Forcing Cyclists to Wear Helmets Is Not the Answer
A mandatory helmet law in NYC is how Vision Zero ends.
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On Wednesday, September 4, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio withdrew his commitment to New York City cycling and the entire Vision Zero program.
Well OK, not really. But it sure felt that way.
Then, minutes later, this came in from reporter Anna Sanders:
“Valid discussion?” “Licensing cyclists”?!? New York City bike Twitter practically exploded with indignation, the general sentiment being, “What in the actual fuck?!?” Just over a month ago the mayor had asserted the city’s commitment to cycling by announcing the Green Wave, a “robust safety plan” featuring “accelerated build-out of a citywide network of protected bike lanes, NYPD enforcement of crash-prone intersections, legislation & other innovations.” Granted, to call the Green Wave “weak sauce” would arguably be giving it too much credit—“watery gravy” might be more like it—but it was still an important step forward, and it’s still probably more than what your city’s doing. (Unless you live outside of the United States, that is.) Now here he was—in an exchange with CBS 2’s notoriously anti-bike reporter Marcia Kramer no less—saying his administration was considering some of the most ass-backwards cycling policies ever devised.
At this point you may be wondering, “So what’s the big deal? Isn’t safety the ultimate goal here?” Well sure it is, which is precisely why both these ideas are so asinine. Some people believe so strongly in helmets that they wear them to bed on the off chance they dream they’re riding a bike, others forego them and let the wind caress their hair (or scalp as the case may be), while still others fall somewhere in between. Regardless of which category you belong to, mandatory helmet laws—like, you’ll be cited for not wearing one—are just bad. Period. The end.
See, for all the “I would have been dead without my helmet” anecdotes out there, smart people who think far more about this stuff than you do know that mandating helmets discourages people from riding bikes, which in turn reduces the crucial “safety in numbers” effect, that ultimately benefits cyclists. This helps explain why the Netherlands (where helmet use for non-competitive cycling is roundly mocked) is one of the safest places to ride in the world, while in Australia (where bicycle helmets have been mandatory for nearly 30 years) cycling remains as dangerous as ever, and Melbourne just put a fork in its bike share program. (That last point is especially significant, as the Citi Bike program is already both safe and successful, and onerous helmet requirements can be crippling to bike shares.)
As for licensing cyclists, while there are places where bicycle registration exists, most municipalities that flirt with it are eventually forced to confront the fact that it’s an untenable concept. Anyway, the bicycle is self-regulating: if you don’t know how to ride it, you fall over. For this you need a licensing exam? And the lack of a license plate on your bike in no way precludes the police from issuing cyclists tickets for traffic infractions. (Believe me, I know.)
Then there’s the increased potential for racial profiling and selective enforcement that mandatory helmet laws and licensing requirements would create, an issue so complex and troubling that it warrants its own article.
In car-centric America it’s hardly surprising that many people don’t know this stuff already. Often they’re hearing these ideas for the first time and they don’t ride bikes, so at first blush making pesky cyclists wear helmets and have special licenses seems perfectly reasonable. However, the mayor of New York City, who presides over a vast metropolis containing over a thousand miles of bike lanes and the country’s largest bike share program, should know perfectly well that all of this stuff has long been debunked. It’s the transportation policy equivalent of flat-Earthism, and if you’re a public official you only suggest any of it is “valid” if you: 1) Don’t like cyclists and want to put a stick in their spokes; or 2) You have your head up your ass.
In fairness to de Blasio, given how little time he’s been spending in the city as of late while he focuses on his presidential campaign, number 2 is probably the more likely explanation.
Of course, mandatory bike helmets and licensing have come up in New York City before, and it’s highly unlikely either of them will ever happen. In 2011, City Council member Eric Ulrich wanted to register adults on bikes; by 2019, he was calling for more bike infrastructure in his district after a driver hit a cyclist. Irate social media commentators and disgruntled community board meeting attendees aside, there’s little political will for any of this stuff.
Nevertheless, it’s still alarming that in 2019 the mayor of New York City—ostensibly a progressive presiding over the least car-centric city in America—would even entertain questions about mandatory bike helmets and licenses instead of swatting them down like the distractions they are. Certainly the lowly state of political discourse these days is lamentable, and we should all be open to new ideas. However, in this case, “license this” followed by a crotch grab would have been the appropriate response.