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Albany's Mandatory Helmet Law Would Make Bicycling Less Safe, Advocates Warn

Future lawbreaker?
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Future lawbreaker? via Flickr user Rawle C. Jackson

The DOT recently announced that New York City has more cyclists than ever, with the number of daily riders up 150 percent since the mid 1990s. But advocates say a bill currently being debated in Albany that would require helmet use by all adult cyclists in the city could stifle that growth if it passes next year.

Assembly Member Nily Rozic of Queens and State Senator Simcha Felder of Brooklyn have each sponsored a bill in their respective chambers that would require adult cyclists in New York City to wear helmets when riding a bike, under the penalty of a $50 ticket. The current helmet law in the city only requires children under the age of 14 to wear a helmet.

According to the "justification" language in the state Senate bill, there are two reasons for making helmets mandatory. One, the bill claims the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found helmets reduce head injuries by 50 percent and head, neck and face injuries by 33 percent. And two, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 71 percent of cyclist deaths occur in urban areas. Per the bill's language, "requiring everyone who operates a bicycle to wear a helmet is a simple and effective was [sic] to save lives in New York City."

However, Caroline Samponaro, a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives, bluntly rejects these justifications. Samponaro told Gothamist that TransAlt is "adamantly opposed to mandatory helmet laws, because they're proven to make cycling less safe."

Samponaro said the primary reason for this is because laws requiring helmet use discourage cycling and cut against the "safety in numbers" phenomenon. Studies have found that "motorists adjust their behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling," and therefore

The likelihood that a given person walking or bicycling will be struck by a motorist varies inversely with the amount of walking or bicycling. This pattern is consistent across communities of varying size, from specific intersections to cities and countries, and across time periods.

"The proven way to make cycling safer is to build more bike infrastructure, encourage more people to ride bikes and to enforce laws against speeding and failure to yield, deadly driver behaviors that actually kill cyclists," Samponaro told us.

Felder's most recent legislative action regarding city streets was proposing a law to increase the speed limit on Ocean Parkway. Under pressure from his own constituents, Felder, who is a Democrat but caucuses with state Republicans, finally killed the bill recently.

Neither Felder nor Rozic responded to our requests for comment.

The proposed law could also undercut the Citi Bike program, since helmet rental next door to bike docks isn't a thriving business, and Australia's mandatory helmet laws were found to be a huge barrier to people using the bike share system in Brisbane and Melbourne. While the Citi Bike didn't come out swinging against the law, their spokesperson echoed Samponaro's advice on how to make cycling safer.

"With more than 43 million rides to date, Citi Bike has proven to be an incredibly safe bike share program," Citi Bike spokesperson Madeline Kaye told Gothamist. "We believe the way to make bicycling even safer is to increase funding for bike lanes and traffic calming infrastructure and to enforce existing laws."

While the DOT declined to comment on the proposed law, the agency recently announced they would expand the city's bike network in ten neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens to enhance cyclist safety. Those neighborhoods lacking bike infrastructure "account for nearly a quarter of all cyclist fatalities and serious injuries and include just 17 percent of the city's bike lane network," the agency says, acknowledging that bike lanes slow traffic by reducing street width.

And as for the safety of helmets, while the bill doesn't repeat the widely thrown around (and discredited) number that helmets prevent 85 percent of head injuries, Eben Weiss, who writes Bike Snob NYC, has previously pointed out that helmets for casual riders aren't necessarily all they're cracked up to be:

Of course, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that bicycle helmets make us safer, and I'm sure you're going to read plenty of "A helmet saved my life!" testimonials in the comments below. Did it really though? People often come to this conclusion because their helmet cracked. However, a helmet is supposed to compress to absorb the energy of an impact, and if it shattered instead of compressing this could be a sign that it didn't do its job. They may still be alive because they wore a helmet, or they may still be alive despite the fact that it failed.

Ultimately, according to Samponaro, the proposed helmet law is a retreat from progress that the city has made in creating safer streets for cyclists and pedestrians.

"Vision Zero is based on the idea that a system protects individuals, specifically that a system of well-designed streets protects individuals. This is a throwback to victim blaming approach before Vision Zero, and making them individual people responsible for their own safety. In the Vision Zero era, there's no place for a mandatory helmet law."

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