Today it was announced that NYC Council Member David Greenfield introduced a bill that would make helmet usage mandatory for people on bikes of all ages in NYC. Not a good idea.
Mandatory helmet laws don’t work. They decrease the number of people on bikes, and that leads to a decrease in safety. More people on bikes = better safety. It’s the safety in numbers effect.
Promotion of helmet usage over real safety is not the answer either. Yes, helmets can be beneficial in some situations. But their efficacy is greatly overrated. In terms of the safety of people on bikes, there are only two empirically proven efforts that do increase the safety of people on bikes. One is the aforementioned safety in numbers effect. As the number of people on bikes increases, awareness increases and injury/fatality rates decrease. It’s like going to a dangerous or unfamiliar neighborhood. If you go alone, you feel more vulnerable and you are more vulnerable. If you go with a bunch of friends, others are less likely to bully you. It works the same way on the roads.
The other effective method of safety is properly designed infrastructure that either physically separates people on bikes from more dangerous road users (motor traffic) or creates slow zones where the speed of motor traffic is reduced to a level that doesn’t threaten more vulnerable road users such as people on bikes, skateboards, push scooters and pedestrians.
Helmet laws and helmet promotion miss the point. They are a band-aid on a broken leg. Again, a helmet may help prevent a head injury in certain situations, but if a car or a truck slams into you travelling over 30 mph….you may as well be clutching your lucky rabbit’s foot.
With Citibike, NYC’s public bike sharing system set to launch this summer, the last thing we need is a mandatory helmet law. Bike share systems have been implemented throughout the world with great success. In most cases, that success was greater than initially anticipated. Save for two exceptions : the Australian cities of Melbourne and Brisbane. Why? Mandatory helmet laws.
I am not against helmets. If someone feels safer wearing one and that gets them on a bike and keeps them on a bike- great. Do it. But let’s not get distracted from the real issue at hand. Irresponsible and reckless people behind the wheel of a car are the greatest threat to a person on a bike’s safety (and pedestrians too for that matter). Helmets won’t stop a motor vehicle from hitting you and they are not the magic elixir that will save you. Protected bike lanes and slow zones will reduce that danger. We only have to look to the Netherlands and Denmark to see what truly works in terms of safety for people on two pedal powered wheels or on foot. These two countries have the highest rates of people on bikes, no mandatory helmet laws, low usage of helmets and the lowest rates of injuries or fatalities to people on bikes.
The argument that what the Dutch and the Danes have is not possible here is rot. It can happen and it is happening, albeit at a slower pace than most advocates would like to see. Thankfully, we are lucky to have DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan who sees the importance of the complete streets movement and that Mayor Bloomberg backs her efforts.
I had the honor of meeting Sadik-Khan at the NYC Bike Expo a few weeks ago (we were both participating in Momentum Magazine’s Be Chic Be NY fashion show). When I told her how grateful I was for all the new infrastructure that has been built in the last few years, she replied to me “We are so behind the rest of the world”.
End note- Below are links to a few websites that I feel are particularly relevant to this matter and the overall bigger picture. Please take the time to read them and think critically about what is needed. In the meantime, I wish you happy and safe bike travels.
aviewfromthecyclepath (David Hembrow’s excellent blog on Dutch Cycling Infrastructure)
Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation (comprehensive site with links to articles both pro and con regarding bicycle helmets)
Amsterdamize: Bicycle Cultures are Man-Made
Copenhagenize– Helmets or Health