The proposed California-wide bicycle helmet law has stirred up a passionate debate on blogs and bike club lists as well as in the media. Unfortunately, many discussions have degraded quickly into name-calling and personal insults–like the oh-so-droll “hard-headed bicyclists” headline several media outlets thought was so clever. Many people also expressed off-the-point misunderstandings of objections to the proposal, and questionable statistics have been endlessly repeated.
But there’s no need to settle the question of whether, in total, a helmet law will make bicycling safer. What’s at issue is whether it’s a wise idea for the state to pass a law that would require every bicycle rider to wear a helmet.
I propose a thought experiment: let’s explore some potential outcomes of a helmet law. The points below are not meant to be arguments for or against S.B. 192. Instead, they are an attempt to think through as many different possible repercussions of a mandatory helmet law in California as possible. If something is missing, add it in the comments.
If California were to pass S.B. 192:
- More bicycle riders would wear helmets. Bike riders who currently don’t wear a helmet would have to either obtain a helmet, break the law, or stop riding. Some of them would choose to obtain a helmet.
- Fewer people would ride bicycles. In Australia, which has a law requiring bike helmets for adults, one survey found that the increase in the number of cyclists wearing helmets after the law was passed was less than the decrease in the overall number of cyclists. In the US, where 22 states have laws requiring youth to wear helmets when they ride, researchers have found a significant reduction in the number of kids riding bikes.
- A state helmet law would “prove” that bicycling is a dangerous activity that requires special protection. Fewer potential new bicyclists would be willing to take the “risk” of riding.
- Fewer bicycle riders would lead to decreased safety for remaining riders, as drivers become less accustomed to having to watch out for bicycles.
- Fewer people would enjoy the health benefits of bicycling, like weight loss, improved circulation, stronger muscles, and reduced stress.
- The overall safety of bicycle riders may or may not improve. Some serious head injuries would be prevented, and other serious injuries would not. Some car drivers would drive less cautiously near bicycle riders. And as stated above, fewer bike riders could lead to less safe conditions. Overall risk might decrease, but it may very well increase.
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