The proposed mandatory helmet law in California has been turned into a study. State Senator Carol Liu has changed the language of her bill so it now asks the Office of Traffic Safety and the California Highway Patrol to conduct a comprehensive bike helmet study that includes an estimate on how many cyclists do not wear helmets and the fatalities or serious injuries that could have been avoided if helmets had been worn. The study is due back to the Senate and Assembly Transportation Committees no later than the end of next year. The study-bill still needs to be approved by the state legislature and signed by the Governor. But the requirement for all riders (not just those under 18) to wear a helmet while on a bicycle in California is dead, for now.

A study and a deadline more than a year out sounds like a convenient way to make the mandatory helmet debate go away. SB 192 would simply be swept under the rug in the rotunda  of the state capitol. But as we learned in Padraig’s piece on the topic, the stats on helmet laws and bicycle safety leave us with more questions than answers and it appears California could use a good dose of bike protection data.

My concern that a standoff between bike advocates and lawmakers never came to fruition. In fact, advocacy took a measured approach that seem to convince Senator Liu to back away from a mandate and take a longer, broader look at the issue of bicycle safety. Here is what the California Association of Bicycling Organizations sent the Senator:

I regret that I must write on behalf of the California Association of Bicycling Organizations in opposition to your bill, SB 192, that “Anyone riding without a helmet could be cited for an infraction and fined up to $25, the same as current law for youth cyclists.”

Bicycle helmets certainly may contribute to safety in a crash or fall, but represent only the final area of protection when all other safety measures fail. We refer to the four levels of safety, focusing on the area’s most likely to prevent injury:
a. Prevention through following the rules of the road, as defined in the California Vehicle Code and other safety literature. This establishes predictability of actions by motorists and bicyclists.
b. Deterrence through bicycling best practices for attention, communication, anticipation, road positioning, visibility (e.g., lights and reflectors), and maintenance (primarily effective braking).
c. Escape through development of skills in bicycling defensively – emergency stops, counter-steering (taught in motorcycle training and required for license).
d. Survival – Use of safety equipment such as helmets, gloves, etc.

We do applaud and appreciate your concern and do support effective efforts to reduce bicycling collision injuries and fatalities that also promote Active Transportation – healthier, enjoyable, cleaner, and more sustainable travel choices for Californians.

CABO took the high road, something I feared would not take place considering the previous conversations I had with other bike advocate groups. I spoke to The California Bicycle Coalition more than once about bike helmets and helmet laws. Their position was and is (they wrote a letter of opposition too) mandatory helmet laws discourage people from bicycling and in so doing make the streets less safe for those who ride bicycles. I was concerned by making an argument against a helmet law using that point would result in a backlash against the cycling movement. That motorists and other non-cyclists would not sympathize with the argument made by CBC and other bike advocate groups who take the same position. And yes, I suggested we not fight the bill and instead focus on the huge wish list we have as riders. I am glad CABO stepped in with its counter to the helmet mandate. Their approach was to offer other ideas that cyclists could engage in to further our safety, including head protection.

There was a bright spot in the California Bicycle Coalition’s opposition letter and that was this suggestion regarding lawsuits filed by injured cyclists:

We would like you to take the opportunity in SB 192 to fix a grave oversight in the existing helmet law. Currently in California, if a bike riding victim of a crash was not wearing a helmet, that fact may be introduced as evidence in a civil suit to reduce the damages that a jury awards – even when the motorist is entirely at fault for the collision. To lay responsibility on the victim who is doing everything exactly correctly and in accordance with the law is a travesty of justice whether the victim is riding a bike, walking across the street, or in a car. California is one of four states with a child helmet mandate that does not protect victims of crashes from this injustice. Please introduce a law to protect the law-abiding victims of traffic crashes and their families by prohibiting in civil suits the finding of contributory negligence for failure to wear a helmet.

The natural reaction-and it’s understandable-when a bill like S.B. 192 is proposed is to fight back and divert attention. But CABO kept the attention on us and the things we would be willing to do to improve our safety on the road. They also took the opportunity to suggest safety ideas senator Liu could incorporate in future legislation:

  1. Provide Active Transportation instruction and experience curriculum choices – bicycling and walking – as part of K-12 physical education programs.
  2. Provide for the development of a California Highway Patrol approved Bicycling Handbook distributed by and through the same outlets as the DMV Driver, Motorcycle, Senior and other DMV handbook traffic guides.
  3. Remove impediments to bicycling related traffic citation diversion programs.
  4. Support the California Strategic Highway Safety Plan programs to reduce roadway fatalities; education, enforcement, engineering Complete Streets, emergency response, equity in travel mode choice, and encouraging appropriate behavior in traffic.
  5. Modify the Calif. Vehicle Code to define and explain the meaning of the new white pavement markings – Shared Lane Markings, commonly called Sharrows, the new white painted buffers spaces next to Bike Lanes, and the bright green paint meant to highlight Bike Lanes, and the intent of the new and approved regulatory signs that show a bike and the words “May Use Full Lane.”

I remain concerned about our reputation with the public. But I am glad the mandatory helmet bill was not allowed to go forward as is. Could it come back? Sure. In California, we have seen legislators who are committed to a cause go to the legislative well several times despite public opposition and vetoes by the governor. Gil Cedillo tried nine times, both as a state senator and a member of the assembly, to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver licenses. He termed out but a bill was eventually passed and signed. If S.B. 192 returns with helmet mandate language, we should not be surprised. The last bike census in Los Angeles County found that only 46 percent of cyclists counted were wearing helmets. The percentage is lower in other parts of the country. Helmet laws are a bad idea but helmets are a good thing and supporting their use is the right thing to do.

Keep riding and stay safe.

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  1. John Kopp

    I really believe that every cyclist should wear a helmet. But anyone cited for not wearing one should not be fined, and instead be required to attend a bicycle safety course. That would hopefully change the bad practices of many cyclists that I observe.

  2. T. Guy

    In states that do not require helmets for motorcyclists, such as New Mexico where I live, does the lack of a motorcyclist’s helmet absolve an at fault motorist from some responsibility in the eyes of the jury or judge? If I am injured while wearing a helmet while cycling should I ask for additional damages from the offending motorist? Now that would be a real incentive to always wear a helmet! If a pedestrian not wearing a helmet is struck while crossing the street, is the motorist somehow not at fault for any injuries sustained? Maybe we should provide special helmets for peds at every intersection! Or maybe we should just stop blaming the victim.
    Don’t get me wrong, I always ride the road with a helmet on my head, But if I don’t the many risks I would be taking should not include criminal penalties for me and absolution of responsibility for poor driving on the part of any driver who might hit me.
    Legislators seem to have a skewed sense of the power of laws to influence human behavior. Fact is people will follow the course of least resistance, any laws notwithstanding and continue to do as they please as long as they think they won’t get caught. New laws just give lawmakers the appearance of doing something and law enforcers something to do. And of course generate some much needed revenue for the state.
    If legislators wanted to make a real difference they would they would mandate decent road shoulders and a safe path for pedestrians to walk. Bicycle and pedestrian safety is a design problem with a design solution, not a legal problem with a penal solution.

  3. Michael Hotten

    The California Bicycle Coalition agrees with you to a certain point. They are opposed to helmet laws but they do believe cyclists cited for any violation be given the opportunity to avoid a fine by taking a cycling safety course.

    See the paragraph above from The California Association of Bicycle Organizations. They agree with you on regarding liability and damages in lawsuits where the cyclist is not wearing protection.

  4. mike

    If head injuries are the foundation for helmet laws, why do so many other activities identified as having high risk of head injury not have advocacy groups suggesting they wear helmets? Most debilitating head injuries are a result of motor vehicle collisions but only racing demands a car passenger wear a helmet. Showers are very slippery and responsible for many head injuries in the home. no helmet law here.
    Is this a silly illustration? No because the perception is these activities are normal and not innately dangerous yet MVA are the greatest killers of young people. Moms hardly worry when their 18 year old takes out daddy”s Vette but fret if their child rides a bike to school. Clearly in places that have great cycling infrastructure the story is very different. Holland has very high usage and very low incidence of head injuries as compared to N america. this relationship is complex but it suggests the more cyclist and the better the infrastructure the lower the general danger and perception of danger too.
    Just making a helmet law and still leaving cyclists to navigate roads built with little consideration to anyone but the car users does little to improve the basic safety. Your helmet is only a last measure and if you need it you are otherwise injured. That little inch of foam is pretty limited in real protection too. A lot less than we seem to believe too. Even Snell a leader in helmet technology suggested that a truly effective bike helmet would be unwearable and that any helmet is a compromise just for cooling and mass reasons.

  5. Ajax

    I don’t want to wear a helmet and I think people that want to make other expel wear a helmet are wrong. Those preachy fools need to take a class in respecting other people that don’t want to wear a helmet.

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