Should adults be required to wear helmets when they bicycle?
Such a law was floated in the California Legislature earlier this year but never got to a vote. Cycling advocates were able to kill the bill before it got any traction. They cited studies that all-age helmet laws in Canada, Australia and New Zealand failed to produce any degree of a drop in head injuries. At the same time, cycling among adults dropped 20 to 44 percent.
Having at one time been the poster child for why adults should wear bicycle helmets — I cracked four in various crashes in my 30s — I actually agree with those against mandated helmets for adult bicyclists.
The reason is simple. The odds of someone dying or having greater health issues by not cycling and being active is greater than getting a head injury from cycling. We also need to encourage people to get out of their cars whenever possible and bicycle to work.
Having said that, I’d never bicycle without wearing a helmet. I learned the hard way you never know when something is going to go wrong. The odds of most cyclists going downhill at 45 mph and striking a dog running out in front of them as I did one time and taking a serious tumble where I was knocked out for 45 minutes even though I was wearing a helmet is pretty slim. But going down pedaling at 15 mph when I had to veer quickly to get out of the way of a car that had swerved to the right into a bicycle lane as I was crossing railroad tracks leading to getting my tire caught in the tracks is quite possible. In the slow speed crash I went down like a sack of potatoes and landed on the side of my head. Without the helmet it would have not been a pleasant outcome.
It’s also hard to forget the irony of a 24 year-old single mom in Colorado Springs back in the 1980s who was among the advocates that got a state-wide helmet law in place for kids. She ended up dying while bicycling with her daughter when the front tire of her bicycle got caught in a drain grate and her helmetless head slammed into a nearby sidewalk.
Closer to home in the 1990s there was a cyclist that slammed into a runner on West Ripon Road. The cyclist died of massive head injuries. Not only was he not wearing a helmet, but he made a living as an emergency room technician.
I make it a rule that I won’t allow anyone to bicycle with me unless they are wearing a helmet.
While some say requiring a helmet may make adults think it is too dangerous to bicycle, I’d argue the opposite. It is true that most of the tens of thousands I logged pedaling were recreation in nature, there was an 18-month period where I was able to bicycle to work two to three times a week due to my schedule. The 30-mile round trip took me down the wide shoulder of heavily traveled Highway 65 when it was still two lanes between Roseville and Lincoln. In addition the rest of the route save for a quarter mile also had wide shoulders or wide two-lane streets.
More than once I’d have people say that they drove past me while I was cycling to or from work mentioning they noticed me not because of a colorful jersey but because they noticed the helmet when I turned my head slightly while pedaling. My working theory was my head was more in their primary range of sight and that a helmet with lighter colors with a splashy design was more visible and attention grabbing than a head of dark hair.
Obviously there are no taxpayer funded studies backing that up but I’d say it is wise to be as visible and safe as you can when you’re on the road whether you’re a motorist, a pedestrian or a bicyclist.
As for child helmet laws being a big help, studies generally say that they are. But even so a day doesn’t go by that I don’t notice some youngster wearing a helmet that it is so loose that it wouldn’t do them much good if they slammed their head into the pavement.
Helmets make sense for everyone but especially for inexperienced riders or those that are impulsive of which virtually everyone 18 and under fits into that category. But if making helmets mandatory diminishes the ranks of adult bicyclists, it isn’t worth it.
What needs to be done is encouraging more people on short commutes or short errands to forgo cars in favor of bicycles.
The way to do that is make more key routes — such as was done along Louise Avenue in Manteca recently — more bicycle friendly.
And if adults that do take up cycling have half a brain — and want to keep it intact — they will figure out it is a lot smarter to wear helmets.