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!