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