as published in The Daily Texan on September 9, 1996
Recently the Austin Police Department began enforcing the law prohibiting bicycle riding without an approved helmet. The ensuing debate has served mainly to cloud the relevant issues and warrants a clarification of the essential arguments.
MYTH: "Many bicyclists wear helmets anyway." The campus police estimate the number is around twelve percent. When given the choice, people do not wear helmets.
MYTH: "If you're hit on a bicycle, a helmet is not going to make much difference." The statistics confirm what common sense suggests: if you are hit on the head then you want to be wearing a helmet. Brackenridge Hospital estimates helmets reduce the chances of head injury by almost 90 percent.
MYTH: "Head injuries affect only the victim of the accident." (commonly followed by, "so how I protect myself is MY business.") Hospitalization is everyone's problem - severe head injury rehabilitation can cost millions of dollars and ultimately that expense is passed on to the taxpayers. Head injuries disrupt family's lives, often irreversibly (go to the neurological trauma unit on the fourth floor of Brackenridge Hospital to verify this), not to mention the loss of productivity in sick days and disability.
MYTH: "The best way to diminish bicycle injury is to mandate the use of a helmet." This is analogous to "the best way to diminish shooting deaths is to mandate the use of bulletproof vests outside the home." Attack the problem, not the symptom: Ask any bicyclist what should be done to improve their safety and the number one answer will be, "get me away from the cars."
What is dangerous about riding a bicycle is that cyclists have no place to call home. Bicycles aren't fast enough to keep up with cars, and bicyclists usually aren't selfish enough to take up an entire lane and slow down traffic. Those who do use a lane that is lawfully theirs are often harassed and ridiculed by impatient motorists. The other safe option is to ride on the sidewalk, but bicycles are prohibited from doing so. (Interestingly, bicycle-pedestrian accidents are much less dangerous than automobile-bicycle accidents) So bicycles are banished to the side of the road where thousands of pounds of steel with easily distracted operators whiz by at high speeds, inches away, dozens of times a minute. Bike lane building and maintenance is the most prevalent means of relieving this danger but few exist in Austin and virtually none on campus. Bike lanes are not the only means, however. The City of Houston built a "bike path" along a major bayou that thousands of bicyclists, joggers, and walkers use to commute to work daily. This investment not only protected existing bikers but stimulated bicycling to work as an alternative to driving, promoting environmental cleanliness and a healthy lifestyle.
Most bicyclists, regardless of whether or not they wore a helmet before the ordinance, agree that the law is unfair and that the decision should be a matter of personal choice. The government's role is not to protect a citizen from himself (take the nearly humorous prohibition of suicide as an example), so the question then becomes: is the infringement on personal freedom and inconvenience of carrying a helmet worth the benefits of reduced head injuries?
It's not reasonable to answer "yes" without considering the implications: Namely, why isn't there a helmet law for automobile drivers? At first this seems ludicrous, but imagine how many head injuries would be prevented! The number would eclipse that for bicyclists manyfold. But a helmet law for automobilists never exist because the majority of people drive cars, and the majority of people would answer "no" to the above question and protest such an ordinance. It is only because a relatively small number of voters ride bicycles that City Council could pass a helmet law. Hopefully the minority will gather the clout to force a reevaluation of the helmet law and a much-deserved public vote.
The helmet law was repealed within a year after the publication of this editorial.