Does a Helmet Law Make Sense in California?

Riders roll into the South Gate community of South Los Angeles during the Ride4Love. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Riders roll into the South Gate community of South Los Angeles for the Ride4Love. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The proposed California-wide bicycle helmet law has stirred up a passionate debate on blogs and bike club lists as well as in the media. Unfortunately, many discussions have degraded quickly into name-calling and personal insults–like the oh-so-droll “hard-headed bicyclists” headline several media outlets thought was so clever. Many people also expressed off-the-point misunderstandings of objections to the proposal, and questionable statistics have been endlessly repeated.

But there’s no need to settle the question of whether, in total, a helmet law will make bicycling safer. What’s at issue is whether it’s a wise idea for the state to pass a law that would require every bicycle rider to wear a helmet.

I propose a thought experiment: let’s explore some potential outcomes of a helmet law. The points below are not meant to be arguments for or against S.B. 192. Instead, they are an attempt to think through as many different possible repercussions of a mandatory helmet law in California as possible. If something is missing, add it in the comments.

If California were to pass S.B. 192:

  • More bicycle riders would wear helmets. Bike riders who currently don’t wear a helmet would have to either obtain a helmet, break the law, or stop riding. Some of them would choose to obtain a helmet.
  • Fewer people would ride bicycles. In Australia, which has a law requiring bike helmets for adults, one survey found that the increase in the number of cyclists wearing helmets after the law was passed was less than the decrease in the overall number of cyclists. In the US, where 22 states have laws requiring youth to wear helmets when they ride, researchers have found a significant reduction in the number of kids riding bikes.
  • A state helmet law would “prove” that bicycling is a dangerous activity that requires special protection. Fewer potential new bicyclists would be willing to take the “risk” of riding.
  • Fewer bicycle riders would lead to decreased safety for remaining riders, as drivers become less accustomed to having to watch out for bicycles.
  • Fewer people would enjoy the health benefits of bicycling, like weight loss, improved circulation, stronger muscles, and reduced stress.
  • The overall safety of bicycle riders may or may not improve. Some serious head injuries would be prevented, and other serious injuries would not. Some car drivers would drive less cautiously near bicycle riders. And as stated above, fewer bike riders could lead to less safe conditions. Overall risk might decrease, but it may very well increase.
  • Those who ride without helmets would become criminals and scofflaws. “You would make half of the current cyclists in L.A. lawbreakers just by passing this law,” said Eric Bruins of LACBC. People of color, low-income riders, “the ‘invisible cyclists’–those who are hard to reach, hard to educate, and susceptible to being over policed,” in Bruins’ words–would be subject to profiling and harassment by police and others if they were to ride without helmets (even more so than they already are). Anyone who forgets, loses, or breaks her helmet would have to forgo riding or risk being stopped and ticketed.
  • Lack of a helmet would automatically be recorded by the police, and reported by the media, as if it were a contributing factor in a crash. Oh, wait—this one is already true. The difference with a helmet law is that this kind of poor reporting, which now makes it difficult to collect useful data about bicycle crashes, would be seen as justified–and further reduce knowledge about actual safety risks and crash causes.
  • Anti-bike op-ed writers and bicycle-haters in general would have new ammunition against the “legions of scofflaw bicyclists” they see blocking their progress everywhere. People would feel justified for giving bicyclists a hard time for not wearing a helmet. The popular excuse for dumb driver moves– “I didn’t see her!” –would be joined by the new, “She wasn’t wearing a helmet!”
  • A bicycle rider without a helmet who is involved in a crash would be considered negligent under insurance rules. Even if the bicycle rider were utterly without fault, lack of a helmet could be used against her, and it would be difficult to impossible to collect for damages.
  • Police would spend more time ticketing bicycle riders. Because helmetless bicycle riders are much easier to spot than a phone held in a driver’s lap, police would be more likely to ticket bicycle riders than people engaged in an activity that is actually dangerous, like texting while driving.
  • State investments in new bike infrastructure would be underused. California would have a harder time reaching its environmental goals. Traffic congestion would continue increasing, and space given to bicycles would come to be seen as a “waste.” What gains have been made in terms of road diets and protected bike lanes would be threatened by calls for more space for cars.
  • The state would be pushed to dedicate funding to give away helmets. It wouldn’t cost much—many of the helmets given away in similar events for youth are donated, or inexpensive—but it would take away from the limited state funds currently set aside for bicycle projects and programs.
  • Organizations dedicated to increasing the number of bicyclists in California—for very good environmental, safety, and many other reasons–would spend time advocating for, organizing and writing grants for, and promoting helmet giveaways, drawing time and energy from education and policy advocacy.
  • Bikeshare would die. The infant industry, still feeling its way towards financial sustainability, would be faced with figuring out yet one more complex task, and it might be just too much. Costs would increase. Ridership at existing systems would plummet because members don’t own helmets or don’t carry them around. Bikeshare operators would develop helmet vending machines and experiment with helmet rentals. Someone would contract lice.
  • Helmet manufacturers would make money. Attempts would be made to sell helmets as a stylish accessory. New helmet styles would be invented, and some wouldn’t look like helmets. Marketing would become more sophisticated, and manufacturers would push people to regularly replace helmets whether necessary or not. Those “airbag” helmets would find a market.
  • Bicycle riders would still have little protection from speeding, drunk, or distracted drivers.

So–is passing a helmet law worth the consequences?

If you don’t think so, you can sign the California Bicycle Coalition’s petition to Senator Liu here.

  • joechoj

    @OrphanQuack, Thanks for your civil tone and honest question. There are some fantastic responses already, but in the interest of finding the fundamental problem with this false equivalency:
    1 – Cars are inherently dangerous to their occupants (due to the speed at which they travel, their mass, and the resulting forces exerted on the bowl of jelly that is the human body during a crash). Seat belts were meant to protect these occupants from their unsafe machines, and their improvement of passenger crash survival is unquestioned.

    Bikes, conversely, are inherently safe, especially given normal commuting conditions of moderate speed and smooth graded riding surfaces. They are only dangerous in extreme conditions almost exclusively experienced by recreational riders off of city streets. (Or – to further make the point – when mixed in traffic with autos tens of times their weight and several times their speed!) And as many have mentioned, the safety results of bike helmets are questionable at best, particularly when experiencing the forces of auto collisions. (Add to that the point that many cyclist deaths involve the legs or torso being crushed, and the head is fine.)

    2 – Another key difference is that when the seat belt debate was happening, roads were already recognized to be ideally designed for cars – no infrastructure upgrade could achieve safety gains, the thinking went.

    By contrast, in the US, almost no urban commute infrastructure exists that has been designed – from beginning to end – with cyclists in mind: their typical behaviors, preferences, weights, velocities, turning radii, braking distance, etc. So, many cycling advocates argue that the single most effective safety improvement would be to develop such infrastructure. Perversely, the passage of a helmet mandate would let policymakers off the hook from addressing the root causes of cyclist injury.

    All the other points made, in my opinion, are just delicious gravy (such as road decongestion, unburned fuel, improved air quality, improved pedestrian safety, enrichment of travel corridors, and on and on and on).

    And lest you wonder how it’s different from laws requiring motorcycle helmets (a closer parallel, I think): No one reasonably expects to build separate motorcycle infrastructure, whereas separated bike lanes seem like a no-brainer to many.

  • Besides, cars have lots of built-in mirrors to use for fixing hair after a drive!

  • Yea, that would be a monumental waste of resources that would become necessary instead of real change.

  • On the bright side, maybe they won’t stick CicLAvia with the ridiculous charges for closing the streets anymore?

  • The “all powerful evil bike lobby” has been two steps ahead. They got the 3 foot law and protected bike lanes approved via the Legislature and were almost certainly part of Caltrans’ relaxing of standards that were anti-bike and of course the allowance of design immunity for using other standards. Paradoxically, Senator Liu actually has been a big supporter of those efforts in the past. The big problem now is that she decided to act on her own without consulting the lobby first. This has unfortunately sucked up a lot of time, energy, and money that should be used to further goals like you’ve brought up to now focus on keeping this from occurring.

  • As it turns out, seatbelts aren’t extremely useful. I certainly wear one because sliding around leather seats sucks. But as far as keeping people from being KSI, their effect is more questionable. Otherwise, if they were so good, cars wouldn’t need all the airbags now would they. More info here:

  • Mike McCurley

    Yes, it’s called personal responsibility, a concept that the libtards are hell bent to stamp out.

  • Mike McCurley

    As a personal choice, no problem. Mandated by an out of control libtard Cali legislature? How about, instead, requiring any female to have her tubes tied after the first abortion payed for by taxpayers, because the dear girl can’t afford it herself. It’s called personal responsibility. Is that too dangerous of a concept for you???

  • Mike McCurley

    Hey, Bob, sorry, I missed the sarcastic slant. I got it a couple of clips down, with the photo of helmeted pedestrians…

  • Mike McCurley

    How about just quit telling working folks how to walk and talk and think, to the N’th degree, and tell little Sally (was Joey) down the street that no, we are not going to pay for your sex change operation.

  • Mike McCurley

    And a statewide mandatory helmet law for bicycles would destroy any participation left by rational working folks in what used to be a lot of fun, and even a way to get down to the corner store for a pack of smokes (!!!).
    Leave it to the libtard crowd to shoot one of their own agendas in the foot trying to ram yet another agenda down peoples throats…

  • Mike McCurley

    Helmets make a lot of since for democrat voters. Their skulls are so thin, and their brains(?) so delicate, they need all the protection they can find.

  • Mike McCurley

    Can’t take it anymore. Time to go bare knuckles with the libtards…

    Q: What’s the difference between a liberal vegetarian and a conservative vegetarian?

    A: The conservative doesn’t eat meat, the libtard doesn’t want ANYONE to eat meat, and tries to legislate their personal lifestyle on everyone else…

  • SFnative74

    Get ’em, Mike!

  • Mike McCurley

    I’m trying to just get ’em to think juuust a little…

  • Ralph

    I’m sorry you have to call people names to try to make your point.

  • Mike McCurley

    After the derogatory terms I’ve seen used on Fox News comments sections by obvious progressives? After the direct insults from the likes of Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart??? I’m not sorry, I’m really enjoying using the same tactics, handing the same sort of crap back to the sheeple who march in lock step with massah brazile and little debbie wasser-name. Got a problem with the First amendment???

  • Lisa Rowe

    This is just getting dumber and dumber. Adults should be able to make decisions on their own safety. I can see why children would need to wear a helmet but adults should be able to make their own decisions on what is safe for their own well being. It began with the motorcycle helmet, law etc. When is enough enough?

  • Lisa Rowe

    Consider signing this petition is you are not in agreement to this-“”

  • darelldd

    Is it possible that you are confused by the fact that a Democratic politician has introduced this misguided law? I haven’t yet found a “liberal” who is in support of this law, though I’m sure there are some, confused, ill-informed liberals who ARE for it. At the same tim, I am aware of many staunch conservatives who think this is a fine way of imposing a punitive measure on the cyclists who are aren’t paying their way, and are just playing around on the roads in their Spandex.

    It is amusing to me that you find this to be a liberal thing. There’s enough ignorance on both sides of the isle. No reason to point a finger, really.

  • Mike McCurley

    I think you are confusing conservatives with republicans. And I’ve seen far more “pay back” stunts pulled by liberals than conservatives…

  • Wanderer

    Well, this was headlined with name calling about “nanny unions” with no unions present in the story, so you all might as well go for name-calling. Way to build coalitions with public employees, who’ve been among the most pro-transit, pro-bike unions.

  • Joe Linton

    (The headline was an April Fools joke)

  • Mark H

    I’m in Australia. Within 2 years of these laws being introduced, over 50 metres (yards) of bike sheds were removed by my old high school because they weren’t being used. Fight these stupid laws with everything you’ve got.

  • HENRY in Oz

    Mike, your repetitive name-calling is tiresome.

  • Gezellig


    Great news for biking in California….and, yes, it’s precisely Australia’s (and a handful of other places in the world) experience that is driving a big part of the discussion in terms of unintended consequences.

  • Mike McCurley

    So is the constant flood of nanny state regulations from frightened children clinging to their insurance agents skirts. Got a problem with the 1st amendment, buckwheat???

  • ecfinn

    You’re being immature and ridiculous. This is not a liberal versus conservative issue. Most people who ride bikes regularly are liberal and do not support helmet laws. I am very liberal and I am not a supporter of helmet laws, even for motorcyclists, or even seatbelt laws for that matter. The only reason those laws ever got passed (most people on both sides of the aisle are against government dictating such rules) is because of the affect the uninsured had on taxpayers when they were injured in motorcycle accidents or car accidents and weren’t helmeted or buckled.

  • ecfinn

    You’re an angry weirdo and clearly a troll. Please, keep smoking.

  • Mike McCurley

    OK, I’ll break it down a little simpler for you. All of these idiot nanny state laws are proposed by democrats. I’ve never heard of any republican proposing this kind of crap. Happier with those labels???

  • Gezellig

    For what it’s worth, California’s current mandatory bike helmet law (for those under 18) was written and introduced in the early 90s by Republican California State Senator Marian Bergeson.

    It was then enthusiastically signed into law by Republican governor Pete Wilson (he could’ve easily vetoed it, as there weren’t anywhere near enough votes in the CA legislature to override his veto).

    One of the opponents to the law, State Senator Gary Hart (a Democrat, by the way), rhetorically asked if the law was so great why it didn’t apply to adults, too.

    What I actually find odd about Senator Liu’s proposal–in 2015!–is how anachronistic it is. Very 80s/early 90s. Especially now that we’ve had a couple decades to see what an absolute failure mandatory helmet laws are public policy-wise.

    In any case, let’s just rejoice that Liu’s proposed terrible law has been gutted:

    Also major props to the Cal Bike Coalition (a non-partisan organization) for continuing to talk with Senator Liu to push her to drop it even when it initially seemed she wouldn’t budge.

  • Mike McCurley

    Decent point. I actually don’t have a problem with requiring kids to wear helmets. As for Ms. Liu, she hasn’t given up yet, just changed her tactics. And I’m changing mine.

    It’s been well documented that one of the main methods of HIV transmission is via unprotected gay sex. The medical costs to this society have been horrific, far greater than those incurred by the occasional cracked skull, yet I don’t hear good socialists like Ms. Liu screeching from the rooftop that this particularly risky behaviour needs to be outlawed. Why is that???


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