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.