A Potentially Bad Precedent in California

Recently introduced California bill SB-192 poses a major roadblock to everyday cycling.

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Would it be ridiculous to mandate helmets for pedestrians? Well, why not? After all, you are twice as likely to suffer head injury when walking as you are when riding a bike. Wouldn’t we all be healthier, happier, and safer if we just stayed inside and gave up such dangerous activities as walking or jogging? Of course, the truth is just the opposite: more walking yields better health, the occasional stumble notwithstanding.

Obviously, every healthy activity carries some risk. But, as with walking, the benefits so vastly outweigh the potential harm that we are much better off getting out there and enjoying life. This is the main reason why California’s new mandatory bicycle helmet bill is such a bad idea. California prides itself on leading with bold precedents and also with its vibrantly diverse culture of outdoor fun from snowy mountains to shining seas. For our health, our economy, and our environment, this is one precedent that should be quickly tossed out.

The recently introduced bill, SB-192, could probably win a world record for legislative brevity. Most of its language is devoted to parcelling out where proceeds from your fines will go. However, the meat of the bill is a mere two sentences. First, “A person shall not operate a bicycle … upon a street, bikeway, or any other public bicycle path, or trail unless wearing a helmet.” And then: you may not ride a bike “in darkness unless wearing high-visibility safety material … that is retroreflective.” That’s it. You must wear a helmet, you must wear reflective clothing. This is very bad policy and I’ll tell you why.

Where I live in Orange County, it seems like every man, woman, and child has a beach cruiser or some other form of the noblest invention. Day in and day out, thousands of recreational riders cruise the sunny beach paths up and down the coast. There are few helmets here, and even fewer injuries. There are zero fatalities. But go a stone’s throw inland to the Pacific Coast Highway, and you’ll see a different scene. Hundreds of cyclists whiz by for fitness, fun, training, and work. All of them wear helmets, and yet here there are fatalities. Tragically, every few months on PCH, a helmeted rider will be hit and killed.

The phenomenon of these two basic types of cycling – lifestyle and sport – illustrates why nearly every cycling advocacy group, this magazine, and the powerful California Bicycle Coalition included, are flatly against mandatory helmets for adults. Helmets matter much less than safe infrastructure, culture, community, and education. When we bring more people into the bicycling community, it gets safer for everyone. SB-192 would turn that goal on its head by discouraging people from riding. In light of this, SB-192 is so counterproductive that it undermines its own objective: better health and safety.

Which really is beside the point, because there is no moral justification for this bill either. We simply cannot set a precedent in which legislators make decisions for adult individuals where the only impacted party is the individual herself. With automobile seat belts and to some degree motorcycle helmets, the situation is different because the rest of us bear huge costs from reckless behavior. But bicycling actually helps lower costs for all of us. SB-192 is simply a case of the state deciding that it knows best.

Again, bicycling is an overwhelmingly healthy and safe activity. The health benefits, economic benefits, and environmental benefits of bicycling are far-reaching and well-documented. Cycling enhances your health after just a few miles a week, which improves life and lowers healthcare bills. An increase in cycling has been shown to definitively improve the economy and livability of urban areas. The environmental benefits of riding speak for themselves.

Why is all of that important? Because mandatory helmet laws change conditions for the worse. Studies comparing Australia (mandatory helmets) to un-mandated countries like the Netherlands show that helmet laws significantly reduce cycling participation. Even worse, they can scare off those who would like to join our community but haven’t yet. Ironically, this law would unwittingly worsen overall health problems and costs by discouraging participation in one of the best and easiest ways to improve your health. Why would we jeopardize these benefits with an unnecessary and unhelpful burden? It doesn’t make sense.

One more consideration should be enough to void SB-192: it’s bad policy to write a blanket law for such a vast and diverse state as California when local jurisdictions already decide this sort of thing for themselves. Each area is different, with varying needs and distinct populations. Some municipalities have decided that their unique situations require the precaution of a helmet law, like Bidwell Park in Chico. But what is deemed good for Bidwell Park may not be right for the low-wage worker riding to his job in Long Beach, or for the mom out for a jaunt with her kids in rural Mount Shasta, or the professional on his morning commute to the train in Silicon Valley. If cities and other districts find that the costs of head trauma have exceeded the benefits of cycling in general, then they are well-equipped to write ordinances of their own. There is no need for a state mandate on helmets. It is overbearing, unfair, and counterproductive.

If our goal is to improve our cities and our health while reducing injuries, then the real solutions are simple and well known. Education and awareness are key. Safe road conditions and protected lanes and paths are vital. Most important of all is promoting and increasing participation in our wide and welcoming community. Just as we are making unprecedented headway down that excellent path, SB-192 threatens with a major roadblock.


Peter Kaltreider is a lifelong cyclist, National Account Manager for XDS Bicycles. He lives with his wife and three children in Costa Mesa, CA and is a California Democratic Party Delegate.

22 Comments

  • Mandatory helmet law will ruin bicycle ecology. Legislator must learn from Copenhagen.
    – Drivers overtaking cyclists passed an average of 8.5 cm closer to those wearing helmets.
    – When Australia introduced mandatory cycle helmet law. Bicycle usage dropped by 30%.
    – The relationship between the number of cyclists and the number of casualties among cyclists involved in car accident is inverse. (The more cyclists, the less accidents among them). – See more at: http://www.ecf.com/press-corner/cycling-facts-and-figures/#sthash.5keJeY0L.dpuf

  • alliwant

    Motor vehicles are the elephant in the room; the vast majority of cycling deaths, on the order of 90%, are from collisions with motor vehicles. Put presumed responsibility on motorists, that’s where it belongs. That is a better way to help make cycling safer.

  • Paul

    Wow. History repeating. We got a helmet law (in New Zealand) in the 1980s thanks to a crusade by someone who’s son was killed while riding. It has done nothing to make cyclists safer, in fact you could argue it has done much to kill off everyday cycling here until very recently. it seems California have learned nothing from our experience. In fact, they are going further and trying to totally kill cycling by introducing the horrors of hi-vis. I’d challenge anyone to provide evidence (actually scientific evidence not emotionally-driven nonsense) that shows any benefits of cyclists wearing hi-vis.

    • Chris Glover Kapiti Coast

      Pushbike helmets became compulsory on 1 January 1994 in New Zealand. The mandatory bicycle helmet law has been a disaster for utility cycling and bike share schemes.

  • Mandatory Helmet Laws are a terrible idea. Do not let them pass this law, because once it is in you will never get rid of it. I live in Melbourne, Australia, and it is the absolute bane of our cycling existence here, and also a major contributing reason to the failure of our bikeshare system.

  • Bicycling Midwife

    I read an interesting study (wish I could remember the source) which stated that drivers took more risks with regard to bicyclists wearing helmets! This would indicate that motorists need to change their thinking and driving habits to insure safety for bike riders – and pedestrians too. Reinforcement of speed limits and safer infrastructure will do more for a greater number. I almost always wear one. But sometimes it’s nice to feel the wind in my hair.

  • e

    I don’t support a statewide mandate requiring helmet use. And I’m equally against editorializing based on flawed data references. Australian culture and cycling infrastructure are not equivalent or congruent to Dutch culture and infrastructure, so using them in a comparison to draw an accurate conclusion on the impact of helmet laws is not fair, or smart.

    While I believe in the value of helmets and their ability to provide an added measure of protection in many cases, they’re not a panacea or a guarantee. And neither are seat belts, airbags or reflective stripes. The truth is that helmets can be one part of a complex solution to enhance personal safety while riding, and the mechanics of head injury are far more sophisticated than a blind reference to “jogging speed”. So comments disparaging helmets should be taken with a grain of salt as it were… just make your choice, and if you’re not sure, do your own research.

  • That is utterly ridiculous. I do think these laws are brought in by motorists who want to discourage cycling, except as a recreational activity for the happy few, shelling out for fancy kit.

    John Le Marquand,

    True, but when police don’t enforce laws generally, the enforcement can be very discriminatory and target, typically young people of colour (or Aboriginal people in BC).

    And of course, with the possible exception of “extreme sports”, the most dangerous exercise is none.

  • Mark Brewster

    It’s horribly sad that so many people re unaware of the testing done on helmets, pretty much proving that they only protect from the temples UP, from impacts experienced from a height of six feet, and at a speed not exceeding 14mph. Concussive events have occurred WITH helmet use at JOGGING speed!

    It is nothing but political panacea or placebo for the uninitiated motorist and elected officials.

  • John Le Marquand

    Here in BC we have had mandatory helmet laws for years and many riders ignore the law. The under staffed police departments do little enforcement probably because they have more important things to do.

    That is what will happen in California if this law goes into effect. Many bike riders will ignore the law and most police will not enforce the law.

    • Alan Todd

      John, in Melbourne (Australia) that is what we thought would happen. Instead, helmet compliance is the most heavily enforced (fines per km travelled) of any road rule in the country. It truly is insane, and has destroyed so much that was good about cycling culture. Don’t let it happen in California. It won’t be funny, and who knows how long before someone is shot “evading” the police while not wearing a helmet. I’m not kidding – people have been knocked off their bikes and injured by police in this country, and jailed for non payment of fines.

  • Brian Wood

    I don’t live in California, but I just signed the petition against this bill: https://calbike.org/stopsb192/?page=CiviCRM&q=civicrm/petition/sign&sid=3 California is a leader in progressive legislation and sustainability and so everyone needs to help keep California’s ship on course.

    • alliwant

      Thanks for the link. I went there and signed as well Helmets have their place, but mandating them is just a way to discourage cycling.

  • I agree that the solution to making the streets safer for cyclists is NOT to enact a helmet law. We need protected bikeways, not helmets! More bicyclists make the streets safer, because it trains drivers to look for cyclists and it slows down traffic in the right lane. I have chronic neck pain due to whiplash injuries as a young car driver. Helmets make my neck hurt more when riding my trusty road bike about town. I wouldn’t enjoy riding if I had to wear a helmet. A helmet should be a choice.

  • Mark Friis

    Spot on! I hope all advocates will use your analogy with the boardwalk and PCH. That should be the narrative for the campaign against this bill.

    • Let’s start by making it clear that I do not agree with mandatory helmet laws.

      With that said, I’d suggest that the PCH example is a reasonably terrible attempt to draw a comparison. Is it trying to present helmets as, somehow, a factor in those injuries and deaths? Should it be strange to consider that people cruising bare-headed at a jogging pace with only soft people to bump into aren’t getting killed while cyclists on a high-speed and busy transport corridor like the PCH are by 2 tons of metal? That should be an argument for segregated infrastructure, not helmets.

      Expecting a helmet to leave you without a mark in any impact no matter the severity does not lend any credibility to anyone suggesting that they are useless. “But they only test them up to a certain speed!”. That’s right. They do that with cars too. And people still die by the millions.

      Make better arguments.

  • Bill E, As I recall, the legislator who introduced this terrible bill had a son or a nephew who was killed or hurt as a result of a bicycle accident. She went into the the the reflexive “blame the victim” mode often adopted by well-intentioned people who don’t know anything about cycling and decided she was in a position to fix a problem with legislation. It’s truly unfortunate because, if it passes, it will reduce the number of people who ride bicycles, and thereby make cycling in California more dangerous. BEST way to make cycling safer is to get more people to ride bikes.

  • Bill E

    It would be interesting to know where the real point of origin is of this proposal. The insurance industry, health care, highway lobby? Trace it back and you will find out the true impetus for the thing. I doubt that it is an actual public health and safety concern. It’s usually a smokescreen for some other agenda.

  • Carl

    The effort to get rid of cyclists entirely is underway. Helmets now, all sorts of equipment requirements to follow. Taxes, fees and tolls to come. Additional traffic restrictions and heavy enforcement will come. It will not be worth it to try and ride anywhere in public.

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