I wear a bicycle helmet. Wearing a helmet is a good idea, and we encourage everyone to wear one. For falling and other low-speed crashes, bicycle helmets reduce the chance of a brain injury by more than 50%. With statistics like that, why wouldn’t NJ pursue Mandatory Helmet Legislation like the proposed bills – A4894 and S3494? And why would we oppose it?
The truth may seem counterintuitive but mandatory helmet laws do not make bicycling (and other personal conveyances) safer. For starters, they do little to reduce injuries or death in high-speed crashes as a styrofoam helmet with a thin plastic shell is no match for a three-ton Ford 150 Lightning. Secondly, they reduce bicycle usage by adding the the risk of being cited. In 2017, Seattle shut down its first bike-share program due to low ridership. While bike share was successful in peer cities, Seattle’s mandatory helmet law reduced ridership and raised operating costs because they needed to keep an inventory of clean rental helmets through a vending machine system. Last year, Seattle and surrounding King County, WA finally abolished its mandatory helmet law, citing that the law had no measurable effect on helmet compliance and injuries when compared to Portland, OR.
Seattle Central Greenways in 2017 looked at how helmet law was being enforced and found that the majority of people cited were people of color or unhoused. There are many studies that back up the notion that bicycle regulations be it helmets, licenses or lights are a pretext for two-wheeled traffic stops. Locally this included a surge of bike bell violations in Camden. It should also be noted that unlike seat belts many bicycles sold in the US do not include lights, helmets or bells.
There is also another wrinkle in the existing law. Municipalities can create an exemption to the law by ordinance on seaside boardwalks and even some shared-use paths. Our thinking is that bike rental vendors on the State’s popular boardwalks knew that the helmet law would affect their business.
For some, helmets have become the easy-out solution for safe bicycling. But the data shows that the only way to reduce fatalities is to build a seamless network of bikeways that are physically separated from pedestrians and motor vehicle traffic. In the Netherlands, only a tiny sliver of the adult population wears a bike helmet, yet the fatality rate per mile in the US is 7 times higher than in the Netherlands.
If these bills advance we, along with our New Jersey Partners, will be asking for our members to take action. If you do converse with your NJ State Rep, let them know that we need safer infrastructure, not helmet laws, to make our streets safer.