Helmets, Freedom, and California Law

1980's track helmet
(Photo from whatisabicycle.tumblr.com)
Much commotion was raised on the Internet over the weekend about the proposed “mandatory helmet law” in California (source). Opinion, as always, is divided - they don’t call helmets a “wedge issue” for nothing! Bicycling magazine has given air to both sides so to maximize pageviews, while others have advocated to quietly concede this round. Snarky blogger have, of course written snarky blogs. Meanwhile, I think it’s important to point out that there should be a difference between helmets being a good idea, and helmets being required by law. As helmet makers know better than anyone, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

That said, this finger-pointing and fear-mongering is not entirely unexpected, chiefly because safety is an emotionally touchy issue, but also because there’s an awful lot of money to be made by marketing a safety product. If cycling can be made to look dangerous, there is money to be made. Car companies and public transit benefit from reduced cycling ridership, helmet manufacturers benefit (slightly) from increased helmet sales, and the largely superfluous cycle of product “development” and output of “new” products from the cycling industry gets a booster shot. Everyone wins!

Well, everyone except the consumer. And bike-share programs. And people who rely on a bicycle for work commutes and general transportation. And anyone who wants to look like a normal person instead of an enthusiast who wants to look and perform like Lance minus the performance-enhancing drugs. Well, with the drugs, actually, but his drugs are called “aero helmets,” “bespoke wheel solutions,” and “carbon fiber.” Basically, whatever ($400 helmet) Neo-Lance can buy to give him an advantage over his poorer or less-dedicated neanderthal of a neighbor who still shifts with (ugh!) cables. 
"My coach showed me how to get more aero!"
(Photo from Cervelo)

But I digress. 

Of course, first Neo-Lance goes to his local bike shop to look at helmets before he buys one online. Bike shop employees don’t always want to push helmets, but for liability reasons they have to. Some customers are interested in helmets and want a good one that fits them well. Others just want something to keep them safe. But not everyone wants to spend the $30-60 for a helmet, and I don’t think that they need to. If they want one for personal comfort or need to meet race eligibility, shops stock them. What helmet law does is effectively tack a premium onto an already-expensive bike.

As some of the above linked-to articles have pointed out, helmet laws are particularly harmful to bike-share programs. New York’s CitiBike system, Minnesota’s NiceRide, and London’s Boris Bikes are brilliant and popular, and are possible partly because you don’t have to carry your helmet to the nearest bike kiosk. I used the NiceRide system for two seasons, and one of the things I really liked about it was that I didn’t have to carry the usual cycling combo of lights/lock/helmet with me. I could cycle downtown with just a small bag or backpack, and then cycle back home at the end of the day. I used NiceRide to commute, choosing to reduce the wear-and-tear on my own bikes. I even used it to plan dates!
NiceRide kiosk
(photo from TCDailyPlanet)
The issue at stake here is one of personal freedom. There are already several laws in place in various states that require bicycles to have reflectors, and certainly most bicycles sold in the US are required to have reflectors attached at point of sale. Some states go even further, requiring lights. Minnesota has already crossed that line, mandating front and rear lights on all bikes ridden at night. This is ostensibly in the name of “safety,” but how far can that argument be pushed? The “safety” argument is a favorite one for liberals because it is so elastic. A front and rear light on a bike increases safety - this is true. But surely two front lights and a rear one will increase safety more? What about three front lights, again all in the name of safety? Common sense revolts at the idea, yes, now, but common sense is a pliant opinion. Sooner or later the pliancy is tested, which brings us back to the California bill that sneaks in “reflective clothing” amidst its call for mandatory helmets. (Like helmets, I am all for riding with lights at night. Lights are awesome. Laws requiring lights are not.)

Give them an inch and they will take two inches, and when challenged will say that your yardstick is not the official one. If the government, any government, mandates helmet use today, what will they mandate next? Shin guards? Keirin body armor? The nature of a law is that it is enforceable, initially, in this case, by a modest fine, but ultimately, in all cases, by imprisonment, which is restriction of freedom. California, like Australia and New Zealand, wants to be in the position to potentially imprison people for not wearing a bicycle helmet.

Think about that. 
Looks pretty normal and law-abiding to me!
(Photo from Civia Cycles)
I’ll say here again that my argument is separate from the issue of whether or not wearing helmets is a good idea. It is, especially for children. When I was in elementary school, I had a head-on bike collision with one of my friends. I was wearing a helmet, but had a pretty bad headache nonetheless. Kids who lack basic bike-handling skills need protection. 

In addition to benefiting kids, helmets are also great idea for racers. I have crashed in multiple races, track and cyclocross, each time going over the bars, and each time wearing a helmet. The governing body of cycle racing, the UCI, made helmets mostly mandatory for the Tour de France in 2003 and fully mandatory in 2005. Before that, the Tour riders had the option to abstain, except when they ventured into Belgium, where helmets were legally required. And USA Cycling, the governing body in the US, includes this rule in their handbook:
1J1. Helmets.  At all times when participating in an event held under a USA Cycling event permit, including club rides, any rider on a bicycle or motorcycle shall wear a protective, securely fastened helmet that satisfies the standards specified in USA Cycling Policies. "Participating in an event" means riding a bicycle in the vicinity of a race at any time between the beginning of registration and the last awarding of prizes, but does not apply to riding rollers or stationary trainers in order to warm up. (Source, p.41)
Thank goodness that you can stay bare-headed on your rollers.

All this, I’m sure, is very lucrative for helmet manufacturers. When every racer needs a “regular” helmet (which, as I hinted at above, is a single-use item and must be replaced after a crash) for general riding and an “aero” one for time-trialling, that adds up quickly. As an aside, the mandatory use of an helmet for TTs and triathlons is an interesting issue because the risk of injury is, in theory, greatly reduced during a TT, since you are alone on the course. (I say “in theory” because no amount of helmet can compensate for the notoriously poor bike-handling skills of most triathletes.)

While it is true that an aero helmet has dramatic aerodynamic advantages over a regular helmet, we don’t know if it offers any advantage over a bare head or cloth cap, and we don’t know that because the official rules of any race now say that you must wear a helmet.  Since “not wearing a helmet” isn’t an option in competition, nobody cares if “not wearing a helmet” makes you faster. After all, no R&D lab will spend lots of money on wind tunnel testing to prove the superiority of something from which they profit exactly zero dollars.
Stephen Roche, c.1987 - Greg LeMond comes later (Photo from Wikipedia)
Advocates will point to pros like Greg LeMond and his aero helmet that he wore in his final winning 1989 Tour de France TT, but he was also using aerobars. Aerobars (debatably legal at the time) were a huge advantage, and everybody knew it. But in order to find out if the helmet gave any advantage, you would have to run the TT again without the helmet. Yes, later TT champions like Miguel Indurain also wore aero helmets, but we don’t know if that was because they provided a significant advantage (over, say, a backwards cycling cap) or because, as the top time trialist in the world, companies marketing aero helmets were paying him top dollar to use them.  I challenge anyone to find a picture (warning: NSF helmets) of Marco Pantani, the 1998 TdF winner though a notoriously poor time trialist, riding with an aero helmet. You’d think he’d want every advantage he could get. Before it was mandatory to wear helmets in time trials, not everyone did.

There's Lemond
So while helmets are now de rigueur in the racing peloton and the lonely time trial, they needn't be in daily life. The great thing about the bicycle is that it is so versatile: it can be raced at 30mph, ridden around town at 15mph, or used to haul kids and groceries at 7mph. These are different activities that deserve to be treated equally. To lump the commuter in with Neo-Lance and say that they both fit under the “recreation” umbrella is a gross confusion of categories, and when met with that confusion we should pause and give just reflection, as if our garage was about to charge us for Porsche-quality brakes on our Civic because “they both can go 100mph.” No. Most Civics will never brave those waters, just as most cyclists simply want to get from A to B in a sensible manner. And yes, I will continue to wear an helmet when riding at night, dicking around at Theo Wirth, or commuting in winter.

Racing in the winter so, yes, helmet is on.
By imposing helmets, through law, on the general cycling public and thus erecting unnecessary barriers to entry, we risk decreased ridership, a heavy-handed flattening of the wonderful diversity of the cycling populous, and an imposition on general freedom for lovers of freedom everywhere. If you never leave home without your helmets, great! If you make your kids wear theirs, even better! If you BMX or mountain bike, by all means have two helmets! Again, my point in all of this is that this is a freedom issue. Competitive cyclists submit to helmet requirements because they want and choose to compete. Those of us who spend most of our cycling time not wearing spandex should retain our freedoms. The less the government interferes with our commute, the better.

_DZ submit to reddit

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