To helmet or not to helmet?

Posted: March 13th, 2015 | Columns, Featured, The Spoken Word | No Comments

That may no longer be a question

Hutton Marshall | The Spoken Word

Last month, state Sen. Carol Liu, a Democrat from Los Angeles County, proposed a bill that would stick helmets to the heads of all California bicyclists using the powerful glue of the law. In the name of public safety, this helmet mandate would make it a $25 offense to cycle without a brain bucket at any time in the Golden State. It would also require cyclists to wear reflective clothing at night.

A press release Liu’s office issued last month cites the fact that bicycle collisions rose from 11,760 in 2008 to 14,013 in 2012, an 18 percent increase over five years. The problem here is that we don’t have data in California to know how ridership changed over this period. (The lack of data is its own problem.) Rather than indicating that bicycling is somehow growing more dangerous, this increase more likely demonstrates that there’s an increase in the number of people riding bicycles. To that end, if we want to curb collision rates, we need to increase bike infrastructure to match the growing number of cyclists.

In my last column I looked at the statistical danger of bicycle riding and how to tip the odds in one’s favor. One of the suggestions was to wear a helmet when cycling, since in two-thirds of bicycling fatalities in 2012, the rider was pedaling sans helmet.

This was just one of the factors I listed that curbs the statistical danger of bicycling. Others were avoiding streets under construction, riding downhill and abstaining from drinking while biking.

Outlawing any one of these practices on its own, while marginally increasing safety, would be a short-sighted solution that ignores the underlying problem. In a metaphorical nutshell, this bill would be a Band-Aid on what’s likely a non-existent wound. Even if bicycling was as inherently dangerous as Liu suggests, trying to fix it with such a hollow solution would only create the illusion of safety.

Plus, this bill would be a dagger in the back for our freshly launched bike-share program (a dagger made of Styrofoam helmets), because Decobike relies on the spontaneity of its users. I bought my Decobike membership so that if I’m caught in an area a mile or two from my destination, I can just hop on one of their bikes and go, easy as pie. If keeping Decobike as a legal option means potential riders have to lug around a helmet all day just in case, I don’t think that’s going to fly with others in my situation. It would certainly be a deal breaker for me.

We don’t need another disincentive to biking in San Diego. Today’s urban landscape already offers plenty of those. The reason biking isn’t more popular, by and large, is because it’s perceived as dangerous and inconvenient. By telling Californians that biking without safety gear is not only irresponsible, but also illegal, this bill reinforces the false notion that bicycling isn’t beneficial to personal health.

—Contact Hutton Marshall at

Leave a Comment