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Michael Bluejay's presentation to the Austin City Council about the proposed bicycle helmet law, Aug. 24, 2006

First I want to ask, how many of the supporters of a helmet law biked here tonight? Just one? Okay, and how many of the opponents did? Kind of what I thought.

Oh, and when the proponents say that helmets are comfortable, if it's comfortable you're not wearing it right.

I'm Michael Bluejay, I run, and my article on bike safety has been reprinted all over the world. People see it, they like it, they reprint it, they translate it into their native languages. It's been linked to and reprinted by boy and girl scout troops, police departments, and schools all over the world. It's hard to toot my own horn, but what I'm saying is that some people seem to consider that I know a thing or two about bike safety, and if that's the case then I hope I can provide some informed comment for you tonight.

I want to thank you for considering a bike safety issue because such attention is long overdue. Unfortunately, a helmet law is the wrong way to further bike safety. Now you might think, "Well, it might not be the best way, but it can't hurt." But actually it will hurt. And you've already heard a lot of those reasons why a helmet law would be bad public policy, but I'm going to go a step further and explain why a helmet law won't even have the intended effect of furthering bike safety.

So let's take a visit to the Land of Unintended Consequences. Way back in the 16th centure the crown got the idea to levy a tax based on how many of those new-fangled glass windows you had in yoru house. They figured it would be an easy way to raise money, and their revenue analysis consisted of this: estimating the number of windows that were out there, and multiplying that by the amount of tax. Here's what actually happened, as explained by a member of Canadian Parliament:

Lo and behold, if we go to small English towns today and look at some of the Tudor homes, we will see over and over again these very clear window shaped spaces that have been plastered over, and filled in or bricked in. Why? It was because 500 years ago people understood that they could [avoid] taxes legally and so they bricked in those beautiful glass windows all across England.

Okay, so that's the introduction because the helmet law is the mother of all unintended consequences. The people pushing this are thinking, "Let's pass a helmet law and bicyclists will be safer." And that's exactly like saying, "Let's put a tax on windows and we'll make all this money." The problem in both cases is that it ignores the other things that will happen when the legislation kicks in. Sure, if you passed this law and the only thing that changed was more cyclists started wearing helmets, then there might be a public safety benefit and no downside. But to assume that nothing else will change is incredibly short-sighted.

So let's look at the unintended consequences.

The most important one is this: helmet laws discourage cycling. Here's what happened when they passed helmet laws in other places.

  • In the Australian Northern Territory, bike commuting plummeted 50%.
  • I the capital territory, the number of cyclists dropped between 33 and 50%.
  • In New Zealand, it fell by 22%.
  • In British Columbia it dropped 28%, and dropped 40 to 60% in Nova Scotia.
  • In Denmark, cycling by children fell 30%.

You can see for the source studies and even more examples.

Is Mr. Lister still here? He said that the idea that people would stop biking if the helmet law was imposed was ridiculous. Im curious if he thinks these figures I'm reporting did not happen or that Austin is somehow unique and it won't happen here when it happened everywhere else.

Now, the figures above would be meaningless if cycling was declining anyway before the laws were passed. But that's not what happened. For example, in Western Australia cycling was ncreasing year after year after year, all the way up until they passed a helmet law and then everything went to hell. [see slide image]

So knowing that helmet laws discourage cycling, that begs the question, why does it matter if fewer people ride bikes after you pass a helmet law? Well there are several reasons, all of which are themselves unintended consequences?

The first is global warming. WWhen climate change threatens the very survival of the species, we should be doing everything we can to encourage cycling, not discourage it. And I have to feel that the threat to every single human on the face of the planet is a lot more serious than the potential risk faced by a handful of cyclists in Austin, Texas.

Another problem is energy use. When people stop biking, what do they do instead? They start driving. Now, if you read the newspapers you might have heard about this, there's actually a war going on right now in one of the most oil-rich countries in the world. And there are many of us who think that promoting bicycling is a good alternative to, say, killing Arabs.

Now here's the first reason why a helmet law makes us less safe: Study after study has shown that the more cyclists on the road the safer it is to bike, probably because motorists are more used to seeing us. So this is a pretty massive unintended consequence: You can actually make cycling more dangerous by passing a helmet law, because when fewer people cycle, cyclists become even more marginalized on the road.

And in fact, a helmet law makes driving and walking more dangerous. Think about it: When people stop biking, what do they do? They start driving. And what typically kills motorists and pedestrians, SUV's or bicycles? Right, so by shifting people from bikes to cars, the world becomes a little more dangerous for everyone

So every time a helmet-law supporter says we have to foster public safety at the expense of public choice, or that if we save even one life it's worth it, they're actually making a convincing argument in the other direction, because helmet laws make cycling more dangerous, for both cyclists and everyone else. If your goal is to maximize public safety, you'll actually serve that purpose better by rejecting a helmet law.

Another unintended consequence: Harassment of cyclists by the police. The first time we had a helmet law cyclists went to jail left and right for not wearing helmets. Now, if you weren't wearing your seat belt, you might expect to get a ticket, but you wouldn't expect to get arrested and go to jail. Most officers are professional and won't arrest helmetless cyclists, but some will. It happened last time, it'll happen again.

Here's another unintended consequence: Targeting of minorities. You've all heard by now that the last time anyone checked, over 90% of the no-helmet tickets given to kids went to black and Hispanic kids. The Austin Chronicle covered this in a story and quoted Dale Johnson, who said that an APD officer told him, "I like the law. On the Eastside, it gives me the opportunity to stop those young punks and frisk them."

And finally, some examples of an issue that's very important to me.

  • Tom Churchill was killed on South Lamar when biking home from work. And what penalty did the at-fault, drunk driver who hit him get? Nothing. No ticket, no fine, no jail time. Nothing. By the way, Churchill was wearing a helmet, for all the good it did him.
  • Ben Clough was biking across the intersection of MLK and Lavaca when a motorist ran a red light and killed him. Her penalty? No arrest, no fine, no jail time, and NOT EVEN A TICKET FOR RUNNING THE RED LIGHT. Apparently, in this town, the best way to avoid getting a ticket for running a red light is to KILL A BICYCLIST while you're doing it.

I could give you plenty more examples of at-fault motorists facing little to no penalties for hitting cyclists if I had more time. So why am I telling you this? Because it has huge, huge, implications for the helmet law. The reason cyclists have a hard time getting justice is because we're seen as second-class citizens on the road. And with a helmet law in place, the next time a motorist blows a red light and kills a helmetless cyclist, we can just forget about the motorist being held accountable The public attitude is going to be, "Well, the cyclist wasn't wearing a helmet, so we can't blame the driver." The public already has a perception that cyclists are to blame for their injuries, and if you pass a helmet law then you're just throwing gasoline onto that fire.

Another site by Michael Bluejay...

Saving Electricity. Find out how much juice your stuff uses, and how to save money and energy. As seen in Newsweek.

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