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Bicycle Helmet Debate Continues

Helmet laws prevent serious head injuries but are they right for Chicago?

NEW YORK State is one of 21 states and the District of Columbia that has bicycle helmet laws for young riders and passengers. And now the Young Physicians Section of the Chicago Medical Society is hoping to bring legislation similar to that in New York to the city of Chicago. Already, the group has started talks with the Active Transportation Alliance (a coalition of people who are working to make biking, walking, and transit safe and easy options for people to get around Chicagoland) and the Chicago City Council President Pro Tempore, Ald. Margaret Laurino of the 39th Ward.

The New York State law prohibits children under one year of age from being passengers on bicycles. It also requires riders and passengers under 14 years of age to wear a helmet. In addition, children between the ages of one and five can only ride as a passenger on a bicycle if they are wearing a helmet that meets certain standards including a good fit and being securely fastened. In addition, these passengers must be in a separate seat attached to the bicycle, and that seat must have adequate provision for keeping the passenger in place and protected from moving parts of the bicycle. Fines for violations of the law do not exceed $50.

In Illinois, only bike messengers and delivery people on bikes are required by law to wear helmets. All other adults have a choice of wearing a helmet or not. In Chicago, children similarly are not required to wear helmets.

Certainly the statistics bear out the fact that helmets can prevent serious head injuries in cyclists. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, each year about 2% of motor vehicle crash deaths are bicyclists. In a majority of bicyclist deaths, the most serious injuries are to the head. Helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50%, and the odds of head, face, or neck injury by 33%. The odds that a bicyclist will wear a helmet are four times higher after a helmet law is enacted than before a law is passed. And, based on the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, the group found that 54% of bicyclists killed in 2015 were not wearing helmets.

But not everyone is a proponent of bicycle helmet laws. Some opponents argue that helmets alone do not make cycling safe but rather the combination of bike lanes, public education, and rider safety education are all part of the big picture. And, they argue, because helmet laws may discourage people from riding bikes then public awareness of bicycle safety will likewise decrease. In fact, a University of Colorado Denver study examining collisions between bicycles and motorists, shows bicyclist safety significantly increases when there are more bikes on the road, a finding that could be attributed to a “safety in numbers effect.”

In a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research called “The Intended and Unintended Effects of Youth Bicycle Helmet Laws,” authors Christopher S. Carpenter and Mark Stehr conclude that while mandatory helmet laws have led to increased helmet use, and while helmet use has been shown to reduce bicycle fatalities, such laws also seem to lead to a decrease in actual bike riding.

The authors offer three explanations for why this may be true. First, helmets can be expensive to purchase and can be seen by many children as “uncool.” Second, bike-helmet laws lower the price of activities similar to biking such as skateboarding, and rollerblading that do not require a helmet. And, third, children may simply place too little weight on safety.

And so the helmet debate continues, especially in large urban areas such as Chicago that are trying to encourage bike riding with programs such as the Divvy bike sharing system. Chicago, with its focus on improving its citizens’ health, has long promoted bike riding as a way to help cut down on traffic and pollution while promoting physical exercise among Chicagoans. At the same time, no one wants to see increased fatalities when cyclists opt not to wear helmets.

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