City Council Transportation Committee Hearing on Intro 212 and 844 Requiring Bicyclists and In-Line Skaters of all ages to wear helmets

September 13, 1996

Good morning, my name is John Kaehny. I am the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, and have been an everyday bicyclist in New York City for 11 years. The 4,000 member Transportation Alternatives is the country's largest local bicycle advocacy organization, and also supports the use of in-line skates as a city-friendly form of travel.

For the last 23 years we have worked to make the city a safer and better place to ride a bicycle. Our staff includes nationally recognized experts on bicycle policy, and our 161 page Bicycle Blueprint is widely considered the last word on New York City bicycling.

Transportation Alternatives is testifying today in response to City Council Intros 212 and 844, which would require bicyclists and in-line skaters of all ages to wear a helmet. Transportation Alternatives strongly supports helmet use. Helmets can reduce head injuries and the risk of death. However, we are firmly opposed to any legislation requiring helmet use for cyclists and skaters. We believe that such a requirement is on balance bad for bicycling and skating in New York City and for the overall safety of cyclists and skaters. We are here today not impugn the benefits of helmets, but to oppose mandatory helmet use.

We have four major reasons for opposing mandatory helmet legislation:

First, a helmet law will discourage bicycling and skating. A mandatory helmet law's biggest impact would be on infrequent cyclists--who are by far the greatest number of cyclists in New York City. About 75,000 New Yorkers ride everyday, whereas about 3.4 million ride at least occasionally. ( According to National Bicycle Manufacturers Association.) The additional cost and effort to purchase a helmet, at least $40, plus keep it handy is a hurdle to these infrequent users. Many cyclists consider bicycling a "normal" activity. To them, being required to wear a helmet feels the same as it would to motorists and pedestrians--uncomfortable and unnecessary. A detailed before and after study of cycling levels in New South Wales, Australia revealed an immediate 25% decline in cycling levels after the imposition of a universal, mandatory helmet law in 1992. ( Compulsory Helmet Wearing in New South Wales, M. Walker, Univ. Of Sydney, 1992.) A similar 1994 study by the Oregon Department of Transportation found that following the passage of an age 15 years and under law, youth head injuries dropped by 28% while youth cycling declined by 25%.

Second, fewer bicyclists and skaters means streets are more dangerous--not safer. Thus, overall, a mandatory helmet law will not make bicycling and skating safer. The adoption of compulsory helmet laws in New South Wales, Australia yielded almost no safety improvement per bicyclist. Head injuries declined by 32%, but cycling levels decreased 36%-44% depending on the age group. A similar pattern was observed in the Oregon study I just mentioned. Cycling experts believe that the benefit of reduced head injuries achieved through higher helmet use was off-set by two things.
The lower cycling levels produced a commensurate reduction in motorist awareness of cyclists and respect for their right to the road. Since motorists cause 95% of cycling fatalities and a high percentage of injuries, motorist behavior is a crucial cycling safety factor. (American Journal of Public Health 1/87) More cyclists means safer cycling, fewer, more dangerous cycling. In cycling friendly places like Holland and Denmark, and even U.S, cities like Madison or Boulder, bicycle fatalities and serious injuries are much lower than New York City-- yet none of these places mandate helmet use. Helmet wearing cyclists take more risks. This phenomenon, known as "risk compensation," has been well documented in the case of anti-lock brakes and airbags in new model cars, which have resulted in higher driving speeds and accident rates. ( 1989-1993 study, Virginia Commonwealth Univ., as reported by the Wall St. Journal 11/10/93) Cyclists who ride with and without a helmet often observe their own higher speeds and more aggressive behavior while wearing a helmet.

Third, it is unbalanced and unfair to mandate helmet use only for cyclists and skaters.

If the benefits of helmet use are so compelling they should be equally applied to motorists and pedestrians, many of whom, under this law, would have to buy a helmet anyway since they bicycle and skate at least occasionally. In absolute terms, far more motorists and pedestrians suffer head injuries and deaths than bicyclists or skaters. While cyclists and skaters suffer head injuries at a higher level per mile traveled, they still comprise under 5% of traffic-related head related deaths and injuries in New York City (NYS DMV, see attached chart.) Additionally, head injuries are a significant cause of death to both bicyclists and pedestrians and motorists. (Share of deaths caused by head injuries: bicyclists= 49% pedestrians=37%, motorists=31%. The fact is, legally requiring NYC motorists and pedestrians to wear helmets would annually save about 45 motorists from death, and 5,569 from injury. While 58 pedestrians would live and 1,219 would be saved from injury. Compare this to 2 bicyclists saved from death and 151 saved from injury. Sounds crazy? It's not. Cyclists are simply a smaller interest group that is more easily burdened with an onerous and inequitable law. Some might say that motorists are required to wear seatbelts, so why can't bicyclists be required to wear helmets? Let's compare apples to apples. Helmets are not seatbelts. If helmets were comparable to seatbelts than we would be here today talking seriously about making motorists wear helmets.

Fourth and last, the cost of this mandatory helmet law to cyclists and skaters is not commensurate with the safety benefits. For all adults in NYC who bicycle or skate to purchase a helmet would cost by our reckoning about $150 million. The $40 cost of a helmet falls especially hard on the poor and working class--many of whom ride to save money. Intro 212 recognizes this problem, but solves it by forcing the helmet-less poor to waste their time, and take time away from work or child care, to plead their case to a judge.

Overall, the mandatory helmet law will do little to improve cycling and skating safety, and by discouraging cyclists and skaters will likely make the streets more dangerous.

Recommendations
If the Council wants to improve the safety of cyclists and skaters, we recommend it consider these five effective and expedient alternatives to a mandatory helmet law.

1. Order traffic signals timed to allow traffic to move no faster than 30 mph.
2. Post "Share The Road" signs on major avenues and boulevards.
3. Mark all bike lanes with prominent and plentiful bicycle symbols, to emphasize right to the road.
4. Have clear and prominent signage in Central Park containing the "rules of the road."
5. Include a "Rules of the road" flyer with all new bikes and skates sold. This should be paid for with Federal CMAQ funds that suporting the City's Bicycle Network Development program.

Transportation Alternatives would welcome the chance to work with Council staff on these and other cycling and skating safety measures.