25
Jan 2009
by mark

Against Mandatory Helmet Law proposed by Indiana Senate Bill 553

garden harvest by bike
Indiana currently has a significant bike bill under consideration, Senate
Bill 553. Bike Michiana, who helped draft the bill, has
a good summary. There’s also discussion
at Bike Richmond.

One of the many proposed changes in the law is a mandatory helmet law for those under 18 years of age.

Mandatory helmet laws are a point of controversy of cyclists, and many cycling organizations and cycling advocates, including myself, don’t support them. There are many well-documented reasons to not support a mandatory helmet law, backed up by research. Wikipedia has a good overview, and Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation has much to say against mandatory helmet laws, and the British Medical Journal has come out strongly against mandatory helmet laws.

A compelling proposal for mandatory helmets would at least address the major, well-documented reasons for not having such a law. Instead, this proposal offers only two weak justifications.

First, there’s the suggestion that we should make a law that is consistent with a minority of states. One could just as well argue that we should stay with the majority of states who don’t have such law. Then there was suggestion that would be good to be consistent with laws that apply to motorcycles, a vehicle that can travel much faster and thus more dangerous to operate. That’s like suggesting it would be a good idea to make motor vehicle safety laws that would be consistent with safety regulations of NASCAR drivers, who wear helmets inside their cars.

Helmets.org, a pro-helmet site publishes statistics about the number of fatal bike crashes that happen to kids to who would be affected by this law, during the hours which they may traveling two and from school. (Search on this page for Indiana). In that report they report zero fatalities for Indiana. That’s not the kind of crisis that sounds like we need new laws to address.

The reality here in Indiana is that beyond the general reasons for opposing mandatory helmet laws, we have other problems that complicate the alleged benefits. Most importantly, we have a lack of education among our cyclists, and among our drivers about cyclists. From what the Indiana Bicycle Coalition relayed to me fatal bicycle crash statistics in this area, a major contributor to these was not the lack of a helmet, but unsafe, and sometimes illegal, cycling which set the stage for the accident in the first place. Education can prevent accidents to happen at all, while a helmet cannot. Now on the one hand we lack bike safety education, on the other we lack enforcement of bike safety regulations.

A mandatory helmet law does nothing educate children about riding on the correct side of the road. And if our current bike laws aren’t being enforced, adding yet another just adds to the sense that the laws are meant to be followed, or are there to be enforced selectively against “bad kids”.

There are more effective ways for the Indiana government to support cycling and cycling safety, which I’ll cover separately.

As an experienced rider, a parent, and founder of Bike Richmond, I don’t support a mandatory helmet law. I find the rest of the proposed Indiana Senate Bill 553 to be a mixed bag. I’ll post more thoughts other details of the bill to Bike Richmond soon.

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  • Adam Bee

    I agree!

  • Jeff

    Considering this is coming from bicycle advocacy groups the intent is only to further protect cyclist from harm and to protect those whose parents aren’t taking a strong position about the benefits of helmets. I know we all feel we are comfortable enough to handle our bikes and do it properly, but the fact of the matter is nobody is above wearing a helmet. There is no negative side effects to wearing a helmet, and the main objective would be to get parents keeping an eye on their children since they would more than likely paying the fine. I realize you have already defunct the example of the motorcycle law, but would you consider it safe for a motorcyclist to travel at 15-20 mph without a helmet, or someone driving a scooter without a helmet. These are not situations I would want to be in, especially not things I wish my children to do. I understand your concern for the law, but think there is more to it than just a few statistics. Nobody thinks bad things can happen to them, until they become a statistic.

  • http://mark.stosberg.com/ Mark Stosberg

    Considering this is coming from bicycle advocacy groups the intent is only to further protect cyclist from harm and to protect those whose parents aren’t taking a strong position about the benefits of helmets.

    A number bike advocacy organizations, oppose mandatory helmet laws (for
    example, the Texas Bicycle Coalition) , but they may also encourage voluntary
    helmet use, which supports both those who prefer to wear helmets and those who
    don’t.

    I know we all feel we are comfortable enough to handle our bikes and do it properly, but the fact of the matter is nobody is above wearing a helmet.

    Copenhagen and Amsterdam are two of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. You’ll hardly find anyone wearing a helmet in either place. You won’t even see them in the ads the government runs to promote cycling. At the same time, the bicyclist mortality rate in these countries is 6 – 11 times lower than it is in the US.

    There is no negative side effects to wearing a helmet.

    One negative side effect that people are less likely to ride a bike if one is required or they believe one is needed. Reasons range from: “the helmet messes up my hair” (one I hear regularly), to a belief that if a helmet is required, than the activity must be dangerous– more dangerous than walking or driving. The facts show it’s not. Also some doctors have expressed concern that cycle helmets might make some injuries worse by converting direct (linear) forces to rotational ones. ( ref )

    and the main objective would be to get parents keeping an eye on their children since they would more than likely paying the fine.

    Passing a mandatory helmet law is an inappropriate way to encourage helmet use. There is no education component that informs anyone the law exists or how a helmet should fit. It does nothing to provide the helmets, and there’s no reason to believe if that current bike laws aren’t being enforced, than this one suddenly would be. Helmets must be properly fit and correctly worn in order to have any chance of being effective at reducing the severity of injury. Many people wear their with too much of their forehead exposed, and don’t even realize there’s a helmet fit problem.

    I realize you have already defunct the example of the motorcycle law, but would you consider it safe for a motorcyclist to travel at 15-20 mph without a helmet, or someone driving a scooter without a helmet.

    An average bike speed is probably more like 10 miles per hour. Among our local road racing club who like to ride faster, there is nearly a 100% voluntary helmet use. If motorcycles and scooters were to actually travel as a slow as bikes, I would reconsider their situation as well, but the fact is they don’t.
    These are not situations I would want to be in, especially not things I wish my children to do.
    With voluntary helmet use, your rights remain intact to wear a helmet yourself, require that your own children wear them, and advocate that anyone else voluntary wear a helmet as well.

    I understand your concern for the law, but think there is more to it than just a few statistics. Nobody thinks bad things can happen to them, until they become a statistic.

    If you are concerned about head injuries at all cost, you may wish wear a helmet while driving your car or walking, since more motorists and pedestrians die from head injuries in traffic accidents each year than bicyclists.
    I won’t be supporting a mandatory helmet law for pedestrians just because they have a risk of head injury from being hit by a car.
    This page has 15 reasons to oppose a mandatory bike helmet law, and is a good introduction to the topic.

  • kris

    My 29 yr-old son doesn’t own a car by choice and gets around mostly by bike. He always wears a helmet, and claims he would be dead three times now if he hadn’t been wearing a helmet.
    Collisions with cars can be fatal (he’s had two very light encounters). But all the other stuff (potholes, rocks, etc.) can be just as deadly as they can send you hurtling over the handlebars at a pretty good speed. And what part of your body hits the pavement first is going to be the most damaged.
    Bike helmets are a start. They need to go hand in hand with bike safety taught in schools. Here in California bikes have to follow the same rules as car drivers and are therefore required to wear helmets.
    As far as baby trailers and child trailers are concerned, they are ghastly!! Why would you put your most cherished and loved and irreplaceable child in one of those? One hit by a car, and your child will be dead….
    These arguments sound like the old seatbelt arguments of 30 years ago. Or the even older car headlight arguments from a century ago.

  • kris

    I also meant to say that the Netherlands, and other European countries probably have lower bike statistics because their transportation systems are much more advanced than here in the U.S. In the Netherlands, for instance, there are huge networks, even in cities, of bikes-only streets. That is, cars may not share the road with bikes. You need to distinguish these differences before citing statistics.

  • Mark Stosberg

    kris,
    The mandatory helmet provision didn’t make into the final proposed legislation here in Indiana.