A More Nuanced View of Bike Helmets?

A recent flap over the idea of making bike helmets mandatory for adults appears to have died down, so I’m hoping it’s not too soon for a little calm reflection.

The flap ensued when State Senator Floyd Prozanski (a bicycle advocate) floated the idea of a mandatory helmet law. That prompted more than 250 comments on BikePortland.org, most negative.

The Senator quickly backed off, triggering counter claims of a “knee-jerk” reaction.

Can we look at this a little more dispassionately, in the context of how Portland is developing its bicycle system?

Arguments in favor of helmet use:

  • We want bike riders to be safe
  • Crashes, particularly at speed, can lead to serious head injury
  • Helmets can help reduce head injuries in crashes
  • more…?

Arguments against requiring helmet use (for adults – let’s not get sidetracked on kids here):

  • Pick your favorite civil-liberties argument
  • Requiring helmets portrays cycling as an unsafe activity, creating unnecessary fear about an activity with substantial personal and societal benefits
  • We want to remove obstacles to cycling, not add to the steps necessary to bike
  • In cycling-centric European cities, helmets are not part of the culture, and head-injury rates are not higher than ours

I blogged on that last point after returning from a visit to Amsterdam.

So what’s different now than three years ago, that might further inform my perspective?

We’ve shifted our strategy for building out our bicycle system. We have consciously adopted a strategy of expanding the system on low-speed, low-traffic bike boulevards with well-regulated crossings of arterial streets, rather than expanding the bike lane network on heavily-trafficked streets.

While we may not have a bicycle network that is as safe as Amsterdam’s we’re headed in that direction (in Amsterdam, the network is relatively slow by design – it’s engineered for an average speed of about 9 miles-per-hour, a speed at which the risks of head injury are lower).

Could we develop a policy (advice, if not regulation) around bike helmets that reflected both the current state of safety (or lack thereof) on our system AND the aspiration for a very safe system? Something along the lines of:

“If you limit your travel the bike boulevards and off-street facilities at relatively low speeds, by all means use a helmet if you want, but don’t feel like you have to. But if you’re going to travel on bike lanes on arterial streets, or on busy streets with no bike lanes, you really should be wearing a helmet.”

Perhaps we need to think of helmets not as a requirement, but as mitigation for safety conditions that are not yet what we want them to be?

Can we develop statistical data to support such a position (how many bike crashes with head injuries have occurred on the Esplanade, how many on the Springwater Trail)?

Would it be good policy?

Would it be understandable?

Would it help encourage more of the “interested but concerned” demographic to get on a bike?

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