From a young age, most of us are taught to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle. Wearing a helmet is a direct safety measure that can prevent concussions and other serious head injuries from occurring in the event of a crash. While wearing a bike helmet should be encouraged, recent findings have shown that having legislation requiring helmets to be mandatory rather than voluntary has proven to have negative effects, particularly within certain populations.
Background of Bicycle Helmet Use
In 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that all 50 states in the US adopt laws mandating adult bicycle helmet use. Certain organizations including Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets have opposed this recommendation, stating that a mandatory helmet law could actually make the streets less safe for bicyclists. While it is important that cyclists take safety precautions and wear helmets, when we look at the bigger picture, mandatory helmet usage laws can produce negative outcomes for bicyclists.
The Safety in Numbers Effect
When cities have mandatory helmet laws for cyclists, the effect has typically been a reduced number of cyclists on the street. One example of this was in the Australian cities of Melbourne and Brisbane. When they required helmet use by law, the number of people riding bikes dropped significantly. When the number of cyclists decreases, this also reduces the “Safety in Numbers” effect, or that a higher number of bicyclists creates safer conditions on the streets. When there are fewer bike riders, accidents may be more likely to happen.
Financial Struggles for Bike Sharing Systems
A mandatory helmet law also has been found to negatively affect publicly-funded bike sharing systems that have become popular in many US cities. After helmet requirements were implemented in Seattle, Washington, their publicly-funded bike share system, Pronto, folded under financial pressure. Bike sharing systems are important for reducing air pollution, and also provide a more affordable means of transportation to people in cities, as an alternative to ridesharing with companies like Uber or Lyft. By mandating helmet laws, there are less people using these bike sharing systems, and in turn, less funding for them.
“While mandating helmet laws may seem like a good idea at first, we have seen that the impact of these mandates unfortunately does not lead to safer streets for cyclists.” said Attorney Jim Hurley of Cooper Hurley Injury Lawyers. “It is always good to wear a helmet when riding a bike, but this example of mandating helmet usage is a prime example of how laws can sometimes not line up with the realities of the world, thus resulting in more harm than good.”
Higher Risk for Vulnerable Populations
In addition to a decrease in accessibility to transportation for lower income citizens, these helmet laws and other “quality of life” laws are disproportionately enforced upon communities of color and lower income. Mandatory helmet laws were either changed or repealed in Austin and Dallas, Texas, after it was found that there were alarming racial disparities in who was being ticketed for not wearing a helmet while riding their bike. There are many more instances of the same occurrences in cities that had enforced helmet-wearing like in Tampa, Florida, and New York City. In general, having these mandates increases exposure to unnecessary interactions with police and law enforcement among vulnerable populations.
How to Move Forward
Unfortunately, it has been proven that mandatory helmet laws do not lead to their main goal of making streets and communities safer. There have been a growing number of cases in which the opposite is true for various reasons in different cities across the US. A better alternative moving forward would be to encourage voluntary helmet use, rather than mandatory, and to focus more on structural reforms like redesigning and expanding streets, which has been proven to create safer public spaces for bicyclists and others on the road.