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Traffic Laws

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Austin (detailed)

Texas, Bikes (detailed)

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Helmet law (Austin)

Helmet laws (why they're bad)

Cyclists' right to the road handout

What's wrong with helmet laws

We're not opposed to helmets, we're opposed to helmet laws.

There's a huge difference.

Here's an outline of the arguments against helmet laws.

I. Won't enhance safety

A. Helmet laws discourage cycling, and fewer cyclists on the road makes cycling more dangerous. (Fewer cyclists:,; More dangerous: Injury Prevention)

B. Helmet efficacy is greatly exaggerated, and largely unproven.

C. Helmet laws feed the idea that helmets are the first & last words in bike safety, and thus distract from measures that can actually keep bicyclists safe. Governments & parents will thus feel that once they've slapped a helmet on a kid's head they've done their part. This is equivalent to giving someone a flak jacket and having them run around a firing range. It's better to learn how to not get hit in the first place.

D. The health benefits in longevity from cycling without a helmet outweigh the risk of cycling. (HEAD INJURIES AND BICYCLE HELMET LAWS Accident Analysis & Prevention, by Robinson DL. 28(4):463-475, 1996 Jul. Abstract Copyright (C) 1996 Elsevier Science Ltd. [References: 59])


II. Downsides (Unintended Consequences)

A. Discourages cycling because people will prefer to not ride rather than wear a helmet

B. Discourages cycling because it promotes an idea of cycling as inherently dangerous

C. Destroys the possibility of municipal bike sharing/rental programs. (These are systems where there are bicycles located throughout a city at kiosks where anyone can easy get a bike for a short trip. Many cities are implementing these to reduce the amount of driving. If helmets are required, these programs won't work. No one is going to happen to have a helmet with them when they think to hire a bike, and if helmets are provided, few people are going to wear helmets that were worn by many other people before them.)

C. Helmeted cyclists more likely to be struck by motorists (University of Bath)

D. Fewer cyclists = more drivers = more global warming

E. Fewer cyclists = more drivers = more toxic pollution

F. Fewer cyclists = more drivers = more energy use; promotes wars

G. Fewer cyclists = more dangerous for the cyclists who remain (motorists less used to seeing/expecting cyclists on the road) (Injury Prevention)

H. Fewer cyclists = more drivers = more danger for other motorists and pedestrians (Injury Prevention)

I.  At-fault motorists not held accountable for hitting & killing cyclists.  It's already a problem, because cyclists are seen as inherently culpable.  With a helmet law, that problem is exacerbated.


III. Problems with implementation

A. Selective enforcement:  cyclists will be arrested and go to jail, not just ticketed. It happened last time, it'll happen again.

B. Minorities suffer disproportionately:  Over 90% of no-helmet tickets given to kids in Austin went to black & Hispanic kids

C. Children treated as criminals. Here's an article about a nine-year-old in Florida who was handcuffed for not wearing a helmet.

D. Expensive to enforce.

E. Distracts police from real public safety issues.

F. Police may suspend enforcement in response to the above problems. (As we write this in 2006, we understand that no helmet-law tickets have been given to kids in the last four years.) A law that isn't enforced provides zero benefit.


IV. Not the best way to get people to wear helmets, and wear them correctly.  Better solutions include:

A. Providing free helmets

B. Providing free bike safety training, including training on how to properly fit a helmet.  Most helmet users probably wear their helmets incorrectly.


V. Wrong solution to the problem

A.  Real bike safety involves preventing cyclists from getting hit in the first place.  Thus helmets should be the *last* line of defense, not the first.

B. Passing a helmet law provides the illusion that government has done something significant for cycling safety

C.  Better ways to address bike safety include:

1. Implementing a three-foot passing rule for motor vehicles passing cyclists

2. Banning cars from parking in bike lanes

3. Striping more bike lanes

4. Creating bike-only thoroughfares

5. Incorporating bike safety training into public school curriculum

6. Providing free bike safety classes to the general public

7. Enforcing traffic laws, for both motorists and cyclists

8. Holding at-fault motorists fully accountable when they injure or kill cyclists


VI. Singles cyclists out for regulation

A. Way more motorists die from head injuries than cyclists.  If we're serious about saving lives, we'd make motorists wear helmets.

B. Seat belts aren't comparable.  Seat belt efficacy has been overwhelmingly demonstrated; bike helmet efficacy has not. Seat belts come with the vehicle; bike helmets do not. Seat belt legislation doesn't impact whether people will drive; bike helmet laws discourage people from biking. Seat belts don't mess up the operator's hair, and are not oppressively uncomfortable in the summer.


VII. Restricts freedom of choice

A. Government's role is to protect us from each other, not from ourselves.
1. Helmet laws are nanny laws, since they seek to take away our choice to decide for ourselves what's safe.

2. Seatbelt laws aren't comparable. Seatbelts help protect people other than the operator: they prevent the driver from being thrown into a passenger during a crash, crushing a passenger, and help the driver keep control of the vehicle in a crash rather than being thrown from the driver's seat. But helmet laws have no potential benefit to anyone other than the user.

B. If we assume that government can act to protect us from ourselves anyway when there is a compelling public interest, we see there is no compelling public interest for helmet laws:

1. Helmet efficacy has been exaggerated and is unproven.

2. Helmet laws make cycling less safe overall (see above).

3. The number of potential fatalities that might be prevented is tiny.

4. Making cyclists wear helmets when motorcyclists don't have to is silly.  As Amy Babich said, "Our message then is, 'If you don't want to ride a bicycle without a helmet, ride a motorcycle instead.' "

5. Restricting cyclists' choice is inconsistent considering that there is way more public benefit to be derived by helmeting motorists.

6. The experience of other communities in passing helmet laws has not shown an overall concrete benefit to justify restricting cyclists' choice.


VIII. Hurts pedicab business

A. No one will buy a pedicab ride if they have to wear helmets.

B. If passengers are exempted from helmets but the operator is not, the message to potential customers is that the ride is dangerous.


IX. Responses to proponents' arguments

"Helmets save lives"

A. Helmet efficacy is exaggerated and unproven.

B. Saying that HELMETS save lives is *completely different* than saying that helmet LAWS save lives.

C. Helmet laws make cycling *more* dangerous, since helmeted cyclists are more likely to be hit (University of Bath) and because such laws decrease the number of cyclists on the road.

D. If helmets save lives, we should helmet motorists, since far more motorists die from head injuries than cyclists.

E. We don't automatically outlaw everything that saves lives. Banning meat consumption would save lives, but that's not sufficient grounds for making it illegal.

F. Even if helmets save lives, there are other, better ways to make cycling safer, such as a three-foot passing rule and car-free bike lanes.  Helmet law proponents never argue for these.


Elaboration on some of these points

Helmets are over-rated

Helmet use among U.S. cyclists was nearly non-existent before the 1990's. Nobody wore helmets in the 80's and before. So what happened when helmet use skyrocketed in the 1990's? Head injuries went down, right?

No, head injuries went up. Let me repeat that: When helmet use went up, so did head injuries. There's a big article about this in the New York Times, showing that head injuries among cyclists went up 51% in the 1990's as more and more cyclists started wearing helmets.

I'm not suggesting that helmets caused the head injuries; there are other plausible explanations for why head injuries increased (more attention to helmets and less attention to safe riding skills being one of them). But what I am saying is that the protective value of helmets is so small it's hard to measure.

Most of us have heard that "bicycle helmets can prevent up to 85% of head injuries". Many times the phrase is printed without the "up to", stating flatly that bike helmets "prevent 85% of head injuries". Typically, no source is ever cited for this 85% figure. Everyone believes it anyway, so who needs a source, right? But where did this 85% figure come from, and is it credible? The answer is that it came from a flawed 1989 study, and it's probably wildly inaccurate. The study was roundly criticized in the Helmet FAQ by the Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling and by, which states:

This paper is by far the most frequently cited research paper in support of the promotion of cycle helmets. It is referred to by most other papers on helmets, to the extent that some other papers, and most helmet promotion policies, rely fundamentally upon the validity of its conclusions.

The claims that helmets reduce head injuries by 85% and brain injuries by 88% come only from this source, yet are quoted widely as gospel by people who know nothing more about cycle helmets. The prospect of achieving such massive reductions in injuries to cyclists lies at the root of helmet promotion and mandatory helmet laws around the world.

Those who have taken the trouble to analyse the paper in detail, however, have found it to be seriously flawed and its conclusions untenable. (more...)

They also note that not a single helmeted cyclist considered in the study was involved a collision with a motor vehicle!

CycleHelmets has other good information, such as the chart at right showing that countries with the most helmet use also have the most head injuries. This is important enough that it bears repeating: countries with the most helmeted cyclists also have the highest rate of cycling head injuries. And of course the converse is true: cycling head injuries are much lower in countries where cyclists don't wear helmets very much.

Some believe that helmets can actually promote injuries in various ways. One way is that they effectively make the cyclist's "head" much larger, so with a bigger head a falling cyclist is much more likely to slam it against the road or a car (causing traumatic brain injury because the brain is still slammed against the skull), or possibly even breaking the cyclist's neck. If this is true then it could explain why we don't see any reduction in cyclist fatalities when helmet use goes up: helmets could be saving some cyclists but killing others.

Helmet laws distract people from real bike safety

Once a community passes a child helmet law parents and legislators think they've addressed the issue of bike safety and then pay no more attention to it. This leaves all those newly-helmeted kids with no riding skills on dangerous streets prime targets for getting hit, and their little piece of styrofoam will usually be cold comfort when they do. It is far more important to ensure that children know how to not get hit by cars, that they have lights on their bikes at night, and that roadways are constructed to be friendly to bicycle traffic. The fact that helmets have become a panacea is evidenced by all the cyclists who now ride around at night in pitch-black dark wearing their trusty helmet and having no lights at all. They don't realize that unlike lights, a helmet will do absolutely nothing to prevent them from being hit by cars.

The longevity benefits from cycling unhelmeted outweigh the risks

"The benefits of cycling, even without a helmet, have been estimated to outweigh the hazards by a factor of 20 to 1 (Hillman 1993; Cycle helmets-the case for and against. Policy Studies Institute, London). Consequently, a helmet law, whose most notable effect was to reduce cycling, may have generated a net loss of health benefits to the nation. Despite the risk of dying from head injury per hour being similar for unhelmeted cyclists and motor vehicle occupants, cyclists alone have been required to wear head protection. Helmets for motor vehicle occupants are now being marketed and a mandatory helmet law for these road users has the potential to save 17 times as many people from death by head injury as a helmet law for cyclists without the adverse effects of discouraging a healthy and pollution free mode of transport." (HEAD INJURIES AND BICYCLE HELMET LAWS Accident Analysis & Prevention, by Robinson DL. 28(4):463-475, 1996 Jul. Abstract Copyright (C) 1996 Elsevier Science Ltd. [References: 59])

Lets at-fault motorists off the hook when they kill helmetless cyclists

Defense lawyers love helmet laws because they can shift the blame to the cyclist for dying even if the motorist was clearly at fault, and even if the cyclist would have died even if s/he'd been wearing a helmet. Bias against cyclists is nothing new. A motorist who ran a red light and killed cyclist Ben Clough in 1998 didn't even get a traffic ticket. Another motorist who was incredibly drunk when she killed one cyclist and injured another safely avoided any conviction. Details of these cases are in our No Justice section. If we already have a hard time holding at-fault motorists accountable because society sees cyclists as inherently culpable, then passing a helmet law is just pouring gasoline on that fire.

Making cyclists wear helmets is insulting what the City intentionally keeps the roads unsafe for us

Just months before the Council considered the adult helmet law in 2006, it voted 5-2 to allow cars to park in bike lanes. (Hello?) The City has no business instructing cyclists on how to be safe when it does something as fundamentally retarded is giving our bike lanes to cars.

Hurts pedicab business

In 1996 I was set to be the first pedicab operator in Austin. The city didn't have a licensing mechanism, so they initially tried to regulate me under a combination of the taxicab ordinance and the horse-drawn carriage ordinance, neither of which was really relevant. On the taxi side, they were going to require that I carry a fire extinguisher on my rickshaw. I'm not kidding. While my application was moving along, the helmet ordinance passed, and city officials promptly informed me that both me and my rickshaw passengers would have to wear helmets. I asked, Okay, assuming for the moment that I agreed to something so ridiculous, could I get my permit then? But the city said, No, because there would be health issues from passengers all sharing the same helmets.

More ammunition against helmet laws An article decrying the view of helmets as a bicycle safety panacea. The kitchen sink of helmet info.

The Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling has an extensive Helmet FAQ which posits that helmet efficacy is vastly overrated, and argues forcefully against mandatory helmet laws. It's very well-researched, with an extensive and impressive number of credible medical source references.

The Australian experience with a helmet law is detailed at

De Clarke's has a lengthy article debunking helmet worship, along with a bunch of sources.

You can discuss helmet laws on an email discussion list called cyclehelmets. It's said to have been started by a bunch of British doctors opposed to helmet laws.

Here's a review of the research into helmets (efficacy and effects of legislation).


Minority kids got most of the tickets

  • 1996-97: 78.26% of under-16 tickets went to black & Hispanic kids. Data below gathered by the League of Bicycling Voters

    Aug. 19, 1996 - Feb. 1, 1997
    June: 1
    July: 1
    August: 70
    September: 118
    October: 177
    November: 74
    December: 20
    January: 65
    Total: 536

    Violators were 12-52 years old

    54.79% in their 20's

    21.84% under 21

    74.54% over 16 were white

    78.26% of violators 16 and under were Hispanic and black

    Times tickets issued:

    26.59% from 3-6pm

    10.98% from 4-5pm

    15.22% 10pm-midnight

    9.63% midnight-3am

    Tickets issued by:

    121 APD (9 officers issuing 28%)

    10 Park Police (5 officers issuing 19.5%)

    14 officers (less than 11% of force) issued 47+%

    33% of tickets within 5 blocks of UT…1/2 (16.5) on Guadalupe between 15-31st St.

    *We assume the June & July tickets were given by officers who didn't realize that the ordinance wasn't supposed to be enforced until Aug. 19

  • 1997-99: 92% of kid tickets went to minority kids (10/97 - 1/99)
  • 1999-02: (nobody studied this period that we know of)
  • 2002-06: Our understanding is that police stopped enforcing the ordinance and issued no more tickets, although the law is still on the books

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