Each year, approximately 900 people die and 500,000 are hospitalized because of bike accidents. Against this backdrop, proponents of mandatory helmet laws point out helmets reduce the risk of head injuries by 85%. The magnitude of the protective effect was instrumental in helping 21 states pass laws requiring helmet use for children of various ages. While no state currently mandatory bike helmet laws for adults, the initiative is out there.
Our Denver bike accident lawyers ride daily. We greet the growing debate about bicycle helmets with ambivalence. I am pleased so many people want to discuss bicycle safety but I find the content of the debate disconcerting, particularly the arguments being waged by proponents of mandatory bike helmet laws. I have represented countless cyclists who suffered very severe injuries as a result of an accident. I agree cyclists would be better off with a helmet if they are going to bang their head on the concrete. I preach for people to protect their most prized asset at all times. Notwithstanding my support of voluntary helmet use, unfortunately, I do not support mandatory helmet laws for adults.
Do Bike Helmets Reduce Injuries?
It seems intuitive that bicycle helmets would be an effective means of reducing head injury and, indeed, researchers have conducted rigorous tests to prove the effectiveness of helmets. It is, however, important to keep in mind the available statistics come from case-control studies, which are based on small research populations and hindered by methodological limitations.
Millions of riders take it as an article of faith that a helmet will protect them against all damages. Unfortunately, research has shown that it is not possible to quantify the benefit from bicycle helmets because there is disturbing discrepancy between clinical evidence of the effectiveness of helmet wearing and population studies. Simply put, there is insufficient evidence demonstrating helmets actually reduce injuries. To the contrary, it seems as if helmets would be of minor assistance in bike v. auto accidents because they are tested and approved to impacts of 14 miles per hour.
Mandatory Bike Helmet Laws Increases Accidents
Estimates of risk from comparisons of helmeted and non-helmeted cyclists are based on the assumption that cyclists who choose to wear helmets are comparable in all other respects to bareheaded riders. I do not believe this is the case. Rather, I believe cyclists perceive the risk of injury to be lower when wearing a helmet and instinctively compensate by cycling more aggressively. The possibility of accidents could therefore be increased because riders feel more protected and may take greater risks.
The same can be said about motorists. It is plausible that drivers would be less careful around helmeted cyclists. In one study published in Accident Analysis and Prevention, researchers tested clearance given to helmeted and non-helmeted cyclists. In this controlled study, they found drivers gave 3.3 more inches of clearance to cyclists not wearing helmets. Given the fact that many motorists drive more aggressively around cyclists, it is possible mandatory helmet laws would be counterproductive.
Mandatory Bike Helmet Laws Reduce Cyclists
Mandatory helmets could lead to a reduction in cycling because of the burden of wearing the helmet. The helmet becomes just another piece of equipment to log around, which is also an added expense. If cyclists are not allowed to ride a bike without a helmet, often that means they simply do not ride. Mandatory helmet laws would also make it difficult for people to use public bicycle-sharing-programs such as Denver B Cycle because potential riders would need a helmet handy every time they want to rent a bike.
Moreover, the efficacy of helmet laws is judged by weighing the positive benefits of fewer head injuries versus the negative effects of less exercise for cyclists. It could very well be that mandatory helmet laws are bad for public health because the cardiovascular and fitness benefits associated with cycling could drop. Such laws could therefore levy a substantial cost on healthcare systems because savings from fewer head injuries pale in comparison to the costs incurred by decreased cycling.
Finally, mandatory helmet laws could completely infringe on our most basic civil liberties. The necessity of a helmet is a personal freedom the government cannot abridge. In the laws of proportionality, it can then be argued helmets should be worn when walking in icy weather, when tired or drunk, or even when driving because head injuries could occur in all of these settings. The government might well have a role in protecting us from ourselves but that role should be limited to education and advice. When the government exceeds those limits and begins to punish choices that have a potential to be harmful, it treads on the far greater value of personal freedom.
Wear a Helmet Anyway
We should be discussing other strategies to reduce cycling injuries because helmets do not prevent the things that cause the crash. I almost always wear a helmet when I ride but I understand that the helmet is my last line of defense but provides very limited protection. I believe it is necessary to educate cyclists and motorists about proper road etiquette and safety. We have to help everyone understand that cyclists and motorists must similarly follow traffic laws. A proper education will do far more than a debate over helmet laws.
When a cyclist breaks their arm or leg, it will heal with proper setting and casting. They do not have that luxury when it comes to their brains. If injured during an accident unprotected, a brain oftentimes does not recover. A helmet can help reduce brain injuries.
Contact our Denver Bike Accident Lawyers
Cyclists should learn about the dangers associated with riding with nothing covering their noggin. Upon proper education, they should make a determination whether they want to wear a helmet at all. Cyclists are going to be involved in accidents and some of those accidents may be fatal. Wearing a helmet would help. But mandatory bike helmet laws for adults is not the proper road for implementation. If you have any questions, contact our attorneys today at 720.863.6904 or email us for your free consultation.
Owner and Managing Attorney
Jerry Bowman, J.D., M.A., Owner and managing attorney of Bowman Law LLC, takes his responsibility to the legal profession seriously and dedicates his time and effort to providing quality and competent legal representation to clients in Denver and throughout all of Colorado. He holds an MA in Political Science from Wayne State University and earned his law degree in two and a half years from Michigan State University College of Law.