Don’t get me wrong. I like David Whiting.
The longtime columnist for the Orange County Register is one of us.
His heart is in the right place, showing time and again he cares deeply about the safety of people on bicycles.
But sometimes, not often, he’s just wrong.
And this is one of those times.
I wish he’d reached out to me before writing his latest column, calling for a mandatory bike helmet law for adults, as well as children.
We could have discussed why that’s a bad idea.
As well as clarifying that while this site is about advocacy, I’ve been the only one behind it since the Corgi died.
We might have started out with this observation.
Two girls, one about eight, the other about six, rip along in the middle of streets on motorized scooters that — and I am not making this up — zoom along at a solid 10 miles an hour.
Now, 10 mph may not seem like a lot if you’re tucked safely in a car. But hitting the asphalt at 10 miles an hour can destroy flesh, bone and skull, especially if a child is struck by a vehicle.
Yet that’s not what terrifies me.
What terrifies me is that these kids don’t wear helmets, an occurrence I see more and more.
I would have pointed out that, yes, anyone under 18 is required to wear a helmet on a scooter, just like on a bicycle.
There’s good reasoning for that. Children’s skulls and brains are still developing, and they lack the judgement to make an informed decision on whether or not to use a helmet.
But you’re also required to be at least 16 year old and have a driver’s license to rent a scooter, let alone ride it. So someone needs to have a good talk with their parents.
Then the conversation might have moseyed along to this study.
Rosenthal and Kreeger is a California law firm that specializes in injuries, but also does actual research that tilts toward actually saving lives.
“Since helmet laws have been instituted in the majority of states, at least for children the death rate for that age group has decreased,” the firm points out. “But research shows that over half of adult bicyclists still do not use a helmet at all.
However, there have been studies that suggest the reason bicycling death rates have declined for children is simply that fewer children are riding bikes these days, as parents ferry them to and from school and soccer practice. And everywhere else.
Some people blame helmet laws for that decrease, saying it makes bicycling seem dangerous.
I’m not sure I buy that argument; I think the reason is the just the dangers on our streets, real and imagined.
But that would have led to discussion of the mandatory, and much hated, bike helmet laws in Australia and New Zealand.
While those laws are similarly credited with a decrease in fatalities, they’re also blamed for a corresponding decrease in bicycling rates.
Which some argue makes the streets even more dangerous by reducing the safety in numbers effect.
And bike helmet laws lead to punitive enforcement, which convinces even more people that riding a bike is just not worth it.
And don’t get me started on how Seattle’s bike helmet law is blamed for killing that city’s first bikeshare program. Something they wisely addressed before taking another stab at it by allowing dockless bikeshare, which has been more successful.
But that’s another problem with bike helmet laws.
Using bikeshare is often a spur of the moment thing, and no one wants to cart around an awkward helmet all day on the off chance they might rent a bike or scooter.
That would lead us to this discussion.
Between 2010 and 2017 (the latest year available), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports cycling fatalities increased by a whopping 35%.
In 2017, nearly 800 people were killed riding bicycles. Not surprisingly, there has been a corresponding increase in bicycle injuries — many of which are never reported.
I’ll add that California has one of the highest death rates in the nation, and Los Angeles and San Francisco made the top 10 list for the most deadly cities.
Yet there is no helmet law for adult cyclists.
Yes, the increase in bicycling fatalities is frightening, and has to be addressed.
But banning SUVs, with their deadly flat grills, and preventing cellphones from working in moving vehicles for anything other than directions and calling 911, would probably be more effective at reducing deaths than putting a bike helmet on every head on two wheels.
The problem with citing figures like that is that we have no way of knowing how many of the people who died were wearing helmets, or how many suffered head injuries.
We can project that from various studies, but at best we can only achieve a very rough estimation.
We also have no way of knowing if those people died as a result of head injuries, or if those injuries would have been survivable if they’d been wearing a bike helmet. Or if they suffered other injuries that would have cost them their lives anyway.
And that’s the last point I would have made.
Because bike helmets aren’t designed to protect against crashes with a car going 70 mph. Or 30, for that matter. And they don’t protect against injuries to any other part of the body.
Even the most expensive helmets are only required to withstand relatively minor impacts.
In other words, a fall off your bike, not a collision with a bus.
They also do nothing to protect against a traumatic brain injury, as I learned the hard way, unless you spring for the more expensive MIPS or WaveCel models.
And the jury is still out on those.
So yes, a bike helmet may help reduce the force of impact in a collision, as well as the severity of any head injury.
Or they may not, depending on the speed of the vehicle and angle of impact.
That’s if the straps don’t break and the helmet stays on. And if it’s still effective, and not degraded due to age or previous impacts.
A bike helmet is a single use device. Hit the pavement or bounce off a bumper just once, and it needs to be replaced.
That’s when I’d tell Whiting that I never ride without mine.
But I also recognize its limitations, and don’t count on a bike helmet to save my life. A helmet should always be seen as the last line of defense, after everything else — from street design to defensive riding skills — have failed.
There are also arguments that they actually increase the danger to riders, whether as the result of closer passes from drivers and riskier behavior by riders, or the dangers of rotational injuries.
Regardless of my own choices, however, I respect people who have made the decision not to wear a helmet, and I respect their right to choose.
Which is what adult bike helmet use should be.
A choice. Not a law.
So I would have ended by saying I respect you, David. I think you’ve done a lot of good for the bicycling community.
But next time, call me first.
Thanks to John McBrearty for the heads-up.
Sadly, Victor Bale forwards confirmation that a bike rider was killed in a Palm Springs hit-and-run Monday night. I’ll post a story later today.
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