The silly unintended consequences of mandatory helmet laws

When writing a post for sister site MNN.com about Duet wheelchair bikes and their use by seniors, I had a tweet exchange with Chris Bruntlett, a Vancouver cycling activist and consultant at Modacity, wondering why people in a wheelchair needed bicycle helmets while strapped into a chair:


It turns out to be only one of many byproducts of the helmet legislation in the province of British Columbia. Chris mentioned a few others:

Sport-centred bike culture (utility cycling stagnates) Chris notes that the majority of cyclists in Vancouver are the serious sports cyclists, sometimes known as MAMILs, or middle aged men in lycra. When he arrived a few years back he felt like he was the only person riding a bike in street clothes (although he says this is changing) Using a bike for transportation or basic utility is dragging way behind other cities.

Enforcement Chris wrote in the Vancouver Courier about the 13,166 tickets that the police gave out between 2008 and 2012, criticizing the police for...

...dedicating valuable resources to this supposed public health measure — under the guise of addressing road safety. It is obvious that assigning a pair of traffic cops to park on a protected bike lane (statistically ten times safer than anywhere else in the city) for a few days each summer, to meet an arbitrary quota of $29 fines has little to do with keeping road users safe.

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Bikeshare delays. Vancouver has been talking about implementing a bike share system for over seven years, but they don't know what to do about the helmets. I noted that in Seattle, which also has a helmet law but also a bike share system, they have these helmet boxes. Except that nobody really pays any attention to them.

But the single most important problem with the helmet law is its effect on ridership; one study found that it led to a 36 percent reduction in cycling rates among young people, when all the evidence from around the world show that what you really want are more riders, Chris writes:

It is becoming abundantly clear there is far more safety in numbers than Styrofoam. Studies report that doubling the number of cyclists results in a one-third reduction in the number of car-bike collisions. And as Brent Toderian, a former Vancouver city planner and helmet law critic, stated at an SFU roundtable discussion last month: “There is no doubt that the safest thing for cyclists is more cyclists.”

I have nothing against helmets and wear one myself, but then I think we should wear helmets in cars too; that's where most of the head injuries happen. But it is also clear that helmet laws cause far more trouble than they are worth, are not all that effective and are keeping people off bikes just when we should be recognizing them as part of our transportation systems.

Certainly, as Chris Bruntlett points out, the unintended consequences of the helmet laws are many and silly.

Tags: Bike Accessories | Bike-Friendly World | Bikes

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