Maryland Mandatory Bike-Helmet Law Would Make Streets Less Safe

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Paul is communications director for Mobility Lab. He specializes in storytelling and editing, as well as environmental and pop-culture issues related to transportation.
February 14, 2013

Bike helmets are fun, safe, and smart, but they don’t encourage more ridership.

[Editor's note: This article is republished at care2, where there is a slew of interesting conversation happening in the comments section about the mandatory bike helmet issue. Please check it out and weigh in with your voice.]

The research tells us that mandatory bicycle-helmet laws are, perhaps counter-intuitively, a very bad idea when the hope is to increase bicycle ridership – and, along with it, multi-model transportation and commuting options – in the United States.

Since their inception, mandatory helmet laws have sunk bike ridership rates in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. So with such a proposal becoming a serious possibility in Maryland, this year’s expansion of Capital Bikeshare into the state could suffer greatly or even fail.

The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation found that after such laws were introduced:

In Australia:

  • Australian Capital Territory – Cycle use fell 33 percent on weekdays, 50 percent on weekends.
  • New South Wales – Child cyclists 21 percent more likely to suffer death or serious injury. Cycle use fell 36 percent to 44 percent (but 90 percent among girl teenagers in Sydney).
  • Northern Territory – Cycle use fell 22 percent to 50 percent.
  • Queensland – Cycle use fell 22 percent to 30 percent.
  • South Australia – Cycle use fell approximately 38 percent.
  • Victoria – Cycle use fell 36 percent to 46 percent.
  • Western Australia – Cycle use fell 30 percent to 50 percent.

In Canada:

  • Nova Scotia – Cycle use fell 40 percent to 60 percent; greatest fall was among teenagers.

In New Zealand:

  • Cycle use fell approximately 22 percent.

In all cases, bike ridership decreased and safety did not decrease. So in other words, since I regularly ride my bike from my home in Maryland to my office in Virginia, I would in fact be putting myself most at risk on the portions of my ride in Maryland. That doesn’t seem like a very positive message for the state to set forth.

The counter argument is mostly anecdotal: “I see all these cyclists riding without helmets on. It’s so dangerous! I must protect their heads.”

I am sure the people and legislators who put those anecdotes forward mean well. And I certainly encourage people to wear helmets. But sometimes – like with a spontaneous decision to hop on Capital Bikeshare for several blocks – a law is just unnecessary. It would prevent those spontaneous rides from happening, and those lost spontaneous rides will clog our streets even worse with unnecessary car trips. Further, the research shows that the more bicyclists on the street, the more visible they become to everyone, and the safer everyone is.

Indeed, mandatory bike-helmet laws will have the reverse effect of making cycling less safe.

For more, see the Washington Area Bicyclist Association’s excellent statement on this topic. And if you’re a Maryland resident, please speak up and take action here.

Photo by M.V. Jantzen (Michael Schade)

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Phill February 28, 2013 at 1:03 PM

There is an issue with this blog post.
Nothern Territory does not have mandatory helmet laws.
Cheers
Phill

Reply

avatar Paul Mackie February 28, 2013 at 1:19 PM

Thanks for the comment, Phill. It seems the study examined the period in the 1990s when the Northern Territory introduced a mandatory law, which was later rescinded.

http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1114.html

Paul

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