Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My Personal Reasons for Supporting the Proposed Bike Helmet Law

I am lucky to have survived my bike accident 15 years ago, so I feel strongly about the proposed Maryland law to require all bicyclists, not just children, to wear a helmet. I just delivered this testimony to the Maryland House of Delegates Environmental Matters Committee in Annapolis:

Good afternoon, Ms. McIntosh and members of the committee. My name is Nancy Floreen, and I am an at-large member of the Montgomery County Council; however, I am testifying as an individual today.

Fifteen years ago I took a leisurely bike ride on the Capital Crescent Trail and wound up in the intensive care unit of the Georgetown University Hospital neurology department. I spent five days there, and while I eventually recovered, I never regained any memories of the accident. I don’t really know what happened, but I do know that I was not wearing a helmet.

That’s why I’m here to ask you to vote for HB339, requiring all bicyclists to wear a helmet.

I understand that there is significant opposition to this bill, and I appreciate the arguments made by bicycle advocates that this bill could discourage people from bicycling, particularly in the emerging bikeshare program. These are valid points.

Still, I cannot stress enough the importance of wearing a helmet. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than a half a million people in the US are treated in emergency rooms annually--and more than 700 people die--as a result of bicycle-related injuries. Ninety-one percent of those killed in biking accidents are not wearing helmets. We can change these statistics. We must change these statistics.

While I am here in support of HB339, I want to note that a helmet law is only one of many actions we must take to make bicycling safe and accessible. We must also create a complete bicycle network with bike lanes connecting to each other as well as to major destinations like schools, transit stations and job centers.

These networks require roadway improvements like buffered and non-buffered bike lanes, shared use markings and conflict zone markings. Specifically, I encourage the State to look at placing bike lanes on Georgia Avenue from Spring Street to 13th Street and on the east side of Colesville Road from East-West Highway north to Georgia Avenue. These improvements will do as much as (if not more than) a helmet law to ensure bicycle safety for current riders in addition to those who may use bikeshare.

In 1884, Mark Twain said, “Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it…if you live.” It’s 2013, and I look forward to continuing to work together to make bicycling safe and enjoyable for everyone. Thank you for your time and attention to this matter today, and remember…governing is like riding a bicycle; to keep your balance you must keep moving forward.


Anonymous said...

Nancy, just because you fell off you bike, hit your head and ended up in the emergency room does not necessarily mean that a bike helmet would have saved you from head injury. A bicycle helmet has a very limited ability to absorb impact. It's a piece of Styrofoam for crying out loud. Stop transposing your personal experience to the public at large. You don't know what you are talking about.

Michael Katz said...

As this is local and not national legislation, please investigate and consider the number of biking injuries, emergency room visits and fatalities taking place in Montgomery County - the CDC numbers are meaningless in the context of local legislation. As one who avoids hundreds of car trips per year in and around Bethesda by cycling to grocery stores, Metro, kids' activities and general transportation, I can assure you that a mandatory helmet law WILL increase automotive traffic AND will negatively impact my general health and fitness. I implore you to reconsider your support for HB339, and leave it to the adult citizens of the County to make adult decisions for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Dear Council Member Floreen:

I think it is fine to encourage helmet-wearing, but it is a bad idea to mandate it. This law would kill bike-share in Maryland -- which works so successfully and safely in DC -- before it even got off the ground. Though you had a bad experience, such head injuries are relatively rare for cyclists, and occur at a comparable rate amongst pedestrians, for example. Why not mandate helmet use for pedestrians, too?

If you want to improve safety for all road users, shy not implement a road safety class in our public schools? I would love to have our students go home and remind their parents that the speed limit is an UPPER speed limit, not a lower speed limit (as so many motorists seem to think).

Fritz Hirst said...

Living along Beach Drive near the Capital Crescent Trail, I witness the entire spectrum of cyclists -- from avid spandex-clad racers to the recreational crew pedaling with their kids to Bethesda and Silver Spring. Almost without exception, these cyclists have completely embraced helmet use. For those adults who don't, then it is certainly within their right to exercise poor judgment while accepting the obvious risk.

Bikeshare is another issue altogether. Due to the very nature of the service, the vast majority of Bikeshare users in DC go without helmets. There may be a role for government to play here, because Bikeshare is a government-sponsored program and the County assumes some risk. Hopefully the County can indemnify itself against any claims from non-helmet-wearing Bikeshare users. I've spoken with the County's program managers about helmet use among Bikeshare users. They are very much aware of the problem but solutions are challenging. Certainly a statewide law covering all cyclists is not the way to go.

Benjamin Roberts said...

Hi Nancy,

I completely agree with you about the importance of wearing a helmet while riding a bike. We disagree, though, on how to encourage riders to do so. Studies from other US cities and around the world have shown that helmet laws usually decrease bike ridership. And when you reduce ridership, the accident rate due to automobile collisions goes up. So even if a helmet law increases the percentage of riders wearing helmets, that effect is outpaced by the increased the risk of an accident!

I'm all for alternative proposals to encourage riders to wear helmets. We just need to make the helmet a carrot, not a stick (e.g. lower helmet prices, carefully crafted education campaigns). Otherwise, the state will have no interest in supporting the bike infrastructure improvements we both want because there won't be enough cyclists on the road.

You can find me on weekends riding my bike w/ trailer to the My Organic Market in Rockville, always with a helmet.

Ben Roberts

Benjamin Roberts said...

Got one more for you, a good read I saw in a comment on Greater Greater Washington. You're going to have a problem making bikeshare successful in Montgomery County if this helmet law passes.

At the very least, you should be lobbying the MD House of Delegates to add an exemption for bikeshare users.

Anonymous said...

This law will hurt bicycling, but save no one. :(
That sad those people doing such nasty things to bicyclists.

tina said...

Dear Nancy, I am a regular bicycle commuter. I too had a fall and I think my helmet protected my head. But I would never react to this by imposing a law on all would-be bicyclists mandating helmet use.

These laws result in less safe conditions for all bikers by reducing the number of bikers overall. There is safety in numbers - evidence supports this.
Additional evidence shows that mandated helmet laws reduce the number of people biking. Helmet laws hurt public health in two ways; 1)by increasing the crash risk of the people who are riding b/c overall numbers of riders decreased, and 2)by reducing the total number of people engaged in physical activity that prevents and controls epidemic and costly chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

A mandatory helmet law is a bad idea for anyone concerned about biking safety and controlling epidemic chronic disease.

In addition to commuting by bike, when I always wear a helmet, I also ride about casually to destinations in my own neighborhood on small residential streets. For these trips I sometimes go helmet free. That is my choice. I am an adult. I am extremely offended that anyone thinks the state needs to tell me what to do in these instances. Riding my bike, with or w/o a helmet, is always better for my health than driving. The health benefit of riding outweighs the injury risk in statistic significance. If this evidence weren't compelling enough I would hope that the recognition of an intrusive state would be given much weight. Why not mandate helmets while walking or driving a car? Most head injuries are sustained while riding in a car that crashes.

By the way, I fell on the Sligo Creek trail on a foot bridge that was damp. The surface of the bridges is smooth wood, which grows a film of algae that when wet has a friction coefficient of zero. My bike tires went sideways out from under me and I hit my (helmeted) head and broke my arm. If you are concerned with reducing injury when biking then please mandate that multi-use trails always be surfaced in a substance that maintains friction even when wet. Black-top/tarmac would be an improvement to the current wood.

Incidentally, anyone walking on those slippery bridges is at risk of falling and sustaining a head injury. Why not mandate helmets for people walking on multi-use trails? Its sounds ludicrous, doesn't it, for the over-reach of the state it would represent. But in fact it would prevent more head injuries than a biking helmet law would.

The helmet law would not improve public health and safety and represents an intrusive over-reach by the state.

Jack Cochrane said...

Nancy, I love everything you've done for cycling and for the county... I've known you many years and your sincere stance on this doesn't reduce my respect for you one iota. But this will probably cause bikeshare to fail. Bike sharing has the potential to really change the equation in lower Montgomery Co. as it has in D.C. (where they have a very good safety record). It's not that helmet laws discourage cycling universally (though they will for some types of trips). But this helmet law will result in far fewer trips in BikeShare regions compared to what we could've achieved. Doubling the number of cyclists in Bethesda would improve driver awareness and acceptance, provide impetus for better facilities, and change the mindset of many everyday people about riding a bike. Then we might see another doubling.

I won't argue over who had the worse head injury (how morbid!) but I spent a couple weeks in the hospital from a bump on the head while driving. So I ALWAYS wear a helmet (on a bike). Let's provide discounted helmets to BikeShare members. But a zero tolerance law would have deep ramifications. Thanks for listening.

Cristy Witherspoon said...

Hi there, Nancy! I completely agree with you in the importance of wearing a helmet when on a bike. But to mandate, I think, is a different story, people have what we call free will. They should have the prerogative to not wear a helmet at their own risk. People are completely aware of what may occur when riding a bike on a busy road, most especially when you are not wearing a helmet. Let people think for themselves and not instill every little thing that we want on them.

Erminia Cavins said...

Checking my helmet is one of the things that I’m fond of doing. I always make sure that it’s in good condition so that if ever I meet an accident while biking, I can be assured that my head is protected. This Bike Helmet Law must be implemented so that more bikers will be obliged to use helmets and be safe while on the road. It’s better to be safe than sorry you know, and this Helmet Law can help minimize accidents. :)

-Erminia Cavins-