Helmets and Bike Share

As this excellent NYT article notes, one of the vexing challenges that urban bike share systems face in some cities (including Seattle) is how to comply with mandatory helmet laws – and how to get people to actually use the systems when helmets are required. And really, when you’re forced to contemplate “sanitized helmet dispensers,” it’s way past time to ask whether these laws need to be revisited.

This isn’t to say that riding with a helmet isn’t a good idea. It’s usually a wise choice, particularly for those of us who ride daily in traffic. The question is whether it should be mandated.

I’m a big believer in the accountability of regulation. Unless a law can “deliver the goods” in a meaningful way, it shouldn’t be on the books. To date, helmet requirements have skated along by being relatively minor impositions of the nanny state, the fact that large numbers of riders choose to wear helmets anyway, and lax enforcement. But once they start preventing – or imposing large costs or inconveniences on – bike share systems, it’s time to weigh what benefits these laws offer.

And despite the predictable “helmets r good!” arguments, there’s plenty of evidence that mandatory helmet laws are actually counter-productive. Such laws add little on the safety side of the equation, as cycling in general is not that dangerous, helmets are not proof against serious injury or death and most of those who ride frequently, at high speeds or in traffic are likely to wear a helmet anyway. On the cost side, they add friction by creating an impediment to riding and making cycling seem like a more inherently dangerous activity than it actually is. Add to that the actual costs imposed on bike share systems – and the lost opportunities in such systems not being able to work efficiently within such regulations – and helmet laws are sure to fail the test of good regulation.

So here’s a modest proposal: Instead of monkeying around with helmet vending machines and such, let’s take this opportunity to excise a well-meaning but misguided law.

Leave a Reply