Last week a state senator in California introduced a bill that would require all adults to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle. While some jurisdictions in the United States require minors to wear bicycle helmets, if the proposed bill were to become law, California would be the first state in the country to mandate helmet use for adults.
Mandatory bicycle helmet laws are a terrible idea. Just in case an Illinois legislator gets an idea about introducing a similar bill here, let's revisit why. Cycling as a form of recreation and transportation offers a myriad of benefits to the individual and the community as a whole. An adult or child riding a bike to work or school takes one motor vehicle off the road thereby reducing traffic congestion and pollution. It also reduces the strain on mass transit. Buses and trains are less crowded and more pleasant to ride. Also, motor vehicles place a physical strain on infrastructure that a much lighter bicycle does not. Bicycle trips save the community money but taking heavy cars and trucks off the road. In this age of rampant obesity, cycling helps promote good health. This too saves the community money by reducing expenditure for health benefits such as Medicaid, particularly with regard to treatment for ailments closely associated with obesity like diabetes and heart disease.
These benefits are placed at substantial risk by helmet laws, because such mandates discourage higher rates of biking. This very concern recently prompted the City of Dallas, Texas to repeal its adult bicycle helmet ordinance. That city wanted to see more cyclists on its roads through a bike share system. However, civic leaders recognized that such a program would likely be doomed to failure if casual bikers were required to fetch a helmet in order to rent a bike. Australia is one country that requires all adults to wear helmets when cycling. The impact has been unfortunate. According to the Institute for Public Affairs, an Australian think tank, "When the laws were introduced in the early 1990s, cycling trips declined by 30-40 per cent overall, and up to 80 per cent in some demographic groups, such as secondary school-aged females."
If the goal is to reduce the likelihood of serious injury for the individual bicyclist, then helmet mandates are the wrong way to go. Yes, wearing a helmet while biking is safer than not doing so. But the factor most likely to reduce the likelihood of bicycle versus motor vehicle collision is to increase the number of riders on the road. More people on bikes means motorists are more likely to anticipate a bicyclist when turning or opening a car door. More bicyclists also encourages municipalities to invest in bicycle specific infrastructure like protected bike lanes, and to keep them in good repair. Understandably, city officials are less likely to push for such measures if they do not think people will use them in substantial numbers.
Laws that require helmet use can also have a devastating impact on a cyclist's ability to receive just compensation should they be injured due to someone else's negligence. The way some laws are written, failure to obey a helmet requirement could be used against a bicyclist in personal injury litigation as evidence of their own negligence, even if failure to wear a helmet had nothing to do with how or why the crash happened. (But see Deerfield, Illinois municipal code Sec. 22-121A(c) which states, "A violation of this Section shall not constitute negligence, contributory negligence, assumption of risk, be considered in mitigation of damages of whatever nature, be admissible in evidence, or be the subject of comment by counsel in any action for the recovery of damages arising out of the operation of any bicycle.")
We are not anti-bicycle helmet. Daily we see the clients with injuries that are worse than they might have been for failure to wear one. But legislation requiring helmets are a bad idea.