NYPD Recommended a Mandatory Helmet Law in 2011

Three years ago, NYPD recommended a mandatory helmet law for all cyclists. While the proposal gained traction among some elected officials, it did not receive support from the Bloomberg administration. The de Blasio administration said yesterday that it won’t back a mandatory helmet law, either. While a helmet law isn’t on the agenda now, it’s a troubling sign that NYPD was so recently in favor of a policy with no proven safety benefit but plenty of potential to discourage cycling.

An NYPD officer rides without a bike helmet. Photo: Liz Patek/Flickr
Three years ago, NYPD recommended a mandatory helmet law for all NYC cyclists. Photo: Liz Patek/Flickr

NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan revealed the 2011 helmet law plan at a Vision Zero symposium hosted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health yesterday, and the information was confirmed by a City Hall spokesperson. Other remarks Chan made at the event indicate a disturbing willingness to blame cyclists for getting injured or killed in traffic.

The Vision Zero event featured public health researchers as well as city and federal officials. Outside of Chan’s comments, helmets were discussed only once during the event — a brief mention in discussion of a youth cycling survey, according to notes provided by the Mailman School’s communications department [PDF].

No city where cycling is widespread has improved bike safety with a mandatory helmet law. By sending the message that cycling is an inherently dangerous activity, helmet laws have been shown to discourage people from riding bikes. This puts a damper on the “safety in numbers” effect — the link between higher cycling rates and lower injury rates that researchers attribute to motorists becoming acclimated to cyclists on the street. The net effect is that mandatory helmet laws don’t make biking safer.

Helmet laws also distract from the more important street design and enforcement efforts that make a real dent in traffic violence. It’s telling that helmets are not required in any of the European cities that have been most successful at both encouraging more cycling and reducing traffic injury rates. Closer to home, helmet laws have not proven effective at reducing injury rates in Canada.

The ample evidence that helmet mandates are at odds with the growth of low-risk cycling didn’t stop NYPD’s legislative affairs unit from recommending a helmet law in 2011. Helmets are already required in New York for children age 13 and younger; the police wanted to expand that requirement to all bike riders. The next year, Council Member David Greenfield proposed a mandatory helmet law. Comptroller John Liu followed suit in 2013 with a recommendation to require helmets for bike-share users.

While none of those proposals went anywhere, the fact that NYPD was pursuing a discredited approach to public safety so recently raises questions about whether Vision Zero is only a skin-deep policy at the department. Has NYPD devoted any resources to researching how other police departments have successfully driven down bicyclist injury and fatality rates? Can the department competently safeguard New Yorkers who bike?

Other remarks from Chan yesterday raise more red flags. He said that bicyclists contribute to 74 percent of bike crashes and that 97 percent of cyclists who died in 2004 weren’t wearing helmets. Streetsblog sent multiple requests to NYPD asking where Chan got this data and to clarify the department’s position on helmet laws. When I called to follow up, a spokesperson said the department is “unable to accommodate your request at this time.”

  • walknseason

    To answer your question, yes: Like the rest of NYPD “reforms”, Vision Zero is a bullshit paper-thin excuse to further drill broken windows style ultra-policing into our daily lives, without any of the benefits.

    …And when election time comes, don’t forget the Bill de Blasio is PERSONALLY responsible for this atrocity with his continued personal & professional defense of Bratton.

  • R

    “He said that bicyclists contribute to 74 percent of bike crashes and that 97 percent of cyclists who died in 2004 weren’t wearing helmets.”

    Right. And 100% of pedestrians and motorists who died in traffic crashes also weren’t wearing helmets. If this is data-driven enforcement, I’d hate to see what would happen if Chief Chan just went with his gut.

  • JudenChino

    Yup. I think the creators of Vision Zero would be quite surprised to realize that it’s being used for bike stings and de minimis infractions while we have to fight to just get people charged with a misdemeanor for running over people in cross-walks.

    FFS, 3 old people were killed in Margaret Chin’s district alone, in a two month period. No charges (or I think in one case, we might get a misdemeanor)?

    Meanwhile, I have court in a few months to fight a red light tix in which I treated the light as a stop sign and then proceeded at a slow pace parallel to the peds who were jay walking in Battery Park City. And the cop told me that he saw me treat as a stop sign and said next time, “just jump off and jaywalk,” I’m like thanks cop! Might as well just tell me to go fuck myself because if I had to jay walk at literally every single red light I encounter (as opposed to just riding safely), I’d never ride in NYC again.

  • I’ve read multiple studies of what causes crashes, from many different places. There is striking unanimity: motorists are mainly to blame for between two-thirds and 80 per cent of crashes that injure cyclists and pedestrians. I’ve written to the NYPD in the past after they’ve wheeled out these figures claiming pedestrians and cyclists cause their own deaths and/or injuries. It’s unfortunate to say the least that they’re still using figures that don’t seem to have any basis in fact.

  • Joe R.

    Why does that stupid decade old “97% of cycists who died in 2004 weren’t wearing helmets” statistic keep turning up again and again like a bad penny? It’s meaningless without context. What was the general percentage of helmet use in 2004? If it was 3%, then guess what, the sample of dead cyclists was representative of the cycling population as a whole. Also, I highly doubt the police bothered to look around for helmets after bike crashes. It’s 100% plausible the helmet will come off the cyclist’s head, then get thrown a distance, in a collision forceful enough to kill the cyclist. Finally, most crashes which kill cyclists are bike-motor vehicle crashes. The primary vector for death is blunt force trauma to major organs, sometimes but not always accompanied by head trauma. Or put in layman’s terms, sometimes a helmet would have saved the cyclist from dying twice. The fact is there’s nothing a cyclist can do to make the outcome of a bike-motor vehicle collision better other than to avoid it altogether. Safety in numbers is what reduces the cyclist death rate. Anything which discourages riding, like mandatory helmet use, will on average make things worse, not better.

    Here’s another interesting statistic-nearly 100% of the cyclists who died in the Netherlands weren’t wearing helmets. Of course, that more or less matches the general rate of helmet use there, which is close to zero. Despite this, or maybe because of this, general injury/death rates for cyclists are far lower there than here. Helmets don’t save lives. More people cycling and better infrastructure does.

  • qrt145

    I think helmets can save lives sometimes. It’s helmet laws that don’t.

    The crash last week on Roosevelt Island seems to me like one where a helmet might have made a difference: from what I’ve read or can infer, Anna Maria Moström was hit by a turning bus at fairly low speed. She was not crushed by the bus, but presumably hit her head against the pavement. No mayor organ damage was reported, except for the head injury that left her brain-dead.

  • Joe R.

    There are also some percentage of pedestrian deaths where a helmet could have helped. The most recent one which comes to mind is Jill Tarlov. The difference is you don’t see the police proposing mandatory pedestrian helmet laws. That’s really what bothers me, not the notion that helmets can sometimes save lives. Sure they can but at some point you need to weigh the pros and cons. Head injuries while walking are actually more common than head injuries while biking, but the actual numbers are small enough so that the risk/reward ratio is tipped in favor of people on foot not wearing helmets (except when engaged in hazardous activites like climbing). I just wish such common sense thinking would be applied to cycling. I’ve had people, including cyclists, tell me I’m crazy to ride without a helmet. I’ve tried without success in most cases to explain things to them. It’s like the minute you mention the word “bicycle” to some people, their reasoning faculties go out the window.

  • ralph

    With bike share, the helmet debate is really over. John Liu and many others predicted massive of casualties upon the launch
    of no-helmet-required Citibike. They made their predictions with total confidence – they told everyone exactly what was going to happen.

    And then exactly the opposite happened. The number of fatalities across 35+ municipal bike share systems (no helmet required) in the United States after several tens of millions of miles ridden in our country’s most chaotic, traffic-choked streets is less than 100. To be precise, it’s zero.

    It will happen though. A helmetless bike share rider will die. And so will a helmetless person sleeping in bed during an earthquake. A helmetless pedestrian will die this week, right here in New York, and so will 30,000 helmetless American motor vehicle passengers this year. In fact, if you’re not wearing a helmet right now, you might die!

  • walks bikes drives

    Of course they contributed to their death. They made the decision to be there. If they were driving a car instead of walking or biking, they’d probably still be alive!

    Although, seriously, I really don’t doubt that a number of pedestrians and cyclists do contribute as I have seen many pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike doing stupid things that can cause or contribute to a fatality.

    On helmets, I dont care what the law says. I wear a helmet every time I ride. This past winter, I hit a patch of ice and went down for the first time in probably over twenty years. My helmet slid across the pavement and I got up with nothing but my pride bruised. Did it save my life, no, but saved me from plenty of scratches, bruises, and probably a bad headache.

  • Kevin Love

    This problem has a solution: fake ID.

  • jt

    NYPD repeatedly demonstrates they either don’t know anything about traffic safety or don’t care. They’re a a disgrace.

  • jt

    NYPD repeatedly demonstrates they either don’t know anything about traffic safety or don’t care. They’re a disgrace.

  • eLK

    Like the double parking law? Or the driving on the right law? Or the not tailgating law? And the red light law, the not blocking intersections law, the no turns on red law? Such success.

  • dr2chase

    And why a helmet, instead of, say, studded tires? And do you use daytime running lights? Those have actually been studied in something approximating an honest test (and they helped).

    The helmets obsession for bikes is not terribly rational. There’s other tested safety measures that are apparently better that we don’t care about, and we don’t seem to care at all that helmets might help in a car or while walking — only on bikes, even though all those risks are in the same give-or-take-a-factor-of-two ballpark.

  • Cold Shoaler

    Your helmet sliding across the pavement exposed you to torsional skull and neck injuries, which bike helmets are not designed or tested to prevent. It makes more sense to wear a helmet when you drive or climb a ladder.

  • walks bikes drives

    While I agree that helmets SHOULD be designed better, to protect against rotational forces, etc., I do see them as beneficial. Right, there are limited situations where a helmet will save your life. But they exist. And there should be more, but for that, we need better designs.

  • walks bikes drives

    Actually, I do often run my lights during the day, especially on cloudy days, and was running them on that day. And studded tires? I ride a road bike for my commute. Have yet to see studded tires in 25s. But studded tires would weaken the tires grip on the dry pavement, giving greater likelihood of loss of control, especially at higher speeds. In my years of riding, this was the first hit of black ice I’ve had in NYC. And yeah, there was more safety gear that helped me in that incident. Simply, between my leather jacket and my helmet, I walked away with a broken pedal, and nothing more.

    Again, I’m not saying it saved my life. I’m not even saying it saved a hospital visit, or even a doctors visit. I’m just saying I avoided injury which would have been guaranteed the way I went down if I wasn’t wearing a helmet. You choose to do what you want to do. I don’t advocate them by law for the simple reason of, if you get killed because you chose not to wear a helmet, where the helmet could have prevented your death, that’s on you. I can live with it.

    Cars speeding and not yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks, however, that doesn’t affect the person making the choice in the same way it affects those who have no choice.

    On the that same frame of mind, I also feel seatbelts should be mandatory, for the automakers, but enforcement of the driver wearing the belt, that’s a waste of resources that could be used for a greater good. However, I feel naked not wearing one, and even wear them in the back of cabs.

    I guess you could say, I’m pro choice. 🙂

  • red_greenlight1

    Actually the no turn on red is pretty ingrained in most NYC drivers.

  • jt

    “saved me from plenty of scratches, bruises, ”

    How do you protect other parts of your body from these problems?

  • Cold Shoaler

    I think this is what you would have to wear for any meaningful protection: http://www.motorcycle-superstore.com/10979135/d/scooter-helmets

  • Cold Shoaler

    I’m all for people freely making their own choices as well. I’m also for the conversations about those choices being fact-based. All too often I encounter people who site some anecdote where “my helmet saved my life”, or uses some incident where their helmet hit something as proof that it protected them. I’ve had crashes where my head did NOT hit an object because I was NOT wearing a helmet. Most people presume the safety benefits of helmets extend to all types of impact. They do not. Most people also seem to think that the benefits of bike helmets are on the order of seatbelts in cars or not smoking. I wish someone would show me some data to support that view; I’ve yet to see it.

    The you-should-wear-a-helmet as default view of so many ‘mericans is a symptom of 1) our cultural windshield perspective and 2) the extreme sports/bikes are for racing marketing of cycling apparel.

  • dr2chase

    I think it’s a little odd that you would be so gung-ho for a helmet for safety, yet not also use wider tires. I more or less accidentally ended up on 60mm tires, loved them, *and they were faster for my daily commute* (racing speeds involve much more air resistance on tires, hence their use of skinny tires; rolling resistance, comparing good fat tires with good thin tires, fat rolls better).

    What you get from fat tires is less risk from road cracks and slots, immunity to slotted storm grates, protection from potholes and curbs, and less road vibration. Plus they hold air much longer between pump-ups, and they protect your rims far better (I haven’t trued a fat-tired rim in years).

    You could do both, of course — I use daytime running lights AND I use fat tires, both of those for rational safety reasons, and I use a helmet on a bicycle but not in a car, because I am American and we have a culture of irrational attitudes towards risk. If I were rational, I would also wear the helmet while driving, and perhaps while walking.

  • Mathew Smithburger

    The civilian government through elected officials set public policy in New York City and not the NYPD. If the NYPD continues with the tickets blitz and the not enforcing the speed limit and not investigating cycling deaths the cycling community in this city should start strongly advocating for a reduced overtime policy and pension reductions for the NYPD. Let’s see how fast they snap in line.

  • KeNYC2030

    Once again, the NYPD is essentially throwing up its hands and saying it can’t (or won’t) do anything to make the streets safer, so cyclists better protect themselves. It’s as if the CDC’s sole response to Ebola were to require every American to wear a face mask.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    And you could say the same thing about drivers and helmets, or soccer players and helmets, or cheerleaders and helmets, or the elderly showering and helmets. Going down stairs and helmets.

    There are thousands of activities that could be made ever so slightly safer with a helmet but there aren’t and shouldn’t be laws forcing such a thing, especially when it would discourage an active activity when so many people are dying of sedentary diseases.

  • Tom

    …..or football players and helmets. No cars involved by head injuries galore.

  • Daniel M

    I am also pro-choice and I support your choice to wear a helmet, as well as my option not to wear one outside of organized events.

    However, if you want to really improve your safety, have you considered wider tires? 25mm in an urban setting is just asking to go down in cracks, railroad tracks, potholes, etc and is also super punishing owing to the high pressures required. My go-fast bike runs 42mm tires inflated to around 40psi. My city / touring bike runs 60mm tires at 25psi. Rolling resistance is minimal and comfort and safety are vastly improved.

  • walks bikes drives

    I used to have a bike with fatter tires. I had 38s on it. Then I upgraded to my road bike, which is still a hybrid, but only in that it has flat handlebars. I run 25s instead of 23s for thr little extra cushion in the ride. While I now have to stay clear of most drains, with gatorskins, I havent had much problems. I am averaging fewer than one flat per thousand miles ridden. And I have shaved about 25% off my commute time. If I had room for two bikes, I’d have a larger tire for commutes and thinner tires for fun. But, I am 100% happy with what I have.

  • Joe R.

    I’m using these on my bike now:

    https://www.marvelcompoundtires.com/products-page/bicycle/700c-x-20-mct-daytona-high-resilient-hp/

    Obviously zero chance of getting flats. These roll somewhat better than the last airless tires I tried. I’d say they’re nearly as good as pneumatics, perhaps only 1/2 mph slower. Ride quality? No worse than 700×20 air tires. I highly recommend them to anyone who might be having ongoing problems with flats. I used to flat nearly weekly. It got so bad I was seriously considering giving up riding. Even when I didn’t flat, it was a chore keeping the tires topped off. Now I just ride with no worries.

    As a bonus, these last longer than air tires. My last set went 10,000 miles but I’d say they were probably running on borrowed time by 8,000. The HR compound supposedly lasts 2-3 times as long, so I may get 25,000 miles out of this set.

  • walks bikes drives

    Impressive milage. I got about 1200 miles out of the stock tires that came on my bike, and am probably about 800 miles or so into the gatorskins, which I have read usually run around 3-4000 miles. But how is their wet weather performance? I commute through almost all weather, save extremely heavy rain and I stay out of snow. One thing I like about the gatorskins, and even the stock slicks I had on from purchase, is their wet weather performance. I have yet to have them slip on anything other than smooth manhole covers at any speed.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve accidentally been caught in a few torrential downpours and they performed just fine. In fact, I recall one time it was raining really heavy and my rear wheel was kicking up a nice rooster tail on Union Turnpike at ~25 mph. The bike felt great. I haven’t noticed any difference between these and regular tires. Same thing in snow or slush. Of course, they’re treacherous on ice but so is any tire. The only caveat is after I mount them I sand them lightly with 50 grit sandpaper to remove the mold release compound. It would probably wear off eventually anyway, but I figure it’s better to remove it immediately so the tires get their full traction.

    In NYC tires tend not to last their rated life. Our roads have lots of hard grit on them. Also, the frequent acceleration and braking tend to wear tires out a bit faster. If I end up getting 25,000 miles out of these in NYC then they may well last 50,000 miles in most other places.

  • Stuart Perry

    I would wager that most injuries while bike riding are leg and arm scrapes plus bruises but I never hear people requiring long sleeve shirts, pants, and various joint pads for your extremities. That in itself tells you it is not about safety. I have been riding a bike for the last seven years. When I am full dressed with my pants rolled up in my socks. i feel the most protected against injury.

    If you are crowds, and racing I believe helmets make good sense. But riding by your self on 20 to 50 mile endurance run down a steady bike route on Sunday morning. Or commuting to work each morning on a safe path each morning , the helmet is more for show.

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