John Liu: Cyclists Need Helmets, But Not Bike Lanes

What does John Liu think of bikes in NYC? That’s hard to say, and it’s not clear that Liu knows either.

On the day when thousands signed up for the city’s bike-share program, exceeding expectations and setting the stage for a major shift in the way many New Yorkers get around, Liu chose to engage in scaremongering. From a statement issued by Liu, which was excerpted by AMNY:

“It’s not too late to fix the City’s Bike Share program to make sure it’s safe — by requiring helmets for all riders, increasing traffic enforcement at dangerous intersections, and doing more to educate cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians alike on the rules of the road. Helmets in particular are key — according to the Department of Transportation, in 97 percent of fatal bicycle accidents in New York City the rider was not wearing a helmet.”

Liu’s helmet use claim is misleading. The stat comes from a city report on cyclist deaths and injuries from 1996 to 2005, and here is what the report says: “Among the fatalities with documented helmet use, 97% of the bicyclists were not wearing a helmet at the time of the crash.” Of the 207 cyclist fatalities during the study period, helmet use or non-use was documented in 122 crashes. Of those, four cyclists were reported to have been wearing a helmet. No helmet use data was recorded for the remaining 85 fatal crashes. It could be that most of those 85 cyclists weren’t wearing helmets, but Liu misrepresents the report’s findings.

Here’s another data point from that report: 92 percent of cyclists killed were struck by drivers in motor vehicles. Liu’s statement is akin to saying 97 percent of gunshot victims weren’t wearing bullet-proof vests.

Liu is also drumming up fear without any evidence that bike-share is dangerous. Crash data from Paris to London to DC suggest that injury rates for bike-share users are lower than for cyclists on their own bikes.

As for infrastructure that makes cyclists safer: Liu’s helmet stat is cited in his bike-share safety plan, which, misguided as it may be, projects a generally positive attitude toward cycling. By contrast, at a recent candidate forum in Brooklyn, Liu said he is skeptical of the city’s bike lane program. From Ditmas Park Corner, emphasis theirs:

Question from the audience: A frustrated driver asked what he would do about the increase of bike lanes in the city.

This did not go over well with a clearly divided crowd, who began arguing with each other right away. Liu managed to get an answer in, siding with drivers. He said that they make sense in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn and Queens, he said he’s stood watching for a long time without seeing any cyclists ride past. He also said that there is “little to no community input” when the Department of Transportation looks at installing bike lanes (though, we’ve so far seen that the DOT is trying, in our area, to reach out via the Community Board).

First off, to say that DOT installs bike lanes without input is a total fabrication. Not only does DOT consult community boards on the vast majority of bike lane and other street safety projects, it routinely adjusts these projects based on feedback, for better or worse.

Also: Got that, everyone in Brooklyn and Queens? Your boroughs ranked first and second in cyclist deaths in 2012, with seven and six killed, respectively. Yet John Liu doesn’t want to make your streets safer for biking. Let’s see how that plays in the primary.

  • Joe R.

    Pedestrians and motorists are both statistically more likely to incur head injury than cyclists. Why isn’t Liu suggesting they wear helmets?

    And the study he used is totally worthless. Because of the lack of helmet use data for 85 out of 207 crashes, the percentage of cyclists not wearing helmets in fatal crashes could be anywhere from 57% to 98%. Even assuming we had that data, there is no data on what percentage of ALL cyclists were wearing helmets. We can’t make any conclusions without that data. Besides that, newer studies show helmets are much less effective than previously thought. They’re not really effective at all in bike-motor vehicle collisions.

  • Relieved that he cannot win but frustrated that he has a platform at all.

  • Anonymous

    What percentage of pedestrians killed by motor vehicles were wearing a helmet?

  • moocow

    Hey John Liu, what else don’t you know about?

  • Ian Turner

    Even if you accept the 98% number, it is useless without also knowing what percentage of cyclists who were not wearing a helmet (which could easily be over 90%). And that’s before you get into selection bias issues.

  • J

    100% of victims of the Newtown shootings weren’t wearing bullet proof vests. Yet no one was stupid enough to suggest increased bullet-proof vest use as a response to that tragedy. The lack of bullet proof vest was not the cause of injury & death, it was lethal weapons in the hands of seriously deranged people. Similarly, the lack of helmets is not the cause of cyclist (& pedestrian) injury and death, it is the streets that are designed to move cars at speeds that can and do kill people.

  • KillMoto

    Jackass needs to get on a bike and ride before opening his cake hole.

  • Joe R.

    I wrote him back in 1999 in regards to a sidewalk cycling ticket I received. Among the other things he wrote in response, he claimed to be an avid cyclist. Whether or not that’s still true (or ever was), I really can’t answer.

  • Albert

    I don’t see any data on which of these 207 cyclists died from head injuries. Without this information nothing at all can be learned about helmet effectiveness.

    I seem to remember John Liu being somewhat of a friend to livable streets, years ago. Is my memory incorrent? He’s certainly now become somewhat of a livable streets putz.

  • Marina

    I attended that candidate forum in Ditmas Park and recorded part of Liu’s answer to the “frustrated driver”. Here’s an excerpt transcribed by me from the audio: “It’s also a question of one size fits all. In many of the streets of Manhattan it makes sense to have bike lanes, it’s safer for the bike riders, there’re actually more bike riders. But here in this part of Brooklyn or in the part of Queens that I live in there’re bike lanes, fewer parking spaces. And you look down the bike lane and you can stand there for an hour and there’s not a single biker…”

    Needless to say I was beyond disappointed in Liu’s discourse. He showed himself to be completely misinformed not only about bicycling in Brooklyn and Queens, but also about my neighborhood of Ditmas Park, which includes many many bicyclists and not a single bike lane.

  • Larry Littlefield

    How many of the private equity and hedge deals the pension funds invested in are now zombie funds?

    I can’t believe, as we raise taxes and cut services despite record employment and stock prices to pay for the past, that we have two ex-Comptrollers and a former budget director running for Mayor.

  • Just sent this email to Liu, feel free to adapt & repeat…

    Dear Comptroller Liu,

    As a registered Democrat in Brooklyn, I’m extremely disappointed in your statements about bike lanes — in particular, that they make sense in Manhattan, but not in Brooklyn or Queens.

    Ad hoc observations about bike lane utilization — that you’ve watched and not seen enough bikers somewhere — are not a valid basis for citywide policy. Politicking, maybe, but I expect more from a serious mayoral candidate.

    Brooklyn and Queens rank first in cyclist fatalities, and I know several people who’ve lost their friends to reckless drivers. Vulnerable road users need to be placed first. Bicycle lanes and infrastructure are an effective strategy for protecting both pedestrians and cyclists. Helmet requirements, on the other hand, are a red herring with limited proven results. In an accident with a car, a helmet offers no protection from a host of debilitating injuries. The best safety strategy is to have more cyclists on the streets, and helmet requirements have been proven to discourage people from cycling.

    I hope you reconsider your stance and statements on pedestrian and cyclist safety, and adopt a more balanced approach to street design. Until then, I regret to say I cannot consider your candidacy seriously in the primary or general election.

  • Ben Kintisch

    Yes his comments make no sense. I think what we need to show him is that inane and inaccurate statements like this will cost him more votes than help him in any way.

  • moocow

    Great, now I have To go look up “zombie fund”. Pretty sure it’s not going to be good.

  • moocow

    TA or streetsblog has a shot of him riding on the sidewalk on a recumbent. They used to run it after he would say dumb stuff about bikes like 5 years ago.
    Oh yeah, he’s been saying dumb stuff about bikes for like 5 years now.

  • Anonymous

    I’m as big an advocate for wearing helmets as they come, but get real: the 18-wheelers and dump trucks and drunk drivers and impatient dirtwads that do terrible things to the bodies of cyclists on the way to killing them–no helmet was going to protect them from that stuff.

    Can we please have an adult for mayor?

  • Ian Turner
  • Daniel Winks

    Even if 97% of those were not wearing helmets, that in no way means there’d be a 97% reduction in fatalities if everyone wore a helmet. Bicycle-motor interaction is nearly always fatal if the cyclist ends up under the vehicle’s tires (at any speed) or if the interaction involves more than 30 MPH of speed differential. More often than head injury, the cyclist dies from trauma and organ damage. Head injury alone accounts for very very few instances of fatal cyclist-motor interaction. That said, I wear a helmet for two reasons. The first, is for low-speed collisions, as I ride in slow traffic quite frequently, so I’m not likely to die from organ-damage in a collision, so reducing the risk of head trauma is important to me. The second is the same reason I wear a neon reflective vest: so if I do get hit (and live), my lawyers will have that much more to work with as I take every last penny from the person who hit me. Without the helmet, reflective vest, lights (run day and night), etc, the defense would be far more able to play the blame-game. I recommend a helmet to everyone if not for the increased safety in low-speed collisions, but simply to avoid getting screwed by the defense lawyers for whomever hit you. It’s bad enough being a victim of motor vehicle violence, but giving the defense ammo to use in the blame-game is even worse.

  • khalil

    Without living in Manhattan, Queens, or Brooklyn, I can’t comment on how good/bad the bike lanes are or why Mr. Liu could stand for a long time (what is the definition of a long time) without seeing cyclists. Portland, as it is well known, saw a massive increase in ridership after it connected the existing infrastructure by redesigning its bridges for bike use, thus removing obstacles. I think it is pretty well known that you only need a few disconnects in a system to make it very ineffective. So Mr. Liu, has the city connected the dots?

    That said, I would be hesitant to cheer on the addition of bike lanes or other bike infrastructure without making sure it is designed properly. I’ve seen too many instances where bike infrastructure designers take too many shortcuts and leave novice, newly recruited cyclists more vulnerable than if they were riding on a road without dangerous infrastructure and relying on their own wits.

    Helmets. The late Eve DeCoursey (my fellow advocate on the Hawaii Bike League Board in the 1990’s; she later worked for WABA) would say this: a helmet can protect your head in a crash, but it doesn’t keep you from crashing, doesn’t make the road any safer, and does nothing to protect the bits below the neck. I am a cyclist who survived a serious head injury caused by a negligent driver. I recommend helmets for the simple reason that in a cost-benefit analysis, they cost little but can save a lot, since traumatic head injuries are terrible things. My injury (I was not wearing a helmet) took me out of a graduate dissertation topic because for almost a year, I couldn’t work an equation to save my life. It matters not that the crash should not have happened. Shit does happen in an imperfect world, and one has to be prepared for it.

    But point taken-throwing helmets at riders is a ruthless and dishonest way for a city to abdicate responsibility for improving cycling safety through education of cyclists and motorists, improved infrastructure, and convincing the police to take cycling seriously.

  • Ian Turner


    Regarding the cost-benefit for helmets, it’s not so clear (at least not to me). There are other costs besides the financial one; risk compensation is an issue. Car drivers have been documented to pass cyclists wearing helmets more closely than cyclists without helmets. Helmets can also obstruct hearing and vision. On the benefits side, the benefits of bicycle helmets have never been documented in any scientific way. Doing so is somewhat difficult due to selection effects (people who are predisposed to wear helmets are also more likely to avoid other risks); a conclusive study on helmet effectiveness would require a controlled trial, which has never been done.

    For more information on cycle helmets, you may want to look here:

    Wikipedia’s article is also fairly well-balanced:

  • khalil

    I don’t recall the paper or papers written about passing distance and would like to read it again. I was skeptical of the conclusions.

    Given what a bicycle helmet looks like these days, I have a hard time taking it as a credible statement that a modern bicycle helmet obstructs vision or hearing. Gotta reference? Now if you want to make that point with motorcycle full coverage helmets, I’ll tend to agree, but a MC helmet is built for a much more serious crash.

    If anyone has ever bonked their skull in a minor bike crash, a helmet can be the difference between fixing a bent derailleur or spending a day seeing stars. Its really that simple. I do a lot of singletracking on weekends and am a bit of a klutz on the mountainbike, so I have a better chance of getting horizontal than the average commuter, perhaps. I’ve not hit the road with my head since about 1985, and that was a solo crash on a training ride on an icy road. Broke my helmet and had a sprained neck.

    There have been a wealth of papers written about loss of ridership in areas with MHLs and the like. Those are real considerations. Helmets don’t prevent crashes (I suspect even the St. Christopher medal my mom gave me when I bought my first motorcycle isn’t REALLY what protects me) They have a limited design envelope. They are the fifth of the layers of safety, not the first. They are a simple tool, kinda like putting that Slime in your inner tubes to cut down on flats. Nothing magic or even worth an argument.

    Bottom line is don’t expect me to preach that every cyclist should have a helmet. I’d be much happier if the average cyclist thought about the Five Layers of Safety and analyzed his/her riding environment rather than putting a helmet on an uncritical brain. Andy Cline over at Carbon Trace did a good discussion of helmets from the critic’s perspective. I agree with a lot but not all of what he said. Its a good read.

  • Ian Turner

    The paper about passing distance is widely cited and should be relatively easy to find.

    Regarding eyesight, I haven’t worn a bicycle helmet in over a decade, so it’s possible that designs have changed, but I recall helmets would obstruct peripheral vision and also bend my ears out of place, reducing the spatial precision of hearing.

    Regarding your experience in 1985, you should note that while a cracked helmet probably prevented some kind of injury, it probably did not prevent a concussion. My understanding is that when Styrofoam absorbs energy, it is compressed; cracking it requires relatively little force.

    I don’t mean to suggest that people should not wear helmets or even that the costs outweigh the benefits. But I do think they are way overrated relative to the actual tradeoffs. Speaking for myself, cycling is no more dangerous than riding in a car, walking on the sidewalk, entering or exiting a bathtub, or climbing a ladder. Since I wouldn’t wear a helmet for any of those things, I don’t wear one while cycling, either.

  • khalil

    Below is a link to the Walker paper and afterwards a short discussion. Note that both distance from the curb and helmet wearing apparently explained 8%of the variance of passing distance and the “helmet effect” is subsidiary to lateral positioning, i.e., a couple inches difference at best, using the author’s error estimates. Interestingly, rider distance from the curb was a much bigger predictor of overall passing distance.

    The data seem to stand on their own, but the assumptions of what they mean (risk compensation, etc.) are hypotheses. I don’t know if anyone has gone back to test them. I’d not rest my decision on whether to don a brain bucket on this study, albeit it seems to be a good set of measurements. Like you, I agree that many other activities can result in a head injury, perhaps with greater risk than cycling. Cycling, on a per hour basis, is no more dangerous than driving, and perhaps less dangerous for the average person than climbing a ladder or exiting a bathtub. All this talk of needing helmets is a bit too much drama, but I think the anti-helmet forces spend too much time with the drama as well. A thoughtful cyclist doesn’t depend on talismen (helmets, good luck charms) to stay outa trouble.

    Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender, by Ian Walker. Accident Analysis & Prevention, Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 417–425

    Skeptics: Do cars pass with less space for bicyclists who wear helmets?

  • Ian Turner

    I agree the study’s conclusions would be a lot more useful with replication; however the same thing is true of the studies claiming helmets effectiveness. Overall there is just not a lot of evidence either way.

  • khalil

    We agree on that, Ian!

  • Joe R.

    I’m in agreement with Ian Turner here. I’ve never worn a bike helmet. In fact, they didn’t exist when I first started riding regularly back in 1980. I have read extensively on the subject, both pro and con. I’ve never seen any good reason to start wearing a helmet based on my riding style and the discomfort a helmet causes me (i.e. I overheated when I tried one in the dead of winter). I also found the helmet impaired both vision and hearing, plus the chin strap was irritating and annoying. In the end, all the distractions caused by a helmet would have made a crash far more likely. I only ride on the road, and I rarely fall. In fact, my last fall was in 1996. Prior to that, the falls were getting increasingly less frequent as I learned how to avoid what caused me to fall in the first place (90% potholes, 10% opening car doors). I’ve come to the conclusion that if I die on my bike, there’s a 99.9% chance it will be at the hands of an errant motorist. A helmet is highly unlikely to be of much use there.

    That said, I never tell anybody to not wear a helmet (or to wear one). I discuss the pros and cons if they ask so they can make their own informed decision. By the way, is a great resource for learning about helmets.

  • According to Bell’s web site, the Bell Biker came out in 1975.

  • Joe R.

    It may have, but bike helmets didn’t seem to be relatively common until at least the early 1990s. I *never* saw anyone wearing a helmet until probably the late 1980s.

  • Miles Bader

    It probably depends on location, but I first started riding “for real” (i.e. not just as a kid near my house) about 1980, near Seattle. I had a helmet (Bell! :]), and at the time I certainly had the impression that helmets were easily available and a standard accessory (among adults anyway).

  • Joe R

    I’ve always lived in NYC. Yes, I saw helmets in bicycle shops, but in general most people in the city thought they made you look dorky and wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one. And then there’s the fact that income levels in much of the city are pretty low, while living expenses are high. Helmets weren’t exactly cheap back then. Add in that you were supposed to replace them if you took a bad enough hit. Now you’re talking serious money for poorer people. I recall when I first started riding I had trouble just affording basic maintenance on my bike, things like brake bads, tires, and inner tubes. I had inner tubes with patches over patches. I even patched tires where the casing ripped slightly. And I rode a Raleigh with a busted seat stay for something like 20 years. I “fixed” that by using a small steel bar which held onto the broken ends of the seat stay with hose clamps. It’s still on the bike to this day. I started running on airless tires 5 years ago. Well worth it saving the expense of tubes plus the just about weekly aggravation of fixing flats. I finally could afford a good ride last year when I splurged for a titanium Airborne off eBay. $1325 shipped. I put one of my airless tires in back. 8400 miles total on that tire. It still has a little life left. I’m getting a pair of these as soon as they’re in stock:

    Probably in other cities and/or income levels helmets were more prevalent, but I just don’t recall seeing all that many until the 1990s. Now I’m actually seeing fewer riders with helmets. I consider this a good thing. For cycling to catch on, it really does need to be seen as another everyday activity like walking. which doesn’t require special equipment.

  • I started riding on Long Island in the early eighties. I don’t recall helmets being prolific, and I think you are right that they were not common till the late eighties or early nineties.

  • Anonymous

    I definitely remember seeing helmets in the 1980s — but on TV, watching the Olympics!

  • I don’t see where something being an everyday activity precludes special equipment. Driving is an everyday activity and motorists are festooned with protective equipment.

    Although cycling is a safe activity (as safe in an exposure hour basis as driving), some situations elevate the chances of a crash. Cycling at night, in inclement weather, in heavy bicycle traffic on a bikeway, after happy hour, or in a sporting manner elevate the chances of having a crash. As Andy Cline says over at Carbon Trace, he generally doesn’t bother with helmets unless he is riding with one or more of his own self-defined risk factors in play.

    People should make their own choices, but the presence or absence of a helmet doesn’t change one’s chances of encountering a pothole or rainstorm. I don’t think anyone makes a credible argument that seat belts make driving “look dangerous”. My only regret is that the bike helmet marketing folks have probably made cycle helmets less robust than they used to be. My old Bell Biker and V1 Pro could take a lot of abuse, which I certainly doled out in those days as an inexperienced rider who learned some lessons directly from Mr. Pavement.

  • khalil

    Has anyone downloaded and read the report Liu cites?

    My original post ended with “…throwing helmets at riders is a ruthless and dishonest way for a city to abdicate responsibility for improving cycling safety through education of cyclists and motorists, improved infrastructure, and convincing the police to take cycling seriously.”

    That’s actually the bottom line. If the city’s answer to cycling safety is to prioritize helmets, its solution to crime would be to give everyone guns. Both helmets and arms are the last, not the first resort to solve these problems. Sadly, Liu managed to sidetrack some of his more useful suggestions (enforcement, education) by concentrating on helmets.

    Interestingly, there is other useful information one can cherrypick from that report. Mind if I do?

    “Nearly all (94%) fatalities involved poor driving or bicycle riding practices, particularly driver inattention and disregarding traffic signals and signs.” (Hence the need for better enforcement for the benefit of all NYC residents and visitors)

    “Only one fatal crash with a motor vehicle occurred when a bicyclist was in a marked bicycle lane. (It sounds like these lanes work!)

    “Most fatal crashes (74%) involved a head injury” (thus actually supporting a call for helmet use). 49% of fatal crashes involved head injury alone (pg. 15). Do we know if a helmet might have prevented the fatality?

    “Nine Possible Fatality Clusters Were Identified” (Have we fixed something at those locations?)

    Interesting read. If advocates can get beyond lashing out at inept bureaucrats and that damned six letter word (h-e-l-m-e-t) and instead deal with the problems we face, maybe we can make more progress.

  • Joe R.

    I took four things out of that report. One, we need better motor vehicle enforcement (this would help pedestrians as well) but we *don’t* need more enforcement of traffic laws on cyclists. For one thing, traffic laws as they stand really don’t make cycling any safer. Actually, the opposite is often true. For another, the laws and built environment would dramatically decrease the efficiency of cycling if cyclists had to stop at every red light/stop sign. Actually, this would be a bigger deterrent to cycling than a mandatory helmet law.

    Two, the fatality clusters seem to center around very congested areas. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating-the streets in these areas are just too crowded for safety. When things get too congested, motorists get frustrated and start doing stupid things which endanger people. If we won’t take steps to dramatically reduce motor traffic, then we need to make it structurally impossible for bikes and cars to collide. That implies total grade separation, including at intersections where 89% of fatal collisions occurred. This also has the ancillary benefit of dramatically reducing bicycle travel times.

    Three, the fact that most fatalities occurred on arterial streets once again points to the need for more thru routes totally free of cars and intersections with streets carrying motor traffic. Cyclists use arterials for the same reasons motorists do. Unlike motorists, cyclists don’t have the option of something equivalent to highways and they should. NYC has loads of grade-separated railroads, els, and highways off which could be hung elevated bike lanes. You could make purpose-built viaducts to fill in any gaps. This is especially needed in the outer boroughs where distances are longer and traffic is more aggressive. The lack of such facilities may account for some cyclists using highways (and dying as a result).

    Four, the report actually makes a poor case for helmet use. 92% of fatal crashes involved a motor vehicle. Due to bicycle helmet design (and I’ve read quite a bit on that subject) there’s little we can do to prevent or dramatically lessen head injury in such collisions. Moreover, 51% of the fatal crashes involved injury to other parts of the body. Even if helmets could prevent 100% of head injuries, the outcome of many bike-car collisions would still be the same.

    In short, we can and should be doing a lot more than just telling cyclists to strap on a helmet. Besides the steps I mentioned, I would like to see a lot more stress on defensive riding. Keeping a cushion of space and being acutely aware of your surroundings does more to prevent injury/death than the best helmet.

  • Joe R.

    One more thing which just occurred to me-there is undoubtedly selection bias here. Cyclists involved in fatal collisions undoubtedly don’t represent a neat cross section of the population. Cyclists who choose to wear helmets may be much more risk averse than those who don’t. This in turn means a higher proportion of unhelmeted cyclists are likely to do things which may result in serious injury or death. That would account for the larger percentage of unhelmeted cyclists in the fatal accident group versus the general population. Unhelmeted cyclists are probably overrepresented in the group which gets in collisions in the first place.

    Bottom line-you can’t draw any meaningful conclusions about helmet efficacy from this data. For that matter, decades of much more carefully controlled studies really haven’t fully answered that question, although the most recent studies are suggesting very little benefit from helmet use once all factors are taken into account. That said, if someone knows they’re a klutz on bike who is likely to have lots of low-speed falls, as you mentioned of yourself, then a helmet might at least save you from getting stitches at the ER, even if it won’t help much if a car hits you.

  • khalil

    Helmet is the last and least effective means of defense against injury. Being a savvy, competent cyclist helps more.


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