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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  3/1/2015

The road to hell...

Back in 2003, I wrote a column in this space on the subject of bike helmets. I was prompted to write it because of the death of pro racer Andrei Kivilev in that year's Paris-Nice stage race. I was, in effect, urging the UCI to make helmets mandatory in racing, but it was also a reflection on how we—recreational riders—had come to regard helmets as a standard part of our bike kit. I was then and am now a fervent supporter of helmet use.

So it might come as a bit of a surprise to you to find that I am not thrilled about the bill that has been introduced to make helmets mandatory for all riders in California. State Senator Carol Liu (La Canada Flintridge) introduced SB192 on February 11. It mandates that all cyclists must wear helmets. It has additional language requiring a substantial amount of "retroreflective" apparel for riding after dark. Currently, 22 states have laws requiring helmets for those under 18 years of age, but so far no state has a law requiring helmets for adults.

Someone posted a note about the bill to our club's chat list, and it has jump-started an extremely lively debate on the matter, with two camps lined up behind their barricades of statistics and anecdotes and opinions, lobbing word bombs back and forth across a seemingly unbridgeable divide. Those in favor of the bill cannot understand why anyone would oppose it. I mean, helmets? Okay? A no brainer! All of them have their personal tales of having survived this or that blunt trauma because of their helmets. (I'm right in there with them on that point: I truly believe my helmets have saved me from serious injury or even death in two crashes where my head hit the pavement.)

No one who opposes the bill is opposed to the use of helmets (unlike some of the retro-racers back in 2003, when the UCI did in fact implement its helmet requirements).  What folks object to is the bill itself, and the assumption that any such bill will actually accomplish what it aims to do, and that it will end up being a net gain for cyclists and cycling in our society. In fact, many leaders in the cycling advocacy world feel the bill will be counterproductive; that it will discourage people from riding; that overall ridership will decline, and that the presumptive benefits of the exercise associated with cycling will be lost for many people. Both our local Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition and the statewide California Bicycle Coalition vigorously oppose the bill. The CBC is urging cyclists to sign an on-line petition opposing the bill.

Aside from posting a link to the petition, I am not going to urge you to sign it. (Although I did sign it.) It's a tricky issue, with plenty of merit in the arguments on both sides. I have thought long and hard about my position in opposition to the bill. You should too, before making up your mind.

Supporters of the bill suggest it's similar to the laws regarding motorcycle helmet use and seat belt use: that people at first complained about their loss of freedom, etc, but eventually fell into line and now everything is hunky dunky. The argument is also made that we—adults—are hypocrites for requiring children—those under the age of 18—to wear helmets while not enforcing the same requirement on ourselves. All of those arguments fall well short of convincing me, as all are comparing apples to oranges in one way or another.

We recognize that children are vulnerable and unsophisticated in any number of ways and impose all sorts of restrictions on their activities: drinking and drug use, sex, driving, voting, etc. And we also understand that they are less skillful (overall, as a group) at riding bikes, with respect to both their motor skills and their decision making. All of that bears on our rules for requiring them to wear bike helmets, while not extending the same restriction to adults.

The seatbelt and motorcycle laws are both for vehicles that can and do go much faster than bikes, and where the carnage from crashes can be so much more severe than for all but the most catastrophic of bike wrecks. (Whether you believe it or not, you are at much greater risk of serious injury when in your car than when on your bike.) It makes abundant sense to have those laws. Also, at the time those two laws went into effect, use of motorcycle helmets and seatbelts were both spotty at best…maybe 50%? (I'm guessing.) Something needed to be done to move that percentage higher. But that's not currently the case with bike helmets.

I don't know what it's like in other parts of California, but in my neighborhood—the North Bay—helmet use is almost universal among adult, recreational riders. So which sector of the cycling population is the bill going after? There are the few blue collar workers on their old beater bikes who might not always have helmets. There is the ragged fringe of street people noodling around without helmets. And the tiniest little cohort of old-school racers—legends in their own minds—who didn't wear helmets back in the day and by god won't wear them now. I would guess all of these renegades don't add up to 5% of the total biking population, and I would further guess that if the law were on the books, only a tiny minority of this tiny minority would run out and buy helmets. Some of the scruffier street punks might steal your helmet off your handlebars while you're in a shop scoring a latté, but buy one? Unlikely.

As for the section of the bill requiring all the reflective gear for night riding, there are already provisions covering this in the Vehicle Code, and most riders who ride at night—commuters and ultra-marathon riders—already have it covered. However, the requirements now in the CVC and those in the new bill are not the same, so most riders would have to refit their bikes or their kit to adjust to the new rules…a needless expense and bother for people who have already done the responsible thing and equipped their bikes according to the CVC guidelines. There is another bill pending in the State Assembly (AB28) which takes the night-riding lighting requirements even further, tipping over into the realm of the absurd. (Read the bill if you don't believe me.) Yet as absurd as it might be, it's in the pipeline and may be on its way to enforcement on a road near you.

As noted above, the bill's supporters appear to be fixated on the single mantra that helmets save lives, and they cannot understand the positions taken by the bike coalition leaders in opposition to the bill. On our chat list, there was even a lightly veiled hint from one person that we ought to stop making donations to these organizations because of their wrong-headed views in this case. (Our club makes fairly substantial annual grants to both those coalitions.) I find this a real head-scratcher. The folks at the SCBC and CBC are full-time pros at the job of cycling advocacy. They're the experts. They do the research, read the studies, analyze the statistics, work with the politicians and industry leaders. It's what we pay them to do when we fund their operations, right? Now, when the experts express a point of view that's doesn't agree with the long-held positions of some of our members, all of a sudden, the experts don't know squat (and should, in essence, be fired). All these folks weighing in on the chat list, who have only the most superficial grasp of the larger context, now know more than the experts?

Matt Muldoon, one of our club members who opposes the bill, did what I think is a good job of summing up why some of us think the bill is flawed. With his permission, I'm quoting from one of his notes to the chat list…

"The heart of the matter: when is it appropriate for government to restrict liberty in order to support a particular goal? In this case, that goal is to prevent unnecessary injury to cyclists. The restriction of liberty is to eliminate the freedom of competent adults to choose whether or not to wear a helmet."

"Clearly, there are cases where laws and regulations are appropriate. No one advocates permitting intoxicated driving in the name of 'liberty.' On the other hand, liberty must be protected from government overreach. Shall we be required to wear helmets while jogging? Any time we're on a ladder? In a crosswalk? No doubt, some lives would be saved by such restrictions. Is that sufficient justification for it?"

I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on television, but I propose the following tests:

1. Government must have a compelling state interest to enact any law that would restrict freedom.  In this case, it could be argued that preventing injury to cyclists that might result in long-term disability and economic impact that would be borne generally is a compelling interest. So the proposal passes this part of the test.

2. The proposed law must be effective. Since the extent to which injuries would be prevented by a mandatory helmet law is unresolved, then the proposed law fails this part of the test. An ineffectual law that restricts liberty is the worst possible outcome. The burden of proof must be on those who support the restriction. 

3. The impact and extent of the benefit of the law to society must be sufficient to justify the loss of liberty. Since the number of head-injured cyclists is relatively small (compared to various other societal behaviors, such as sedentary lifestyles, overeating, falling off ladders, etc), the law fails this test as well. Put another way, if it makes sense to force cyclists to wear helmets, then it makes sense for government to force us to do many other things. Hey, you’re a few pounds overweight. Studies show that you’ll be an inordinate cost to the healthcare system. New law: no ice cream for you!

"The law flunks two of the three tests. For these reasons, I oppose the bill and others like it."

Matt refers to the question of how effective helmets actually are in preventing injuries and fatalities. I'm one of those people who can trot out our pet anecdotes about how our helmets saved us from some terrible fate. But those darn experts will tell you that there is a great deal of uncertainty as to how effective helmets really are. Sure, they do work in some cases. (I'll testify to that.) but they don't always work, and when you're doing a cost/benefit analysis of mandatory helmet laws vs too much government overreach, the question of just how effective the helmets are is germane.

If this column is not going to be as long as a short novel, I don't have room to fully explore this issue, but if you do want to get into it, I recommend reading this report: The Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws. It's ten pages long and packed with statistics and math and facts enough to make your eyes glaze over. But after all the numbers have been crunched, the conclusion does not support the push for mandatory helmet laws.

I am certainly concerned about the presumptive loss of personal "liberty"—or personal self-determination—if such a law were passed. I am also concerned about the widely held assumption that helmets are so effective in preventing injury and death that it is worth the loss of that self-determination to achieve that end, when in fact a great deal of research has come to the opposite conclusion.

But I'm troubled most here by what I might describe as larger philosophical questions. I am uncomfortable with the happy fantasy that more laws can solve all our problems. I'm about as liberal as they come, so in theory I should favor more government intrusion into my life (or your life)...more rules and regulations. That's how conservatives describe the "liberal" sort of governance. Well, guess what...not this liberal.

Too many times some high-minded, good-intentioned legislator decides they know what's best for the rest of us and imposes their version of Sharia Law on us. This is what's known as Social Engineering. The 55-mph speed limit was a classic case of this. On paper, of course it sounds right that, if we all slow down, we will all be safer. It didn't work out that way, and for a generation, we had 90% of the population breaking the law. Prohibition was another road to hell paved with good intentions. Our current drug laws are not much better. Laws against interracial marriage, against gay marriage, on and on. The books are filled with ill-considered laws that failed to do what they were intended to do and caused other problems no one had thought through in their rush to fix whatever they thought was broken.

We need some laws, in some places and cases, to pull our unruly tribe back from the brink of anarchy. But the laws we have on the books should be good laws...well thought out and functional and fair, with no unintended consequences. All three of the items on the docket now—helmets, reflective apparel, blinking lights—fail that standard. In their efforts to be seen to be doing something worthwhile, these law-makers are using a brick to smash a mosquito perched on a Tiffany lampshade. We have to accept that in this complex, messy world, every single little problem cannot be remedied by throwing another law on the books. Sometimes, education and peer pressure are better tools for the job.

There is a slightly buried subtext here that bothers me too: these laws imply that cyclists are the problem; that they are indulging in a risky, out-on-the-edge recreation, and that therefor the onus is on them to see to their own safety. Well of course, we all agree that we should wear helmets and run lights after dark. No problem with that. But by carving this into the law books, it lets the drivers off the hook: this has nothing to do with them; it's those out-of-control thrill junkies on their bikes!

Instead of poorly thought out laws, what really should be happening takes more time and more patience and more cooperation among all road users, and that's education: teaching riders to ride more skillfully and more intelligently, but even more importantly, teaching drivers how to interact with riders, the way they do in Europe. Someone pointed out on our chat list that in the countries with the lowest bike fatality numbers—Holland and Denmark—helmet use is not at all widespread. According to the conventional wisdom in this country, all those hundreds of thousands of helmet-less riders should be dead! But they're not. And the reasons why are that they have worked hard on bike infrastructure and even harder, over several generations, on integrating bikes and cars into one seamless transit system. Everyone understands what everyone else is doing, and the drivers accept the riders and work around them and with them.

This thorny issue has not been confined to just our bike club's chat list. It's got serious legs and is stirring up the troops all over the state, and many a blog and forum is buzzing with heated debate. If you haven't already read more than you want to about this matter, I will leave you with one more link to a very good column itemizing all the repercussions of the proposed bill. It's titled Does a Helmet Law Make Sense in California?. While the study for which I provided a link back a few paragraphs is moderately heavy sledding, with all its statistics and equations, this one is very straightforward and simple and not too long. If you're still in a muddle about the proposed laws; if you, like many others, can't understand why passing these laws would be a step backward for cycling, please read this short column.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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