Do Helmet Laws Kill (Bike-Sharing Programs)?
Sightline throws an off-speed pitch at the helmet-law home plate, with a post asking if mandatory helmet laws are why bike-share programs succeed or fail. (Seattle Bike Blog readers, you can relax, you read about this several months ago: “Mandatory bike helmet laws are a big issue facing any bike share system in King County.”)
In “Unchain Bike-Sharing,” Jake Kenyon writes:
If bike-sharing has been successful in so many places, why isn’t the Pacific Northwest already in on this? Why are there only two operational bike-sharing programs in all of Cascadia: a small one in Pullman, Washington, on the campus of Washington State University, and a tiny one in Golden, British Columbia? […] It turns out there’s something the Northwest has that other places do not, and it makes all the difference: mandatory helmet laws.
The evidence for this is slight, in one way: “The only failed program in the world is Melbourne’s. It’s also the only one put in place under a helmet law.” On the other hand, the rarity of it being the only failed program says something as well. (For a rigorously anecdotal and off-topic response to bike-share programs and their existence in general, try the comment thread at Slog.)
I think we can agree with Kenyon that bike-sharing programs to tend to attract the casual bike rider, and that adding helmets to the mix (with attendant issues of sizing, style, and hygiene) takes some of the impulsiveness out of hopping on a bike and taking off. And, all of a sudden, you have Massive Head Wound Harry lurking in the back of your mind.
But the reason this post is controversial and much-commented is not really because of bike-sharing, which actual cyclists have little reason to care about — it’s because King County’s mandatory helmet law (base fine $30, court costs $51) is yet another instance where Seattle bicyclists get to sort themselves into law-abiding and law-breaking camps. (If want to bicycle bare-headed until you get caught the first time, all you have to do to evade the fine is show proof of purchase of a helmet.)
There are seemingly contradictory arguments for helmet wearing and non-wearing, but essentially they boil down to these positions: the libertarian (“It’s my choice”), the idealist (helmets don’t “work”/Scandinavian countries don’t use them), and the public safety advocate (data shows bicyclists without helmets die, the numbers are overwhelming).
Per that last point, you can dispense with a lot of the technical jibber-jabber about how helmets are supposed to work or not, or at what speeds — they do. Harborview has a round-up of study after study showing that they do:
It should be made clear that arguments against using bicycle helmets are not evidence-based; bicycle helmets are the most effective means of preventing head and brain injury and should be a requirement for cyclists of all ages.
Yet it is also true that most serious biking accidents are car-related, and that the normal state of bicycling is not catapulting off your bike into a car. You can argue that, priority-wise, you can make bicycling safer than with helmets by simply removing cars from the equation.
That has been the direction of Scandinavian countries, and their widely used bike infrastructure. I classified this under the “idealist” position, above, when it comes to helmet use, because you derive none of the safety benefits of Dutch cycling while biking in the U.S. (Yes, even if on a Dutch Bike Co. bike.)
Kenyon concludes his Sightline post by saying the Northwest “just needs to tweak its helmet laws.” His suggestions are to make not wearing a helmet a secondary offense (i.e., not something you can be pulled over for alone, but something that can be tacked on if you blow through a red light), and to exempt bike-sharing from the helmet law.
The first tweak soothes the libertarians out there, while the second plays to the idealists (“When everyone rides, it’s safer”). It’s hard to justify the first to motorcyclists, who would no doubt like the same application of the law. As for the second, you’re creating a special class of cyclist. I wonder if the better tweak would be to require mandatory helmet usage if cars are “sharing” the road: That would create an incentive for bike boulevards and other solutions where bikes are physically separated from cars.