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Maryland’s Proposed Mandatory Helmet Law Is A Bad Idea

January 30th, 2013 | Categories: Programs | 10 comments

Contributed by Nate Evans

In my line of work, few issues enrage me more than mandatory helmet laws for cyclists.    I generally wear a helmet, but in some cases, I don’t.  While helmet use is good practice, it should not be a barrier to cycling.  Below is the email I sent to the Maryland delegates against House Bill 339 “Required Use of Protective Headgear.”

As bicycle & pedestrian planner for Baltimore City and an avid cyclist, I adamantly oppose House Bill 339.  In an era where cities, states and nations are encouraging bicycle use as sustainable transportation to aleve traffic congestion, improve environmental and public health while reducing foreign fuel dependence, mandatory helmet laws are a step backwards. While I support safe cycling practices, I oppose this bill for these reasons:

1. Helmet use has not been proven to consistently improve safety.  The only factor that has proven to increase safety for cyclists is the presence of more cyclists.  More bike riders on Maryland roads and trails ‘normalizes’ cycling as motorists become more aware of the increased number of cyclists.  If the intent of House Bill 339 is to increase safety, the General Assembly would truly reach that goal by increasing bicycle infrastructure funding creating conditions that all able-bodied Marylanders could use.

2. Maryland’s current law for helmet use (mandatory under 16 year old) is adequate, especially for children learning to ride.  I require my children to wear helmets not because its the law, but because they are still growing and any brain trauma suffered now would have great repercussions as they age.  As their cycling abilities improve, I do not expect them to wear a helmet all the time (except when BMXing or mountain biking)

3. HB 339 will be viewed as discriminatory to African American and Hispanic cyclists.  While most non-biking Americans envision cyclists in spandex on fast bikes, the norm is actually just the opposite.  As the bike planner for Baltimore City, I witness more African American or Hispanic cyclists who are slowly riding on sidewalks.  These cyclists are known as “invisible cyclists” because they do not stand out in flashy, bright neon.  They choose to bike because it is the only reliable form of transportation they can afford.  Most invisible cyclists do not wear helmets and for good reason:  they can not afford them or they do not see helmets as a requirement.  While slowly riding on mostly deserted sidewalks, they seldom endanger themselves or others.  Passing this law will subject these cyclists to unnecessary citations.

4. Cyclists have not always had positive interactions with law enforcement agencies.    At the local and state levels, governments have been encouraging officers to become more educated on cyclist issues.  While some progress has been made, there’s still a way to go.  Passing HB 339 will erase the positive movement made in recent years.  It would be shameful to see police departments issue citations for the tens or thousands of participants in the many cycling events held across the State of Maryland each year.

5. In Baltimore City, the Department of Transportation has been tracking bicycle commuter traffic for over 3 years.  Through volunteer assistance, direction of travel, gender and helmet use are also monitored.  On the average, 65% of cyclists wear helmets.  (which is a pretty good stat.) The other 35% would be subject to citations.

Helmet use is a personal choice that should not be imposed as a law.  I have been riding bikes in Maryland since 1977.  I started wearing a helmet in 1989 when I began mountain biking.  I have needed my helmet more for riding underneath low hanging branches than for any other riding situations.   As a regular bike commuter, I generally wear a helmet because riding many Maryland roads with motor traffic is not for the faint of heart.  I do not wear a helmet on short trips or flat trails (like on the NCR/Torrey C Brown Trail) and I have been known not to wear a helmet on the Baltimore Bike Party with 1300 other cyclists.  Passing HB 339 will not encourage me to change my helmet habits, but it will discourage thousands of Marylanders from enjoying the happiness and freedom that cycling offers.

Please withdraw your support for HB 339!

I encourage all to contact your state legislators to also oppose HB 339.  You can find the contact information for your state delegates here.  If you don’t know who your delegate is, click here

  • Tom Moore

    sorry, I support this law. I have been down several times without a helmet and had to be taken to emergency rooms.

    My biggest compliant is a family riding where kids where the helmets & adults don’t. This does not set a good example.

    If I am on my bike, my helmet is on

  • Guest

    That’s good for you Tom. I support folks wearing helmets too. But mandating them will reduce the number of cyclists on our streets, making it more dangerous to ride. I’d rather not go down at all than go down with a helmet. And that doesn’t even factor in the social justice issues surrounding the law.

  • Mike

    Australia and New Zealand are the only two nations with enforced helmet laws. The measures reduced cycling, without any proportional reduction in injuries.

  • John McDonald

    I’ve fallen hard on my head three times–once due to a patch of ice, once due to a sharp piece of metal getting jammed in my tire, and once due to being right hooked by someone parking. In each case, I’m sure my helmet saved me from serious injury. I always, always wear my helmet.

    However, I oppose the mandatory helmet law. I ride 15-20 mph, faster on downhills, so when something bad happens, it happens suddenly and I hit the ground hard. A lot of casual bicyclists and commuters who are trying not to work up a sweat ride maybe 8 mph (like in those videos of Dutch bicycle traffic jams); this gives them more time to see and avoid problems, and if they do fall, it will be more of a slow-motion toppling over that’s unlikely to crack their head open. A helmet is very unlikely to do them any good, and if a helmet law keeps them off their bike, that’s not good for any of us.

  • Adam J

    Quick hi from New Zealand. We’ve had a strictly-enforced helmet law for almost two decades. Every study since has shown that it cut short a previous rise in bicycle use, discouraging especially the safest riders, leaving the fast and sporty bikers who crash more often.

    If you genuinely wish to make riding a bike safer for everyone, write to your elected representative and demand high-quality protected bicycle paths as they build in the Netherlands. The technology already exists, ithas been tried, tested and found to work astonishingly well to make bicycling a round town as safe and easy as… well riding a bike.

  • Brian Jones

    I agree with your argument against mandatory helmet laws for cyclists. But I disagree with your statement that the only factor that has proven to increase safety for cyclists is the presence of more cyclists. Another proven way to increase safety for cyclists it to reduce conflict with cars by providing high quality separated cycle tracks like they have in the Netherlands, Denmark and many other countries.

  • JimT

    This law would severely harm bikeshare. CaBi has already transformed cycling in Washington DC (and could potentially do so in Baltimore). So at least one local government in the DC sees the harm to bikeshare expansion into Maryland, and is likely to publicly oppose the legislation.

    This bill is being pushed by Baltimore delegates, though co-sponsors are from the DC suburbs as well. So it is extremely important that the City of Baltimore not remain on the sidelines.

    The safety benefits of a helmet for adults are real, but they are often overstated. The overall effect is probably about 10-15%, which makes them well worth wearing most of the time. Maybe not on a hot day, however. Probably not for a 3-block ride on a beater bike to the beach or another nearby location. And certainly not when one has to drive to the store to buy a new helmet because her other helmet(s) are at home or the office, and it was going to be a short ride anyway, be that short ride on a bikeshare bike or one’s own.

    People make voluntary decisions which increase their risk of head injury all the time due to other time constraints. A driver takes a detour increasing the total mileage by 20% to avoid a traffic jam. The risk of head injury minute-by-minute is about the same in a car as on a bike. But we let people make these decisions about relatively small risks.

    There is little scientific doubt that getting children to wear helmets in automobiles or while walking on city streets will reduce head injuries by more than adults wearing bike helmets. To get the safety benefits from mandatory bike helmet legislation that proponents seek would require wearing something more protective.

  • JimT

    I think that helmets actually help more with the slow-speed collision because a high-speed collision exceeds their capacity. That is one of the justifications for requiring children to wear helmets (their relative vulnerability and immature judgement being additional reasons).

  • Steven Fleming

    I came across two crash videos that show how context determines whether of not helmets will help you in a crash.

  • Erik Griswold

    You’ll be wearing a helmet in the shower too?



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