Cycling Nonsense

Bicycling is in.

What was once the purview of children has now become the domain of adults, and what what was once a mere pastime has become the primary mode of transportation for many thousands of people, particularly those living in urban environs.

But the rest of the country has been slow to accommodate cycling as a means of transportation. Roads remain a dangerous place, whereupon cycling may pose significant risk to life and limb. Some of the danger could be mitigated by properly lighting and maintaining roads or widening them to include bike lanes, but we can’t discount that many bicycle-related injuries and fatalities are caused by negligent or malicious automobile drivers.

In response to what has been a very real increase in the numbers of bicyclists hit by cars, many municipalities and states across the country have enacted legislation promoting caution on the part of bicyclists.

This isn’t a bad idea, nor is it particularly unusual, but in an article published by The Washington Post, blogger Eben Weiss declares these new restrictions part-and-parcel to a vast conspiracy of auto-makers, with designs to “steal” from average Americans ownership of this country’s public roads.

His evidence: mandatory helmet laws.

They’re turning us into cars.

Yes, it’s true. They’re not starting with pedestrians, though. They’re starting with cyclists. The first step is passing mandatory bicycle helmet laws for adults, like the bill that’s been introduced in California (which would also require reflective clothing at night). We’re already at the point where every car-on-bike “accident” (police always assume it’s an accident; drivers are allowed unlimited “oopsies”) is always the cyclist’s fault, and where helmetlessness automatically equals guilt. That’s why whenever you read about a cyclist who’s been injured or killed, the article mentions helmets, regardless of whether this detail in any way relevant. (“The cyclist’s legs were flattened by the runaway steamroller. No criminality suspected. The victim was not wearing a helmet.”)

So why make helmets mandatory? For your safety? Please. Cycling head injury statistics are so ambiguous that even the federal government has been forced to stop exaggerating the effectiveness of bicycle helmets under the Data Quality Act. Maybe you’re one of those people who thinks not wearing a bicycle helmet is tantamount to suicide.  Maybe you’re one of those people who refuses to wear one under any circumstances because they mess up your hair. Or maybe you’re like me and don’t care much about your hair because you’re losing it anyway, so you wear one when you’re riding a go-fast bike in a special outfit but you don’t bother when you’re noodling around town in street clothes. The point is you have a choice.

As to the efficacy of bicycle helmets: wearing the helmet does not make you more likely to suffer traumatic brain injury, or death resultant thereto. Even if helmets were proved to be only modestly effective, wearing one would remain statistically preferable to not wearing one.

As to choice: you still have one. The application of an aversive stimulus may influence choice, but it does not eliminate choice. You can choose to wear your helmet, or you can choose not to, with the understanding that the latter choice entails specific consequences.

Incidentally, millions of automobile drivers make a similar choice every time they get behind the wheel. A number of states have primary seat belt laws, which stipulate motorists may be pulled over for failing to secure themselves. Many still have secondary seat belt laws, which allow police to ticket motorists for failing to fasten their seat belts if they have been stopped for a moving violation.

Freedom and choice aren’t the issues here. These laws are about public safety. Injuries and deaths, tragic though they are for the injured or deceased’s immediate relations, cost the wider community in more ways than one. We pay the police who investigate the scene. We pay the judges and court clerks who hear the cases. We pay for medicare and medicaid.  We assume the burden of lost tax revenue. Our insurance premiums go up to cover the cost your health care. At the end of the day, a safer society is a cheaper society, and the less money we spend on preventable injury and death means more money we can put in other places.

Like building bike lanes.

But Weiss has a theory for that, as well:

Here’s why the auto industry, the insurance industry and the officials they lobby want helmet laws. First, forcing people to wear helmets shifts responsibilities onto cyclists and absolves governments from having to build better cycling infrastructure and drivers from having to obey traffic laws. “Want to be safer? We’re not gonna build any bike lanes. They take up too much free parking. Put this foam dunce cap on your head, you’ll be fine!” Done, and done.

Second, helmet laws discourage people from using bicycles for everyday transportation by making it inconvenient, and by making it seem more dangerous than it really is. In Australia, there’s plenty of evidence that helmet laws have done far more to curb cycling growth than to keep riders safer. Take a look at the bike share in Melbourne: Hardly anybody’s using it, because you’ve got to buy a helmet first. Meanwhile, in countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, where lots and lots of people ride bikes, a helmeted bicyclist is about as rare as a helmeted driver here in America. And yet they seem to be managing pretty well — maybe because they’ve got bike infrastructure, and because they still subscribe to the notion that the person operating the giant machine on public roads needs to be responsible for not killing people with it.

Speculation supported by rampant editorializing.

The “plenty of evidence” showing that helmet laws have inhibited cycling in Australia doesn’t show anything of the sort. The cited article is little more than a blog post on a website operated by an organization lobbying parliament ministers to overturn mandatory helmet laws in Australia. It’s hardly an unbiased source, and by no means was this an academic study. Furthermore, nowhere in the article is it claimed that these laws have kept Australians from embracing cycling more widely than they have. It would seem Weiss simply made that part up.

But forget evidence for a second. Weiss’ argument doesn’t even stand up to simple logic.

If it can be said that auto-manufacturers and insurers want to keep people driving cars instead of bicycles so they don’t have to build better, bicycle-friendly infrastructures, you have to demonstrate that auto-manufacturers and insurers actually have a dog in the fight.

And that’s harder than you’d think.

For auto-makers to take deliberate action against bicyclists, they would have to see bicycles as an imminent threat to their financial well-being. I hardly think that’s the case. Bicycles and cars can both be used for the same primary task, but owning a bicycle will not eliminate one’s need for a car. Even if you own the best road bike on the market, you’re still going to need a motorized vehicle with four wheels and a trunk if you ever want to drive more than a few miles from your home to buy from a store anything larger and heavier than a loaf of bread.

Insurance companies, meanwhile, aren’t looking to keep people from bicycling either. Their motivation is simple: they don’t want to pay out hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to injured bicyclists if they don’t have to. So, they try to mitigate damage wherever possible.

Bike helmets mitigate damage, so they would prefer that cyclists wear them. Bike lanes would mitigate damage, too, but lobbying municipal authorities to spend millions of dollars redesigning their city’s roadways seems like a losing proposition when the alternative is asking bicyclists to spend fifty bucks on a plastic hat.

The latter is certainly cheaper, at least.

More absurdly still, Weiss maintains that only motorists ought to concern themselves with the safety of cyclists, that cyclists should, in no way, be compelled to take reasonable precautions to protect themselves.

Were this a matter of pure criminality, I would be inclined to agree. If a woman is raped, it is the rapist’s fault, no matter what she may have done or not done moments prior. No one ought to be compelled to protect themselves against robbery or murder or any other deliberate, willful criminal act. But we’re not talking about deliberate criminality here. While there are no doubt countless examples of deliberate violence against cyclists by motorists, many more are likely accidental.

Yes, drivers should be held to more stringent safety standards than they are now, but drivers are humans and will therefore make mistakes no matter how harshly vehicular assault is punished. Moreover, bicyclists are humans as well, and will also make mistakes. Weiss’ demand for absolute vehicular perfection would be reasonable only in a world where these two conditions were not true; one in which motorists and cyclists never made mistakes. But we don’t live in that world, and for as long as humans can be relied upon to make mistakes, the expectation that cyclists take reasonable measures to protect themselves on the road remains itself reasonable.



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