A bill requiring adult bicyclists in California to wear helmets presents all sorts of conflicts, contradictions and conundrums.
I was surprised when state Sen. Carol Liu introduced Senate Bill 192 last month to mandate helmets for all. I thought that was already the law, since wearing a helmet to protect your brain seems like a no-brainer, but it’s required only for those under 18 in California and 21 other states.
For adults, bicycle helmets are voluntary. If the bill becomes law, you’d be fined $25 if caught without one.
Liu, a La Cañada Flintridge Democrat, claims 90 percent of cyclists killed nationwide weren’t wearing helmets. The concern is that bicycling’s growing popularity, especially in California, would lead to more deaths.
Opponents claim a mandatory helmet law would curtail ridership, saying the helmets are “clunky, flatten hair-dos and make bicycling feel like a production,” according to a recent Bee editorial. You mean the hairdo blowing in the wind as you ride helmet-less? Wearing a bike helmet is a bigger production than a brain injury?
Jessica Hunt of Citrus Heights thinks this is just more big government and that adults should be able to decide for themselves. “When I’m just out riding for the fun of riding, I don’t wear a helmet. The risk is minimal. But when I do cycle-cross, I wear a helmet,” she told me.
OK, let’s agree that while wearing a helmet is a good idea, we don’t need a law because it shouldn’t be the government’s business.
What about when it becomes my business?
If you are the victim of an uninsured motorist, who pays? If a cyclist doesn’t wear a helmet and doesn’t have proper health coverage, then has a collision and suffers a serious brain injury, who pays?
Suddenly, the cost of that care is our business, isn’t it? In other words, are we talking about a law to protect us from others or from ourselves?
“I’m an avid cyclist and I also drive a police car for a living,” said Jeff Bilodeau, a Bay Area cop who regularly competes in Sacramento-area cycling events. “I see both sides of the coin, but I always wear a helmet. I teach my kids that. It’s just an added safety measure for any bicyclist. Is it going to save a person’s life? To be honest, we don’t get many calls for bike collisions where the person is wearing a helmet.”
According to federal data, cycling fatalities fell by 18 percent and injuries by 37 percent between 1995 and 2011, even as ridership increased. Bike helmets likely played a role. A 2009 study found that helmets provide a 63 to 88 percent reduction in the risk of head and brain injuries in a crash.
Meanwhile, some say the real issue is the greater dangers cyclists face from motorists who treat them like second-class citizens. Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition, argues that Liu’s bill “attracts attention away from the much more important thing, which is to prevent a crash in the first place.”
Yes, motorists can be jerks, but so can bicyclists, who often ignore the rules of the road, like blowing through traffic lights and stop signs. “It’s not the traffic I’m worried about, it’s the other bicyclists,” said Brenda Espeseth, a Roseville resident who regularly rides the Folsom trails, helmet on.
No law guarantees responsibility, but can it encourage accountability? Since motorists must legally be insured, how do we ensure that cyclists wanting their fair share of the road pay for the cost of injuries they might inflict on others or themselves while on the road?
Freedom isn’t exactly free. If your free choice results in harming others, what should the consequences be?
Bruce Maiman regularly fills in as a host on KFBK radio and lives in Rocklin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.