Washington state legislators should consider new bicycle-safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.
In addition to safer bicycle lanes, as Seattle, Bellevue and other cities have built in recent years, the NTSB said there should be statewide laws mandating helmet usage.
The agency also suggested new lighting and reflective materials for bicyclists, better vehicle headlights and mandatory collision-avoidance systems in cars.
NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt noted that 857 bicyclists died in crashes with motor vehicles last year. That’s up 6.3% over 2017 and more fatalities than airplane crashes caused in the U.S. last year.
Safety benefits of wearing bicycle helmets — and laws requiring them — are undeniable and backed by extensive research. In states with mandatory helmet laws, bicyclists in accidents are less likely to be killed, and the severity of injuries is significantly lower when helmets are worn.
In making its recommendations, the NTSB cited research that found bicyclists in crashes are twice as likely to be wearing helmets in cities and counties with all-ages helmet requirements. Such laws are effective in increasing helmet use, by 10 to 84%.
Helmet use is important even in cities with improved bicycle infrastructure, a New York University study confirmed. It looked at bicycle accidents after New York City substantially updated streets and enacted a “vision zero” plan to reduce traffic deaths and injuries.
“Despite substantial road safety measures in NYC, the protective impact of simple bicycle helmets in the event of a crash remains significant,” it concluded.
Groundbreaking research on this topic was done in Seattle starting in the 1980s.
That led to King County passing a law requiring all bicyclists to wear helmets in 1993, and extending that to Seattle in 2003. The city has since had relatively high helmet usage. But enforcement has plummeted in recent years, as some bicycling advocates and bicycle-rental organizations gained influence at City Hall. In 2011, Seattle Police issued 600 helmet citations. Last year, the police recorded 46 helmet infractions, up from 33 in 2017.
Public officials also undermine helmet regulations, and condone riding without helmets, by authorizing bike- and scooter-rental services that don’t ensure helmets are provided to every rider. A recent UW study found 80% of those renting the bikes weren’t wearing helmets.
This is another situation “where money overrules safety,” said Dr. Fred Rivara, a University of Washington professor of pediatrics and epidemiology renowned for his research into injury prevention.
While bicycle advocacy groups such as Cascade Bicycle Club may do good work to increase safety and training, some advocates resist helmet laws. Automobile manufacturers also opposed safety measures like seat belts and air bags from the 1960s into the 1980s.
Rivara noted that after decades of opposing mandatory safety equipment, carmakers “have adopted the safety culture” and some now tout the number of air bags in their vehicles.
The proliferation of electric bike and scooter rentals adds urgency to the NTSB’s new safety recommendations. Legislators have stepped up to fund bicycle infrastructure in recent years. Helmet laws should be next.