Senator Introduces Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Law in CA

Senator Carol Liu’s S.B. 192 would require all bicycle riders to wear helmets, a move that would likely cut the number of people who ride bikes. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

Yesterday, Senator Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) introduced a bill in the California legislature that would require all bicycle riders, including adults, to wear a helmet, and to wear reflective clothing at night.

Senator Liu has been an ally for active transportation and bicycling, including supporting the three-foot law that took so long to get passed, and she has promoted safe walking and bicycling during her long tenure in the legislature. But if, as Liu staffer Robert Oakes told Streetsblog, Liu’s “point of view is that we should do everything to encourage active transportation,” this bill will not achieve that.

Richard Masoner of Cyclelicious calls S.B. 192 the

“Remove Cyclists From California Roads Law of 2015″ or, alternatively, the “Harass Minorities On Bikes Law of 2015.”

Oakes said the Senator and her staff looked at youth bike helmet laws as a model. Seeing that more and more states have adopted them encouraged the staff to think that California could be the first state to impose a mandatory helmet law on adults. They say that the youth helmet laws heard similar arguments—that fewer people would ride bikes—before they were adopted.

“But no one in 21 years has proposed a bill to repeal the youth helmet law,” he said.

Streetsblog would like to suggest the Senator review the research on the effects of bike helmet laws on the number of kids who ride bikes, including this gem of a conclusion from one paper: “Thus, the observed reduction in bicycle-related head injuries may be due to reductions in bicycle riding induced by the laws.”

Another suggested area of research is in how this law might be applied inequitably to different types of bicycle riders; the Senator and her staff could start with this recent Streetsblog story. Or this one.

But the biggest argument against a compulsory bike helmet law is that it doesn’t address the actual dangers people on bikes face on our streets, like distracted driving and speeding.

California Bicycle Coalition (CalBike) Executive Director Dave Snyder said the bill “attracts attention away from the much more important thing, which is to prevent a crash in the first place.”

Senator Liu, he said, seems to have good intentions, but she may not understand the unintended consequences of a helmet law. “It would for, practical purposes, not improve safety—and it would make it so much harder for us to encourage more bicycling,” he said.

Oakes says Senator Liu is looking forward to the discussion her bill will generate, and so are we.

Meanwhile, the other “bike safety” bill introduced in this session, A.B. 28, from freshman Assemblymember Kansen Chu (D-San Jose), was amended, thank goodness. It started out requiring bicyclists to use a blinking white light at the rear at night. Yesterday, the author amended that to a red rear light.

Bicyclists are already required to have reflectors on their pedals, spokes, and at the rear, plus a white headlight when they ride at night. CalBike’s Snyder says that “although it’s a good idea to have a tail light when riding, the evidence is that properly installed reflectors are sufficient for visibility.”

And while CalBike and other advocates don’t want to impose more requirements on people who ride bikes, he says Assemblymember Chu is “onto something. We would be interested in the bill being amended to permit people to use a rear taillight in lieu of the otherwise required reflectors. For example, if you ride a bike with special pedals, you may not have reflectors and are out of compliance.”

“You ought to be able to stick on a light instead.”

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  • Gezellig

    Another thing worth mentioning is that besides the decrease in biking and thus ironically increase in injuries that mandatory helmet laws cause, these types of laws tend to be supported by people unaware of their class/socioeconomic and especially race privilege:

    It is well-documented that people of color are disproportionately harassed (by police and others) simply for existing in public space, and biking is no exception:

    “…officers drove alongside him as he rode home one night, telling him that having a white, blinking light on the front of his bike was illegal. Buggs, a long-time cyclist, bike enthusiast, and builder of bikes, knew better and replied calmly that his light was the same brand and make that the LAPD had on their own bikes.”

    A helmet law would be yet another reason for police to “look the other way” in many cases…unless you’re biking while black!

    Just as we now see it as insane that in an earlier era freeways got rammed through formerly vibrant neighborhoods and wetlands drained overnight with no environmental impact review, someday we may look back incredulously at how terrible legislation such as mandatory helmet laws were crafted with no consideration whatsoever as to how they would impact those without deeply ingrained privilege on their side:

    Now *that’s* a law Senator Liu might better focus her efforts on!

  • Gezellig

    The complaint from the public policy level (see the many comments and studies reflecting this in the thread below) is that mandatory helmet laws actually make biking *less* safe for all because of how drastically they reduce biking rates, and disproportionately affect people of color.

    This has been unfortunately proven over and over again.

    Mandatory helmet laws are bad public policy, from both a public-health perspective and a social-equality one.

  • neroden

    Requiring reflective clothing? Crazy. Who has that?

  • ttrev

    anyone considered health issues. I have a sensitive head, i am currently able to wear my helmet but at times i have had problems with pressure causing severe headaches. At some point i might need to balance my health and safety needs and bike without a helmet. I am far more likely to die of health issues related to lack of exercise than getting hit. I need my freedom of choice, i am not willing to give up my rights because a few adults act like children.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Since far more automobile driver and passengers are injured every day, I think we should require that automobile drivers wear helmets. For their safety of course.

    Don’t you agree? Anyone who can spend $20,000 or more on a vehicle can surely afford a $200 full face helmet. They are known to help race car drivers in accidents, surely they would help passenger automobile drivers as well.

  • Another minority politician doing their best to eff over the poor?

    Congrats Carol, you’ve joined the ranks of Yaroslavsky, Waxman and Cedillo!

  • nocontrol39

    Stop trying govern every aspect of our lives! I don’t need a lawmaker when I should wear a helmet.


    That is the most horrible thing ive heard in a long time. I LOVE RIDING MY BIKE EVERY DAY AND THIS TERRIBLE LAW WOULD RUIN MY LIFE.

  • Frustrated

    BUT it should be by CHOICE, not mandates and regulations!!

  • JJBikeSF

    So we would like SF to paint protected bike lanes all over the city lowering the speed limits holding drivers accountable wanting to make bycicling safer etc. Yet we have an issue with a bycicle helmet which will protect people from serious injury?

    I have no problems with the law. I wear my helmet. Keeping my brains intact is a lot more important than my hair :)

  • Gezellig

    Also, studies have shown that drivers behave more recklessly around helmeted people and that the average helmet-wearer behaves more recklessly themselves.

    Helmet laws also kill bike modal share–and the single-biggest factor predicting bike safety is strength in numbers, not special gear.

    The two reasons above are probably the biggest factors determining the *increase* in injuries that Australia, New Zealand and various Canadian provinces have seen after implementing mandatory helmet laws.

  • Core

    That is a personal choice for YOU, not something to be forced upon others. First of all, the police don’t have time to enforce petty BS like this proposed law. Second, it is a waste of money and time. What next? Require people to wear helmets while walking? Let’s just all stay home, it’s too dangerous out there, and apparently we are too stupid to make sound decisions by ourselves.

  • Core

    Then YOU should wear a helmet, but what I do is none of your business or the governments when it comes to my personal choices.

  • vf6cruiser

    There’s NOTHING preventing the 18+ adults out there from wearing a helmet now………why do I need some old Dem shrew telling me I have another law that can’t be enforced………..waste of time……………

  • David

    How about introducing a law like in Idaho that allows cyclists to roll stop signs when clear and stop and go at red lights when clear? Cyclists really need a stronger lobby in this state to get some effective laws.

  • kitty

    What business of her’s is it what I wear or not on my head ? Who is it affecting except for me ? In summer especially, who wants to wear a clunky helmet just to bike down the back path to the store ? This sounds more like a trick to suck more money from those who usually ride bikes because they have to. Now I can understand about being visable at night. Flashing lights on the bike or rider would certainly help avoid an accident which would involve more people than the cyclist. This wouldn’t cost very much and would be safe for all involved, But that helmet thing is not needed unless the cyclist desires to wear one.

  • James Griffin

    I’m too stupid to make the “correct” decision about wearing a helmet, so the nanny state has to make it for me. I’m an adult, but some decisions are just too important for me to make on my own. Thank You Nanny State!

  • Ben Alexander

    I agree with your overall point, but there is no real social science to support saying “studies have shown” about anything anywhere near this topic. We don’t even know for sure that helmets prevent injuries, much less how drivers act.

  • MCassle

    Of course this kind of Nanny State Nonsense has to be birthed from a politician with a D next to her/his name. You can’t legislate your percieved perfect Utopia Ms. Liu *wags finger*

  • BarryJT
  • freedom from liu

    right along with you and another weak politician looking for any thing to get controversy and press .agenda ? Lets take a closer look at Liu.. After getting a glimpse into who she is she does not ride a bike for transportation ..her challenge is to do so with a helmet over her hairsprayed head and show up with helmet hair sweaty for a news crew .need to catch that live feed . LIu stay in your airconditioned car and wear a helmet if you like .and leave the option to those of us that actually ride .

  • Chris C

    California law already requires a headlamp, taillight and reflectors if you ride at night so while reflectorized clothing may be a good idea, visibility is already mandated. More useless legislation which attempts to fix a non-existent problem.

  • Chris C

    Look Bruce – I’ve been an avid cyclist my entire life. I toured from Ventura to San Diego when I was 14. I rode from California to New York in 26 days when I was 25 – All without a helmet. The problem with your emotional argument is it’s not based on any real data or detailed study which demonstrates that mandating bicycle helmets will save lives or prevent injuries. And even if it did, it overlooks the fundamental right of citizens to make choices in matters concerning their own health and safety. Whether it’s seat belts, smoking, drinking, motorcycle helmets OR bicycle helmets, it truly is none of your business…

  • Gezellig
  • Ben Alexander

    That’s the only example. An entertaining story, but hardly proof or even strong evidence to support the hypothesis. I wonder what the other folks in town thought about the wig-wearing prof!

  • Anonymous

    I agree, why are the existing bicycle laws not enforced? Also I see riders all the time running red lights and stop signs at full speed, also riding against traffic. It’s probably just going to be another law that will go unenforced. So…yes. TOTALLY useless.

  • Anonymous

    Yep. With useless legislation.

  • Gezellig

    What’s funny is that proportionately drivers break as many laws while driving.

    –> for example, stand out on any crosswalk and count the percentage of drivers who actually stop and wait to enter the crosswalk till all pedestrians have exited

    –> almost all drivers exceed the speed limit by some amount at some point in their trip. For many people, it’s by a lot all the time.

    The overwhelming majority of this scofflaw behavior is never enforced or caught. In fact it’s even perceived as “white noise,” completely ignored, as passed off a “few bad apples” despite the prevalence.

    Yet due to illusory correlation it’s somehow people on bikes who (in some crowds) are singled out as scofflaws.

    Btw, in the US drivers kill about 92 people per day. Every day. Every year. That’s over 30,000 annually. There’s a difference when a two-ton speeding metal box fudges the rules vs. someone on foot or bike.

    This isn’t justifying all bad behavior–but it does explain where limited enforcement resources should primarily be going.

    Otherwise you’re just spouting Fox News-style “they do it too” false equivalence.

  • Laura James

    As usual the laws supposedly made to help us, simply make poor people a target for police to fine us if we are unable to afford reflective clothing and/or a bicycle helmet. Many with money will say “hey if you can’t afford the gear to be safe then don’t ride a bike” This comes from such a place of privilege.
    Bike safety laws should be more about adding bikes to the transportation mix with protected bike ways, more bike lanes and more bike infrastructure, and not using laws as a way to fine folks. I for one do not need the state of California to take care of me. I may not have the $$ for reflective clothing but I do what I can to make myself safe on my bicycle.


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