Although we support and promote bicycle helmet use, we oppose the proposed mandate. Here’s why.
A proposed California law would make riding a bicycle while not wearing a helmet illegal for people of all ages.
***Update: As of 4/10/2015 this bill has been amended to remove the adult bicycle helmet and reflective vest mandate. This legislation now only includes language to suggest a study be performed on the effects of helmet use in California to better inform possible future legislation.***
What does this new law propose?
Currently, California law requires people under the age of 18, as well as riders of e-bikes, to wear a helmet when on a bicycle as an operator or passenger.
This year California State Senator Carol Liu has introduced a bill (SB 192) that if passed will require everybody in the state to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle.
This new law would also:
- Require people biking in darkness to wear a reflective vest, jacket, or shirt
- Institute a base fine of $25 (around $200 after court fees added) for tickets written to those without helmets or reflective vests
What is Bike East Bay’s position on this proposed legislation?
We strongly support and promote helmet use, and teach 5,000 people each year at our education programs about the safety benefits of helmets. We believe that helmets are effective in reducing head injuries when bicycling.
However, we are opposed to a legal mandate requiring adults to wear helments. Data collected from our members shows high support for personal helmet use, but overwhelming opposition to a legal mandate.
Many of our friends and members have either survived a bicycle crash themselves or had a loved one injured or killed while biking. These powerful personal stories of lives saved by helmets are a big part of why we promote helmet use in our programs and materials.
At the same time, we are sensitive to some unintended adverse consequences that would come from a law requiring helmets. Some of these would have a disproportionate effect on those who most need the bicycle to get to jobs, low-income individuals and people of color.
Why is Bike East Bay opposing this legislation?
Counterintuitively, we predict this legislation will make bicycling less safe. While well intentioned, the proposal fails to take into account the effects an adult helmet requirement will have on low income riders, people of color, our Bay Area bike share system, and ridership overall.
- Lower income individuals rely more on bicycles for transportation than other Californians, and they are also the ones who will least be able to afford the $200 ticket cost for riding without a helmet or reflective vest as required by the proposed law. A $25 helmet many not seem like a significant investment to some, but this added cost for each family member as well as the capacity to store and care for the helmets properly, including replacing them every 2-5 years as suggested by the helmet manufacturers, is a significant deterrent for many people. Instead, we should be concentrating on helmet giveaways in low income communities and other ways to make it easier for more people to get on bikes.
- People of color and undocumented immigrants: The sad reality is that people of color are disproportionately targeted for police enforcement. We wish it were different, but if this law is passed we predict that the vast majority of people ticketed for riding without a helmet will be people of color. In addition, those without proof of citizenship will be unlikely to risk getting on a bike at all without a helmet for fear of deportation. And again these are the very same people who often have no option but a bike to get to their jobs.
- Bike Share Systems: We are working on bringing Bay Area Bike Share to the East Bay in 2016 (more info here), but a helmet requirement will make it much more difficult and complicated for individuals to trade their short car trips for a quick and healthy bike share ride. Most existing bike share systems in the US do not make helmets required or available. With US bike share passing 23 million rides so far, there has yet to be a single bike share rider killed (more info here).
- Bicycle Rider Numbers: The data from places that already have adult helmet requirements shows consistently a reduction in the rate of bicycling after the laws were implemented (more info here). We know from other studies that the more bicyclists there are in an area the safer they become due to the “Safety in Numbers” principle (more info here). This means that with a helmet requirement even helmeted bicyclists experience a higher risk of collisions with motor vehicles simply due to being less expected on the roadway.
Our suggestions for alternative legislation.
We suggest that Senator Carol Liu update SB 192 by removing the adult bicycle helmet mandate text and replacing it with either:
- Legislation which makes used bicycle helmet sales illegal at shops and thrift stores in California. A damaged bicycle helmet, even one with hairline cracks in the protective foam, can be ineffective in a crash. Used and possibly damaged helmets are resold at thrift stores in California every day, creating a significant safety risk for both adults and youth.
- Legislation which creates a bicycle helmet, lights, or reflective vest giveaway fund for adults and youth. Via our free Bike East Bay education program we already provide thousands of reflective vests or lights to adult participants and helmets or vests to youth attendees every year. However, many parts of the state do not have access to free bike ed programs like ours. Creating a dedicated fund for these kinds of giveaways will make it easier for people of any income level all around the state to bike safely and confidently.