturers, but it won’t benefit anyone else.

One thought

  1. I wish we could come up with a way to talk about protecting cyclist without the implication that cycling is an inherently dangerous activity.

    I sat through yet another management meeting at work today where my choice of transportation was discussed. It's always done in a joking manner, but the feeling that I'm at risk (and am putting the company at risk) is always there.

    How do you argue for your safety when others feel that you are stupid for being on the bike in the first place?

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