Good news out of Sacramento: S.B. 192, Senator Liu’s disastrous law mandating helmets and reflective gear for bicyclists, was gutted thanks to strong backlash from bicycle advocates across the state. In its place, Senator Liu has proposed a study of…
At GJEL, we’re very supportive of wearing bicycle helmets. We’ve seen countless victims hit by drivers while bicycling whose lives were saved by helmets, and others not wearing helmets who’ve experienced significant injuries or lost their lives. We’ve sponsored free helmets for kids and rarely ride without them.
However, we’re writing today to explain why we’re strongly opposed to S.B. 192, a disastrous bill which would mandate the use of bicycle helmets for adults, and also require the use of reflective clothing at night. S.B. 192 would inhibit bicycle use, impair public health, and unfairly target low-income populations while providing little benefit to public safety.
Helmets Improve Safety, But Their Benefits are Overstated
Wearing a bike helmet is a good idea – they serve as a last line of defense against head injuries in a crash. Every year, about 80-90 percent of people killed while biking did not wear a helmet, disproportionately higher than the number of people who ride without helmets (by one estimate, 58 percent of people who bike without a helmet).1 At first glance, these statistics suggest that wearing a helmet is essential and riding without one is irresponsible. This sentiment is common in media reports when reporters fixate on whether or not a bicyclist was wearing a helmet and imply partial blame for assuming such a risk.
However, the actual ability of helmets to prevent injuries is widely exaggerated. While an oft-cited statistic from a 1989 case-control study claims that helmets reduce 85 percent of head injuries, these claims have been overstated. Extensive research has shown these injury-reduction benefits to be overstated because they fail to account for a wide variety of factors that influence bicycle safety, including the skill and experience of a rider, use of lights and other safety equipment, and presence of bicycle infrastructure. Moreover, helmets have also been found to increase the risk of serious neck injuries. A 2011 study concluded that while helmets reduce adult head injuries by 25-55 percent, the combined reduction in head and neck injuries is only about 2-26 percent.
Thus, helmets are helpful, but are no silver bullet for an individual’s safety.
Mandatory Helmet Laws Reduce Bicycling and Impair Public Health
The key issue with a mandatory helmet law is its effect in discouraging bicycling. Instead of presenting bicycling as an attractive, healthy, green mode of transportation, helmet laws imply bicycling is an inherently dangerous activity which requires special protections.
In countries with the highest rates of bicycling, like the Netherlands, few people wear helmets. Bicycling is perceived as an inherently safe activity due to safe street designs and aggressive education and enforcement of traffic laws through programs like Sweden’s Vision Zero. A safety in numbers effect occurs: the abundance of people biking and bicycle infrastructure enhances the presence of bicyclists to drivers and helps promote safer interactions.
Rather than encouraging bicycling as an integral mode of transportation, mandatory helmet laws imply a “ride at your own risk” approach. A 2001 report by the European Commission entitled “Promotion of Mobility and Safety of Vulnerable Road Users” recommended against mandating or encouraging helmet use because it restricts bicycling and the associated health and environmental benefits:
“From the point of view of restrictiveness, even the official promotion of helmets may have negative consequences for bicycle use. If the importance of wearing a helmet is stressed, the implied message is that cycling is extraordinary dangerous. The report on cycling (PROMISING, 2001b) shows, however, that refraining from bicycle use has far greater negative consequences for health than increasing bicycle use without the wearing of helmets. To prevent helmets having a negative effect on the use of bicycles, the best approach is to leave the promotion to the manufacturers and shopkeepers.”
A notable example of the negative effects of mandatory helmet laws occurred in Australia in the early 1990s. After becoming the first country in the world to implement a mandatory helmet law in 1992, some Australian states witnessed up to a 65 percent decline in bicycling. After 20 years, rates of cycling remain about a third lower. Yet, hospitalizations of cyclists did not decrease as intended: 2014 saw 40 percent more hospitalizations than 1993 with roughly the same total number of people biking. When also considering Australia’s growing obesity epidemic, these results support research that suggests that mandatory helmet laws do little to improve societal health.
Unsurprisingly, the converse effect also occurs: in 2011, Israel repealed its mandatory helmet law for adults; consequently, bicycling increased by 54 percent in Tel Aviv. With fewer barriers to riding, more people will ride.
S.B. 192 Would Unfairly Target Low-Income Communities and Communities of Color
The most concerning aspect of S.B. 192 is its effect on low income communities. As we’ve covered previously, low income communities rely on bicycling at significantly higher rates, given that bicycling is an affordable and accessible mode of transportation, but rates of helmet use are generally lower. S.B. 192 would force every low income bicyclist to purchase a helmet or be subject to a fine, and offers no means to mitigate negative effects on low income riders.
But that’s not all. S.B. 192 would also mandate retroreflective high visibility safety apparel that “meets the requirements of the “American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear” for those caught out after dark. This unprecedented requirement would not only place a further burden on low income riders to purchase additional gear, but would also exponentially increase the number of law-breaking bicyclists across California. Anyone who unexpectedly works late, loses track of time, and/or does not own compliant clothing could be stopped by police.
In essence, S.B. 192 enables a statewide “stop and frisk” policy for anyone on a bike. People of color riding bikes are already often profiled as law breakers and suspects; this law could exacerbate fears of being harassed by police while biking. Considering that people walking and biking are killed at disproportionately high rates in low-income communities and communities of color, dedicating limited resources to ticketing bicyclists without helmets or reflective clothing as opposed to unsafe drivers makes little sense.
Vote No on S.B. 192
Bicycling without a helmet can be dangerous. Bicycling with a helmet, walking, and driving, during the day or at night, can also dangerous. There are inherent risks with all forms of transportation as long as speeding, drunk, and distracted drivers roam the streets and our infrastructure, policies, and enforcement enables these behaviors. California is finally investing in bicycling at a macro-scale, and its cities are reinventing the appeal of bicycling via safer street designs. Given the much-needed environmental, health, and mobility benefits of bicycling, the aim should be to encourage more people to bike, not to encourage more people to wear bike helmets.
Mandating helmets to improve bicycle safety is akin to mandating bulletproof vests to improve gun safety: it totally misses the point. As Dave Snyder, Executive Director of the California Bicycle Coalition, explained: S.B. 192 “attracts attention away from the much more important thing, which is to prevent a crash in the first place.” While Senator Liu deserves credit for tackling the issue of bicycle safety with good intentions, her approach goes against decades of research and best practices which demonstrate that mandatory helmet laws restrict bicycling and harm societal health. Moreover, the requirements of S.B. 192 would disproportionately burden low income individuals who lack the means to purchase helmets and compliant clothing. If Senator Liu seeks to enact a truly transformative policy for people biking, we urge her to instead consider a statewide adoption of Vision Zero.
We urge our legislators to vote no on S.B. 192.
1. Between 1994 and 2009, between 83 and 98 percent of bicyclists killed were not wearing a helmet. In recent years, this number has officially dropped due to poor data reporting – helmet use was unknown for 20 percent of bicyclist fatalities in 2013. Estimated rates of helmet use vary by source.