I am a long time bicycle advocate in Baltimore City. I have chaired the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee and currently serve on the Maryland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. I have testified in Annapolis and worked with the General Assembly and the administration on bicycle access and safety issues. I would like the thank the delegates for their past support for important bicycle safety legislation, such as the three-foot bill and the repeal of mandatory shoulder use.
It may seem strange to hear this from a bicycle safety advocate, but I am strongly opposed to House Bill 339, which would mandate helmet use for adult bicyclists. I am a proponent of helmet use and have participated in helmet education efforts and have helped finance helmet give-away programs, although I think that the measure of additional safety helmets provide has been exaggerated. But encouraging helmet use is a very different thing from banning cycling without a helmet, and I fear that such a ban would actually decrease bicycling safety.
This is counterintuitive, so let me explain. One of the most effective ways to increase the safety of bicyclists is to get more of them on the road. The increased presence of cyclists leads to increased awareness and acceptance by motorists, leading to better driving and fewer crashes. Eventually, the increased numbers reach a critical mass, leading to the extremely safe cycling environments found in the cities of Europe and on the west coast of the US. Preventing crashes in this way is far more important than the marginal amount of protection afforded by a helmet, which only comes into play once a crash has happened. Unfortunately, mandatory helmet laws have been demonstrated to reduce the level of bicycling, sometimes drastically. Such laws also destroy bike-share programs, such as the very successful Capital Bikeshare in the DC area, and the similar systems envisioned for Baltimore and Annapolis. Fewer cyclists mean more dangerous cycling, which leads to even fewer cyclists, a vicious circle if I ever saw one, not to mention the loss of the health benefits of bicycling to both the discouraged would-be cyclist and society at large.
This is not just a matter of “finding a new sport”. Sport cyclists already overwhelmingly use helmets, as they can easily afford them and don’t mind carrying them in the car, along with the bike, out to the trail or country road where they cycle. The cycling which I have spent decades advocating is utility cycling for transportation, sometimes by people who cannot afford anything else. This is where a mandatory helmet law would prove more burdensome.
By all means, encourage helmet use, and give them away if you can find the funding, but please don’t ban helmetless cycling. However well intentioned this is, I fear it would do more harm than good.
Thank you for your consideration,