It may seem counterintuitive, but despite near unanimous support for the use of helmets, many cycling advocates disagree with the notion that helmet usage should be required by law. A recent measure in Maryland that would require helmets be worn by all cyclists has reignited the debate about whether this type of legislation actually impedes the cycling community more than it helps.
On the one hand you have stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that “helmet use reduces head injuries by 80 percent” and federal data showing approximately 70 percent of all bike fatalities involve riders who weren’t wearing a helmet at the time of the accident. On the other hand, aggressively enforcing the use of helmets can discourage short-trip cyclists, cut down on the safety-in-numbers effect, and create additional (and costly) hurdles for Bikeshare programs.
As executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association Shane Farthing explains, “It is really an awkward position…because we are fully supportive of the use of helmets and encourage everyone who rides a bike to use one. We’re just not convinced that a mandatory helmet law is going to improve safety. In fact, we fear that it will undermine overall ridership by limiting the safety-in-numbers effect, [that it will] actually have the opposite impact.”
The safety-in-numbers effect suggests that as encountering cyclists becomes increasingly common for drivers, cyclists will actually be safer sharing the road and accidents will occur less often. And, although it’s only by a small margin (between 4-5%) helmet laws do tend to discourage cycling. However, the largest impact could be on cities hoping to grow their Bikeshare programs.
Attorney Josh King argues that helmet laws are counter-productive, writing, “On the cost side, they add friction by creating an impediment to riding and making cycling seem like a more inherently dangerous activity than it actually is. Add to that the actual costs imposed on bike share systems – and the lost opportunities in such systems not being able to work efficiently within such regulations – and helmet laws are sure to fail the test of good regulation.”
This is exactly the case in Maryland, as the proposed helmet law could slow Bikeshare expansion if helmet kiosks are required or officials fear they might be held liable for riders violating the helmet law. Although helmets could likely be provided as part of the program, it’s an additional cost that would need to be taken into consideration.
At the end of the day, no one seems to be arguing about whether wearing a helmet is a good idea. (It is.) The debate surrounds whether a well-intentioned “nanny state” law would actually do more harm than good. (It might.)