Federal Recommendation for State Bike Helmet Laws Elicits Pushback

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Cycling advocates and some city officials are bristling at the idea of requiring people to don helmets when they ride.

Requiring people to wear helmets when they ride bicycles might seem like an obvious move to cut down on the number of cyclists getting seriously hurt and killed in crashes.

But a federal agency’s new recommendation that states should adopt mandatory helmet laws has been criticized by cycling advocates and a group of city transportation officials, who say other policies and infrastructure upgrades would go further to improve safety. 

These opponents also raise the possibility that helmet laws could discourage people from biking and may be enforced in ways that aren’t fair.

“While requiring helmets may seem like an intuitive way to protect riders, the evidence doesn’t bear this out,” said Corinne Kisner, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials. “Bike helmets can be protective, bike helmet laws are not.”

The League of American Bicyclists, in a statement opposing the helmet law recommendation, said “the safety of people who bike will be best advanced through coordinated improvements to streets and cars, which kill more than 90% of people who die while biking, rather than laws that may be enforced in discretionary and discriminatory ways.”

Despite its position on helmet laws, the League does recommend that people wear helmets when cycling.

No state currently has a helmet requirement for cyclists of all ages, although some local governments do, and there are such laws at the state level that cover minors. The National Transportation Safety Board is urging states to adopt helmet laws for all bicyclists as part of a new slate of cycling safety recommendations.

These recommendations stem from the NTSB’s first examination of bicyclist safety on U.S. roadways since the 1970s, and come as fatal cycling crashes involving motor vehicles have been on the rise in America during the past decade.

In 2018 alone, federal statistics show that 857 cyclists died in crashes with motor vehicles. That marked a 6.3% increase over 2017, and was greater than the number of fatalities last year in airplane crashes in the U.S., according to the NTSB.

The number of deadly cycling crashes was generally on a downward trajectory from the 1980s through the early 2000s. But since 2010, bicyclist fatality rates have been mostly increasing.

The NTSB points out that while head injuries were the leading cause of cyclist deaths based on its findings, less than half of cyclists wear helmets.

Figures cited by the board’s researchers indicate that between 2014 and 2017 about 541,000 cyclists sustained head injuries in crashes overall. Of those, about 80,000 involved crashes with motor vehicles.

Researchers for the board also highlighted estimates showing that wearing a bike helmet decreases the likelihood of a head injury while cycling by about 48%.  

“The way to prevent head injuries is to wear a bike helmet. We say that, the Department of Transportation says that, and so does the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]," National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said by phone on Monday.

Homendy acknowledged concerns among cycling advocates that helmet laws might deter some people from getting on a bike. But she added: "Our view is, ‘What's needed to prevent injuries and to reduce fatalities?’ And it’s wearing your helmet.”

The full report containing the bicycle safety research and recommendations isn’t out yet. But the NTSB released a synopsis and other materials last week. 

Homendy said the full report has about 16 pages on helmet use and head injuries. 

She noted that it recommends not only that states adopt helmet laws, but also bringing together cycling advocates to look more closely at helmet use and how to promote it, and coming up with model helmet legislation that states and localities could look to. 

"It's not just: ‘Hey, states, you should develop mandatory laws,’” Homendy said. “It's let's bring in the bicycle community and help develop a model.’”

NACTO says that in Australia mandatory bike helmet laws went into effect in the early 1990s, but that data suggests this discouraged ridership and didn’t yield notable safety gains. 

The group also highlights estimates that fewer than one-quarter of bike share users wear helmets, but that there were only four fatalities in over 160 million trips.

Both NACTO and The League of American Bicyclists applauded the NTSB’s effort to study bike safety, and signaled their support for other recommendations that the board intends to put forward. Neither group immediately responded to requests for comment on Monday.

In addition to the focus on helmet use, the NTSB is making new recommendations that have to do with ensuring that cyclists are more visible to motorists and better detected by vehicle sensors, and policies geared toward encouraging the construction of separated bike lanes and other infrastructure meant to make roads safer for cyclists.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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