Helmet Scolds Could Unwittingly Undermine Bike Safety in Seattle

So far, Seattle's new bike-share companies have not been required to provide helmets, and they are racking up riders. Photo:  Seattle Bike Blog
So far, Seattle's new bike-share companies have not been required to provide helmets, and they are racking up riders. Photo: Seattle Bike Blog

Eight months after Seattle’s publicly-funded bike-share system, Pronto, folded under financial pressure, bike-share in the city is back and growing as private companies deploy dockless systems.

One of the oft-mentioned culprits in Pronto’s flop was Seattle’s all-ages mandatory helmet law and a requirement that helmets be provided for every bike-share trip. The helmet law is still in place, but the private companies aren’t subject to mandatory helmet provision. If two public health researchers get their way, however, that could change.

Frederick P. Rivara and Janessa Graves, authors of a disputed study about the safety impact of helmet requirements, recently published a piece in Crosscut urging Seattle to compel the companies to provide helmets. As Tom Fucoloro points out at Seattle Bike Blog, the researchers’ raw data actually showed a decline in total bike injuries after cities launched bike-share — a finding that could support the idea of “safety in numbers.” But Rivara and Graves emphasized that the proportion of head injuries was higher in bike-share cities, even though total head injuries declined.

Fucoloro says the emphasis on helmet use ignores the unintended consequences on the safety of cycling:

The worst part about focusing on helmets is that such a requirement puts the viability of bike share at risk. This is not a hypothetical statement. It already happened once in this town.

Here’s some data: 100 percent of U.S. bike share systems required to provide helmets with every bike and operating in counties with all-ages helmet laws have lost money and closed down. Because Pronto was the only one.

(Helmets were not the only cause of Pronto’s demise, but they contributed to the budget crisis that sunk the system both in terms of helmet costs and in terms of decreased ridership.)

Bike share could be a big part of a transportation shift in our city that leads to big public health benefits not only for the users of the bikes but for others around them. As the population grows and congestion gets worse, Seattle and King County must provide new options for people trying to get around. Transportation is our region’s biggest creator of air pollution (which causes all kinds of serious localized health issues) and greenhouse gas emissions (a public health problem on a global scale). And physical inactivity is a major contributor of all kinds of debilitating and fatal health issues.

Bike share will not solve any of these issues alone, of course. But it is a part of the solution.

More recommended reading today: Bike Portland reports that Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman will call for congestion pricing on a section of I-5 before shovels go in the ground to widen the road. And Modern Cities profiles a rare type of place in Florida — a walkable neighborhood.

  • Vooch
  • Closed only because of helmet? Hard to believe.

  • Wilfried84

    It’s not just Seattle. Bike share in Australia also isn’t doing too well, and they have helmet laws. Here’s just one article discussing the matter:

    https://www.freestylecyclists.org/study-confirms-helmet-laws-killing-australian-bike-share/

    Correlation is not causation, but here it seems highly suggestive.

  • Just repeal mandatory helmet laws. Take it off the table for everyone.

  • dr2chase

    Those “researchers” seem somewhat obsessed with bicycle helmets.

  • A helmet law for people riding in cars as well as for bicyclists would probably be a good idea.

  • Penchant

    Or you could just wear a damn helmet and quit whining?

  • Frank Kotter

    Hi Penchant! Are you the same ‘Penchant’ from the automobile speed article who launched into a diatribe about the ‘nanny state’ and and ‘totalitarian government’ imposing such things as speed limits and such – Speaking about getting government off our backs so your bro can go 110 in his Ferrari?

    Is it possible that you are now telling us to just bend to the will of the man and stop whining? It’s cool if I never again take you seriously?

  • Or it could be my choice.

  • Stuart

    Penchant is one of RichLL’s many accounts, so the fact that he takes completely contrary philosophical positions depending on whether he’s talking about drivers or cyclists isn’t a surprise.

  • D Man

    There was resistance to seat belt laws, and motorcycle helmet laws. There will be resistance to bicycle helmet laws as well. If the goal is safety then a mandatory helmet law is a no-brainer.

  • Crossing the street is four times as dangerous as riding a bicycle in this city. Lives would undoubtedly be saved if everyone was required to wear a safety helmet every time they cross a street. By what rationale do we regulate an inherently safer activity over a well documented more dangerous one, when the inconveniences and consequences are pretty much the same? Instead of mandating laws requiring people wear them, they should be regulating them and requiring that the helmets people do wear actually work. More than half of all bicycle helmets sold in stores offer no protection for concussions, and are designed based on drop tests done in the 1970s. We need to update our helmet standards first before talking about any mandates.

  • Frank Kotter

    I suspected as such. It really had all the hallmarks – including radio silence when your call out his duplicity and hypocrisy.

  • MatthewEH

    Except for the part where, due to second-order effects, it actually decreases cyclist safety. You must be new here.

  • Derek Read

    Just do what Vancouver BC did with our system. Bikes include a helmet that you lock up with the bike’s cable lock. Use one of the disposable liners if you want or bring your own helmet (regular users I know carry their own). Without a helmet you technically face a $100 fine. Police don’t typically enforce the helmet law, and 85% of people that get a ticket don’t pay it, but at least you have the option and everyone involved can say they gave you ample opportunity when you show up at the hospital with a cracked skull.

  • Derek Read

    You must have never been in a collision? I’ve been t-boned twice when cars ran stop lights and was hit with a right hook once as well. #1: Dent in the car’s hood, helmet cracked, minor concussion, I lived. #2: I was thrown 10m, helmet hit pavement, helmet crushed, minor concussion, scrapes all down my right side, I’m still alive. #3. SUV make a “right hook” turn in front of me, front wheel collided with door and thrown over handlebars, large dent in SUV door, helmet very slightly damaged, I’m still alive. I really don’t care what other people do, or what you do with this data, but I will continue to wear one.

  • MatthewEH

    By all means, wear one. It’s probably not a bad idea. But the calculus changes if the context is a legal requirement. It discourages casual riding, reduces the number of riders on the road, and makes everyone less safe in aggregate.

    This should be completely old hat to anyone who’s been reading this blog longer than a hot minute.

  • Derek Read

    However, the law is the law. The first go-to for a lawyer arguing a case related to this issue would be that a bike share program that doesn’t actively promote helmet use in a county (King) and city (Seattle) that requires bike helmets is being negligent. I’m surprised Pronto even got off the ground without a lawyer raising that as an issue.

  • MatthewEH

    Well, this is a policy discussion. I’m much more interested in what the law should be, at least in this case.

  • MatthewEH

    Sorry, this is sticking in my craw here. You all see my frustration here, I hope.

    Original note from D-Man: Mandatory helmet laws for cyclists are a no-brainer, if safety is the goal.
    Me: There are second-order effects here that make imposition of such laws decrease cyclist safety.
    You: Helmets saved me X times. Have you never been in a crash?
    Me: Sure, wear one. But making it a legal requirement has unintended consequences that are detrimental to safety in aggregate.
    You: Well, the law is the law. [and a bunch of stuff about whether helmets are effective for individuals or not. Which is not at all what I’m speaking to!]
    Me: No, no, the whole discussion is what the law should be!

    Presupposing that the law is the law, and that ends the discussion is… *sputters*… just a textbook example of the fait accompli fallacy. http://believingscience.blogspot.com/2016/08/todays-logical-fallacy-isthere-is-no.html

    In Seattle, there is a mandatory helmet law: the discussion there is whether this law should be rescinded. I live in NYC, where there is no mandatory helmet law for adults, but every so often the specter of imposing such a law comes up; the discussion here is whether this law should be imposed. But really they are exactly the same discussion. The starting legal state of play is pretty much immaterial.

    btw, I do think the safety benefits of helmets *for an individual deciding whether to wear them* are there, though relatively modest, and receive undue emphasis from some safety advocates. (Honestly, I sometimes feel it borders on concern trolling.) But I do think it’s a good idea and nearly always wear a helmet. (The main exception is some bike share rides; maybe 2-3% of the time I don’t anticipate I’ll want to use bike share and won’t have a helmet on hand. I’ll still take the ride.)

    But it simply doesn’t follow that a good idea for me as an individual can be declared a rule that everyone must follow without deeper examination of systemic effects. And people *have* done this, and found *quite convincingly* that any marginal gains from increased helmet use are more than wiped out by loss of the safety-in-numbers effect.

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