Mandating the use of bicycle helmets has become a big topic of discussion in the past few years. It popped up most recently when California state Senator Carol Liu introduced a bill to make the wearing of bicycle helmets mandatory for all riders in the state. (The current law in California requires bicycle helmets only for those under 18 years old.) Failure to wear a helmet could have resulted in a $25 fine. The law was not amended as Liu had proposed. Instead, a study has been commissioned to determine what the effects of such a law might be.
In the state of Colorado, the only helmet law on the books (according to DMV.org) is for motorcycle riders under 18 years old. There are no motorcycle helmet laws for older riders and there are no bicycle helmet laws at all — not even for kids. But the lack of bike helmet laws, and even bike helmet law proposals, has not stopped Coloradoans from debating the issue.
Quick Summary of the Debate
In favor of a helmet law: Helmets reduce injuries and save lives. (A short, yet poignant, argument.)
Against enacting a helmet law: The number of people riding a bicycle has been found to decline when there is a helmet law. Other studies have found that the more bicyclists are using the streets, the safer cyclists are as a whole. So declining numbers of cyclists could mean more dangerous streets. Another line of argument has to do with motorist behavior. Some studies have found that motorists drive closer and are somewhat less safe around bicyclists that are wearing helmets. They’re apparently more cautious when the bicyclist is helmet-less. Anti-helmet advocates also believe that helmets simply don’t do enough to reduce injuries and save lives. So focusing on helmet enforcement means that time and energy is being drawn away from things that clearly make a notable difference for cyclist safety, such as building safer infrastructure and better educating both motorists and cyclists.
It’s important to note that the argument is not, “Should bicyclists wear helmets?” Many people who are against a helmet law still wear helmets. The issue is, should helmet use be legislated?
There’s been a lot written on this topic. I’m including a list of representative articles so that you can bring yourself up to speed if you haven’t been following this topic.
I’d love to hear from you — do you wear a helmet? (And are you more likely to wear a helmet in one situation than another?) How do you feel about having a helmet law? Yay or nay?
Further Reading (and bibliography)
Articles that give both sides of the argument
“Do bike helmet laws really save people?,” by Christie Aschwanden. Washington Post. (3 June 2013)
“California Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Law Would Make Riding Less Safe, Advocates Say,” by Lydia O’Connor. Huffington Post. (23 February 2015)
“The Great Debate Around Cycling Helmet Laws,” by Elly Blue. Momentum Mag. (8 June 2015)
Articles against mandated helmet use
“More on why we shouldn’t have mandatory helmet laws,” by Lloyd Alter. Treehugger.com. (16 May 2014)
“Why It Makes Sense to Bike Without a Helmet,” by Howie Chong. HowieChong.com. (24 February 2014)
“Should bike helmets be compulsory? Lessons from Seattle and Amsterdam,” by Renate van der Zee. The Guardian. (12 October 2015)
Do bike helmets work?
“A Case-Control Study of the Effectiveness of Bicycle Safety Helmets,” by Robert S. Thompson, M.D., Frederick P. Rivara, M.D., M.P.H., and Diane C. Thompson, M.S. The New England Journal of Medicine. (25 May 1989)
“Systematic reviews of bicycle helmet research,” by Rebecca Ivers. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (13 June 2007)
“Feds will stop hyping effectiveness of bike helmets,” by Jim Titus. Greater Greater Washington.org (4 June 2013)
More information on the proposed law in California
“Mandatory Helmet Bill Is Gutted: Now Asks for Study,” by Melanie Curry. Streetsblog. (10 April 2015)
And last, but not least, you can find out all sorts of other information about helmet use over at the pro-helmet site — Helmets.org.