Why U.S. Bike Helmet Laws Aren’t Enough To Keep Bicyclists Safe

In an effort to go green, bikes are taking over major metropolitan cities. New York bicyclists are taking it one step further with motorized bikes. Both manual bikes and motorized bikes are subject to state and local helmet laws.

There is no federal law requiring bicyclists to wear a helmet, but there are state and local laws. Currently, twenty-two states have state-wide laws and over 201 cities have local ordinances. Most helmet laws apply only to children under 18, but 49 laws apply to all ages.

While legislators are busy passing, amending, and repealing bike helmet laws, bicyclists wearing them are still being struck and killed by motor vehicles. This protection is important but it is not the complete solution to bicycle safety. 

Bicyclists need to follow traffic laws

A bicyclist’s first source of safety is adhering to traffic laws. They are required to follow the same traffic laws as cars. However, it’s rare to see a bicyclist stop at a red light or stop sign. 

When a bicyclist runs a red light and gets struck by a car, a helmet will protect their brain. However, stopping at the red light would have prevented the accident alltogether.

Bicyclists who don’t follow traffic laws make it harder for drivers to safely maneuver around them. Three riding habits create the most potential danger: riding side-by-side in narrow bike lanes, riding slowly in the middle of the street between cars for no apparent reason, and not stopping at stop signs and red lights.

A bicyclist wearing protection and riding carelessly can still get struck and killed by a car.

Infrastructure is more important than helmets

Gregg Culver, professor at the University of Heidelberg says helmets are being promoted as a singular solution to bike safety rather than designing roads for safer car speeds and building better bike infrastructure.

According to Culver, focusing solely on helmets redistributes the blame. “By constantly reinforcing the need for cyclists to feel responsible for their own safety (akin to the manner in which jaywalking was invented in the early 20th century), this fixation serves to redistribute the blame back onto the victim of vehicular violence.”

The U.S. does need better bike infrastructure. Other countries have built far better bike lanes than the U.S., although the city of San Francisco is starting to build protected bike lanes into the roads. 

There’s no denying that helmets are important and they save lives. Bicyclists who choose not to wear one are more likely to be injured or killed during an accident. Citing bicycle accident stats from 2006, Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers say of the 44,000 injuries and 773 deaths, 95% were not wearing helmets (you can see those stats here). However, with or without one, riding on an unsafe road is risking serious injury and death. 

Unenforced helmet laws aren’t effective

Helmet laws make sense but what good does this law do if it’s not consistently and openly enforced? 

Not everyone wants to wear this protection. Some people don’t want to be told what to do by the state. Others don’t want to look like an alien or a fashion disaster. The only way those people would wear one is if the risk of getting a ticket was significant. If nobody’s getting ticketed, they have no reason to wear a helmet. They’ll take the risk.

Helmets can’t protect a bicyclist from broken bones

They can protect a bicyclist from brain injury but it won’t protect them from wrist fractures and other broken bones. Sometimes bicyclists are thrown hundreds of feet into the air and come crashing down onto the pavement. In a crash, broken bones, lacerations, and bruises are inevitable. 

There isn’t one solution to bicycle safety

Bicycle safety requires a combined effort from cyclists, safety equipment, and safe roads. Helmets are important, and so are wide, protected bike lanes. It’s time to recognize that without the proper infrastructure in place, even the safest bicycle riders are at risk.