I’ve been a cyclist for almost 30 years. For 18 of those years I’ve lived and ridden in the greater LA metropolis. In all that time only one change has made me feel safer as a cyclist—the passage of AB 1371, the three-foot buffer law. Since it went into effect last September I can say that I’ve experienced a significantly reduced number of cars passing within two feet of me. I’m willing to credit the law with fewer white-knuckled experiences. I believe this is one occasion where legislation has made the world a safer, better place.
But what of SB 192, the law that would mandate that anyone astride a bicycle be required to wear a helmet? In editor Michael Hotten’s recent piece he considered the possibility that maybe we just don’t fight it, that we pick another battle. The outrage this sparked was hot enough to melt plastic; the accusations included nothing short of us trying to ruin cycling itself. It did accomplish what it set out to do—spark discussion—even if some of it was unmoored from civility.
Honestly, in my life, if that law passed, it wouldn’t mean a thing. I wear a helmet when I ride, whether I’m pedaling up the coast, to the store, or to the park with my son, who also wears his helmet every time he rides. I don’t think I need to wear a helmet when I ride to the store or the post office, but because I’m working to set an example for my impressionable five-year-old boy, I want him to see me behaving consistently.
There are a great many of us who are reasonable people who don’t need the government to tell us a helmet is the best primary defense against head injury should you fall. The majority of readers we’ve heard from see this as classic Nanny State intervention, and herein lies part of our defense against the law. How far is the government willing to go?
The Centers for Disease Control reports that from 2002 to 2006 some 1524 bicyclists were admitted to emergency rooms with traumatic brain injuries. It’s also true that 38,048 motor vehicle occupants were admitted to hospitals with TBIs. Clearly, we’re not going to require everyone in a car to wear a helmet but if you want to save lives, boom.
The law seems to have a laudable goal—reduce the number of cyclist deaths, something in which California leads the nation. Indeed, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, in 2012 two-thirds of all fatally injured cyclists (722 of us) were not wearing helmets.
A quick search of stories on Google about cycling deaths in the last year turns up dozens of articles of cyclists being run over by all sorts of vehicles—from cars to buses—and by people from all walks of life—everyone from drug addicts to the clergy.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 741 cyclists died in 2013. Again, of those, 464—almost two-thirds—weren’t wearing helmets. What’s telling here is that there were another 123 riders wearing helmets who died. Here’s what we need to convey to the world: That’s less a statement of the ineffectiveness of helmets than the lethality of a car.
A study conducted in New York City showed that 92 percent of all fatal cycling accidents involved motor vehicles. So while the CDC also reports that helmets are 85 to 88 percent effective in mitigating head and brain injuries in cyclists, the New York study bears out the truth that foam is no match for an SUV going 35 mph.
According to a report by the League of American Bicyclists 40 percent of all cycling fatalities were caused when riders were struck from behind. It’s the single greatest cause of cyclist deaths and contains within it several important truths. The fact is, if a cyclist has been struck from behind, whether they are killed or not, it means they were riding on the correct side of the road, weren’t running a light and weren’t failing to yield.
That’s how helmet-wearing, law-abiding Milt Olin died in 2013 when an inattentive Sheriff’s Deputy plowed into him.
I have a wife and two kids and a duty to be there for them. For me, that means doing more than just obeying the law; it means riding predictably, on the right side of the road and, yes, wearing a helmet. Based on my experience, a helmet is really useful if I make an error and crash, but I have little faith it will make a difference if I’m hit by two tons of steel moving 50 mph.
If the goal is really to save lives, mandating helmet use isn’t going to help. What will make a difference is educating all road users—riders, drivers and the authorities—about the responsibilities everyone has when on the road. It’s true that some of us could use a reminder that riding with traffic, rather than against it, waiting for the light to change, and not riding drunk will help our survival. However, in terms of government action the real effort should be to make the operators of motor vehicles more aware that riders are out there in increasing numbers, and we’re vulnerable.