Columns / Discourse / February 21, 2018

Bike Nice: Should we wear helmets? Yes. Should we require them? No

For a long time, I never wore a bike helmet and even survived a few crashes without one. Then, perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, I guesstimated that, if I rode long enough, one day or perhaps one rainy night, my number would be up. Call it love or call it treason, call it fear or call it reason, I started wearing a helmet.

Riding across campus at 5 mph — about the pace of a brisk walk — I don’t always wear one. Out on the street, in traffic with cars, I always wear a helmet. (If it were up to my dermatologist, I’d be wearing a full face helmet with a visor all year round.)

At the same time, I’m opposed to laws requiring bicyclists to wear helmets.

On the one side are experts who study and treat head injuries. They are convinced that helmets save lives, brains and faces. And they have pretty good evidence to back up that belief. Head injuries are very not-good.

On the other side are experts who study and advocate for biking. They have evidence that requiring helmets reduces bike usage. If reduced ridership leads to reduced fitness in the population, that’s not good. Maybe not as unhealthy as head injuries, but still not good.

This assemblage of arguments for and against is labeled by the Big Think website as the “helmet paradox.”

My objection to helmet laws is different. It is derived from my pragmatic view of the law. (Something, coincidentally, I discovered in philosophy class here at Knox.)

A law itself does not reduce the prohibited behavior. Enforcement — punishment — is required. And so, for me, the question is not whether a certain behavior is proclaimed “bad” by having a law on the books. The question is whether enforcing that law — all of the police and court actions involved in punishing that behavior — will make society better or worse.

There are numerous examples — drug laws being the most notable — where I believe the consequences of enforcement have made society worse than if the bad behavior had been allowed.

If a helmet law is what’s known in the business as a “secondary enforcement law,” I’m fine with it. That is, if a cyclist runs a stop sign and crashes into a car, the cyclist should get several traffic tickets. And if the cyclist is not wearing a helmet, I’m fine with adding one more ticket to the stack.

But I’m opposed to legislation that turns not wearing a helmet into what I’ll call a “probable cause” offense. I’m concerned when not wearing a helmet creates probable cause for police to stop and search someone on the street.

My concern increased in 2012, after the U.S. Supreme Court, as reported on NPR, “ruled in Florence v. Burlington that any person arrested can be subject to a strip search — even for a minor offense or traffic violation — without any reason to suspect that they may be carrying a weapon or contraband.”

I believe the impact of enforcement of a helmet law will fall disproportionately and unfairly on minority and low-income people.

The Center for Constitutional Rights reported in 2012: “The New York Police Department stop-and-frisk program affects thousands of people every day in New York City, and it is widely documented that an overwhelming majority of those people are Black or Latino. This report shows that many are also members of a range of other communities that are experiencing a devastating impact from this program, including LGBTQ/GNC people, non-citizens, homeless people, religious minorities, low-income people, residents of certain neighborhoods, and youth. Residents of some New York City neighborhoods described a police presence so pervasive and hostile that they felt as if they were living in a state of siege.”

That’s why I’m in favor of wearing helmets, but opposed to helmet laws. I believe they reduce injuries. But I’m concerned about trapping poor and minority people in a widening dragnet of “probable cause” street stops, followed by frisks and strip searches.

None of the advantages of helmets is worth this systemic injustice.


Tags:  bike nice bike safety

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