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December 5, 2019

Bike helmets can save lives. So why do many biking advocates oppose helmet laws?

Daily Briefing

    The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for the first time is recommending local officials require people to wear helmets when they bike—but while biking advocates support wearing helmets, they're balking at the recommendation, Jacey Fortin reports for the New York Times.

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    NTSB wants states to require helmets

    In its recommendation, NTSB said research shows fewer than half of all bicyclists wear helmets, and the leading cause of bicycling fatalities is head injuries.

    Researchers have also found that helmets reduce the risk of serious head injury by 60% and that, in incidents in which it's known whether a bicyclist was wearing a helmet, 79% of those who died between 2010 and 2017 were not wearing one, Fortin reports.

    In a separate report, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that 857 cyclists were killed in crashes last year, the highest number since 1990. Robert Sumwalt, chair of the NTSB, said, "If we do not act to mitigate head injury for more bicyclists, additional bicyclists will die."

    Along with calling for helmet laws, NTSB also said it supports measures to protect bicyclists, such as clearer road markings and separate bike lanes.

    "The investigators' primary focus was on crash avoidance," NTSB said. "But in those instances when crashes do occur, they said the use of a helmet was the single most effective way for riders to reduce their chances of receiving a serious head injury."

    Bicyclists push back

    But despite bicycling advocates' support for helmets, they pushed back against the recommendation that states require riders to wear them.

    Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, said, "We certainly promote helmets. Helmets do make individual bicyclists safer. We just think a mandatory helmet law is the wrong policy for federal or state governments to pursue."

    McLeod explained that helmet laws lead to a drop in the number of bicyclists, which could reduce support for infrastructure that benefits bicyclists, such as protected bike lanes.

    McLeod also said that the laws could be enacted in bad faith or unevenly or unfairly enforced by local law enforcement.

    Ian Walker, a professor of statistics and traffic psychology at the University of Bath in England, decided to conduct a personal study to see how motor vehicle drivers' behavior changed when he did and did not wear a helmet. He found that drivers gave him less space on the road when he was wearing a helmet, increasing his risk of an accident.

    Walker said that one important question that needs to be asked is how far societies will go to protect people from themselves. "It's really sensible to eat a healthy diet, and it's really sensible to brush your teeth," Walker said. "Are we going to pass a law making it mandatory?"

    Meanwhile, Jennifer Homendy, an NTSB board member, said the agency has heard similar arguments on issues such as seatbelts, airbags, and motorcycle helmets for years.

    "We have to look at solutions to ensure that we're preventing crashes, preventing injuries, and eliminating fatalities," she said. "That's our focus" (Fortin, New York Times, 11/9).

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