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bike helmet law

Last year 857 people were killed riding a bike in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s the most since 1990. The National Transportation Safety Board used that figure as the basis for a new report on bike safety last week—the first time that agency has taken up the matter of cycling safety in 47 years—to suggest three potential avenues to address the rise in cycling deaths caused by a collision with a motor vehicle.

One, better roadway design, a suggestion most cyclists would greet with enthusiasm. The second and third avenues, however, aren’t likely to be well-received by the cycling community as they put the onus on cyclists to protect themselves, not on drivers to avoid cyclists. Those suggestions by the NTSB are greater visibility through lights and bright colors, and the most potentially controversial, a mandatory helmet requirement in all 50 states.

“Because research shows that less than half of bicyclists wear helmets and that head injuries were the leading cause of bicyclist fatalities,” the NTSB said in a press release, [we] recommended that all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico require that all persons wear a helmet while riding a bicycle.”

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The NTSB report, which you can read, here, begins by pointing helpfully to areas in which infrastructure improvements could save lives by noting that most of the time when a cyclist is killed by a car, it’s when the car is accelerating to pass the cyclist, whether between intersections or on the open road. The NTSB suggests that to counter this, cities should add bike lines on more streets, re-lane some streets to allow more room for separation of bikes and cars (road diets), and should make reducing vehicle speed a priority.

Next, the report goes on to discuss visibility. “In about one third of cases in which bicyclists died in crashes involving a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle, the motorist reported not detecting the bicyclist before the crash,” the NTSB states. “Bicyclists wearing bright or reflective clothing, bicycles with lights or reflective materials, enhanced motor vehicle headlights, and in-vehicle crash warning and prevention systems are all countermeasures that could potentially alert motorists to bicycle traffic and help them avoid collisions with bicyclists.”

What the report doesn’t discuss, at all, is that motorists often don’t see bicyclists because so many drivers are distracted. The NHTSA has found that every day, 9 people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in car crashes caused by a driver whose attention was focused on their phone. 10 percent of iPhone users have reported watching Youtube videos while they drive. Nearly half of all drivers admit to tapping into social media feeds while driving. The NTSB’s report never mentions ramping up enforcement of laws against cell phone use by drivers, nor is the word “distracted” mentioned even once.

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But the issue sure to rankle cyclists on both sides of the helmet argument is the suggestion that every single state in the nation enact mandatory helmet use amongst all cyclists, regardless of age.

“A bicycle helmet is an effective way to mitigate head injury when a bicycle crash occurs. However, the underutilization of helmets continues to contribute to the incidence of deaths and serious injuries among crash-involved bicyclists,” the report states. “A comprehensive national strategy to increase helmet use among riders of all ages is needed.”

There are plenty of statistics to back this up and wearing a helmet is clearly a good idea. In a fatal crash with a car where it is known whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet or not, 79 percent of the time the killed cyclist was not wearing a helmet. Research shows that wearing one reduces serious head trauma by 60 percent in the case of a collision. In Australia, mandatory helmet laws have seen a corresponding decrease in bicycle-related fatalities.

But in the Netherlands and Denmark, for example, where helmet use is much less common, so are fatal bicycle collisions. This is the case in other European countries as well. Helmet use in the United States, though not mandatory, far outpaces that in European countries that have far fewer bike deaths per mile ridden than we see in the US.

Those countries also have a higher percentage of their population on bikes than the US, and, it stands to reason, a motorist population more accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists, not to mention a driving public who are likely to be bike riders themselves.

All of which suggests mandatory helmet laws are less the answer to reducing bike fatalities caused by motorists than are cultural and infrastructure changes to the relationship between cyclists and motorists. Which in turn suggests bicyclists should simply come to terms with laws that favor drivers over cyclists and a driving mentality that doesn’t respect the rights of people riding bikes.

“Building better infrastructure is hard,” said Laura Jenkins of the League of American Bicyclists. “But checking a box on a mandatory helmet law is easy for lawmakers.”