Bike helmet laws like Massachusetts' send a mixed message.
The law, which took effect this spring, requires bicycle and tricycle riders and passengers 12 and younger to wear helmets. While few would argue that helmets don't protect against serious injuries -- that's like arguing that cigarettes don't contribute to cancer, heart disease and lung ailments -- mandatory helmet laws don't always earn full support from cycling advocates.
The League of American Bicyclists, for instance, opposes helmet laws that are only for children. Such laws "perpetuate the myth that only children are bicycling and that only children need protection," said Allen Greenberg, the League's director of government relations.
The laws also seem to tell youngsters that once they reach a certain age, they can shelve their helmets or hand them down to younger siblings, "as if they graduate from the need to wear a helmet," Greenberg said.
Furthermore, they can set kids up to become what one of my biking friends calls "potential orphans." Those are the helmeted youngsters seen biking with bare-headed parents. Talk about "Do as I say, not as I do."
More than half the cyclists in the United States are adults, Greenberg noted. But most bike helmet laws -- nine states and a smattering of cities and counties have them and a dozen other states are considering them -- apply only to children.
As with laws requiring seat belts or safety restraints for children riding in cars, helmet laws limited to children "have a strong appeal to legislators who want to be seen as concerned with child welfare," according to Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. That is, legislators can be safety-minded without having to confront libertarian adults who tell government, "Don't step on my freedom and privacy. I'll decide for myself whether to play it safe."
In fact, the Bay State's helmet law evolved from a 1990 state law that required helmets for bike passengers under 5 years old. Initiated by child safety groups and pediatricians who didn't even contact any cycling groups, that measure "sailed through the Legislature," said John S. Allen of Waltham, a board member of the Bicycle Coalition of Massachusetts.
Despite good intentions, the 1990 law had serious shortcomings, Allen said. Unlike the child seat-belt law, it had no liability exclusion. That meant if a drunk driver, say, hit a bike with an unhelmeted child passenger, the child could be considered partly at fault under the state's contributory negligence standard and thus could not be awarded a penny in a civil suit against the driver. Also, the law did not account for child passengers on tandems or in trailers, only in bike seats.
The bicycle coalition sought corrective amendments in 1991 and 1992, without success; lawmakers seemed to regard the measures as nothing new. But when the bike group helped legislators Sen. Lois Pines, D-Newton, and Rep. Barbara Gray, D-Framingham, draft a bill adding cyclists and bike passengers up to age 12, they were able to join forces with the safety groups and doctors and win approval from the Legislature and Gov. William F. Weld.
Although Allen helped draft the League of American Bicyclists' position against child-only helmet laws, he testified in favor of the Bay State's new law because it includes a liability exclusion, permits tandems and trailers, and it recognizes that not all bike passengers are under age 5. Among members of the statewide bicycle coalition, "the consensus was this was a big improvement over the old law," he said.
Though the League does not initiate helmet legislation and doesn't like the kids-only laws, it favors getting involved, the way the Massachusetts bicycle coalition did, Greenberg said, "because if you don't, you get stuck with what's left.''
Some have pooh-poohed the Massachusetts law because there is no penalty for violators. The original bill included a small fine, Allen said, but that was removed in committee. Lawmakers undoubtedly recognized that police have other priorities and enforcement would be difficult.
Also, if enforcement is harsh, cycling advocates worry that helmet laws could discourage people from biking at all, according to Bill Taylor, another board member of the Bicycle Coalition of Massachusetts. One study in Australia showed that when penalties were enforced for riders not wearing helmets, cycling declined 21 percent.
Despite the lack of teeth, Allen believes the Massachusetts law stands to achieve its main goal, educating adults and children about helmet safety, because many groups are using the law to back up helmet promotions.
The Massachusetts Bicycle Safety Alliance can help schools and community groups organize safety efforts such as bike fairs and helmet discount programs. Contact Diane Butkus at the state Department of Public Health (617-727-1246).
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