De Blasio Digs In on Helmet-Law Nonsense in Incoherent Radio Appearance

De Brainless disquisition has cyclists shuddering.

Well, would you look at that. Photo: Eric Phillips
Well, would you look at that. Photo: Eric Phillips

Cyclists have got to start considering how to protect themselves from the idiocies of the mayor.

In his weekly conversation today with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, the putative “Bike Mayor” had a hard time explaining why he’s considering licensing and helmet requirements for cyclists.

Instead of discussing how such laws would promote safety (hint: they don’t), de Blasio launched into a fact-free word salad, saying he wants to “consult with everyone” on street safety.

He also told a caller:

“There also are problems protecting folks who use bikes and e-bikes and also maybe someday scooters, and making sure everyone follows rules so everyone else is protected including the most vulnerable folks who are pedestrians. So we’re gonna look at all that, and there’s gonna be a public discussion of it and we want to think about what’s going to keep people safe.”

Huh?

It’s one thing for the mayor to give an off-the-cuff answer on a subject he hasn’t thought about. But but by now he’s seen the tons of coverage highlighting how his brainless suggestion will hurt street safety.

As traffic expert Charles Komanoff bluntly put it: “Helmet laws marginalize cycling and isolate cyclists instead of improving road safety for all; they also fail on their own terms by suppressing safety in numbers, raising the likelihood that cyclists will suffer serious-injury accidents.”

We will say it again: The administration left the building when the boss sidled onto a campaign bus. Apparently, no one told de Blasio that researchers at Virginia Tech warn that “there’s no way for consumers to tell the difference between a helmet that skated by and one that passed with flying colors.” Nor did anyone bother to put in front of him his own DOT’s research saying that cycling got safer in the city because more people are doing it.

Lives are at stake on the streets. The cyclists who are getting doored into trucks and hit by speeding drivers aren’t dying because they failed to wear bright clothing at night or a $20 hunk of styrofoam and plastic. They’re dying because they have to share the road with two-or-more-ton killer machines operated by an entitled class that only thinks about itself — if it thinks at all.

The mayor, who can’t even escape getting dumped on for his driving habits on the Tucker Carlson White Power Happy Hour, is going to have to learn that at some point. Except that he himself seems to view life through a windshield.

Digging in on a bad idea is by now a hallmark of the mayor’s late-administration behavior, so we probably shouldn’t have expected him to approach the bike-helmet question with any intellectual probity.

But if you don’t have anything smart to add to a conversation, just don’t say anything at all.

  • Daphna

    De Blasio “…making sure everyone follows rules so everyone else is protected including the most vulnerable folks who are pedestrians.”

    False on two counts.

    1) everyone following rules does not necessarily lead to increased protection or safety. Traffic rules designed to move motor vehicles, that bicyclists are supposed to follow because they are lumped into motor vehicle laws by default, do not lead to greater safety of pedestrians and cyclists when being adhered to.

    2) Pedestrians are not the most vulnerable. Bicyclists are equally vulnerable. A pedestrian and a bicyclist are both people with no protection around them. Both are human bodies vulnerable to the same degree. And in a bicyclist / pedestrian contact situation, the bicyclist is more likely to be hurt.

  • quenchy

    Counting the days till this nut head is no longer running the city (as if he is right now:-)

  • Joe R.

    848…847…846…

    Can’t wait until this unmitigated jackass is gone myself. If only today were January 1, 2022.

  • 8FH

    I don’t think point 2 is correct. If you look at crashes between cyclists and pedestrians in NYC, there are 6.2 times more (reported) pedestrian injuries than cyclist injuries and 2.5x pedestrian deaths vs. cyclist deaths between 2012 and 2018, inclusive. Yes, cyclists are more similar to pedestrians than motorists, and yes drivers are much more likely than cyclists to kill (182x) or seriously injure (37x) pedestrians. But pedestrians seem to be more vulnerable in a crash with cyclists and we should look out for pedestrians when biking.

  • Joe R.

    You also need to look at the average age of both samples. Cyclists in general have a much lower average age than pedestrians, who by definition are representative of the general population. Older people in general are more prone to getting hurt or killed, so it’s no surprise the number of reported injuries and deaths in pedestrian/cyclist collisions will be higher for pedestrians. If we were to take samples where the age of both is about the same, it’s highly likely both would be equally vulnerable.

  • Ken Grant

    I’m no fan of the mayor, but wearing a helmet while in traffic – whether on a bike, scooter, skates or motorcycle – is just common sense. Has Streetsblog published helmet ratings?

  • steely
  • 8FH

    I’m totally not disputing any of that as a possibility, though it’s also possible that handlebars and wheels being the points of initial contact, as well as more prevalent helmet use by cyclists may be protective.

    My overall point is that the statement that “Bicyclists are equally vulnerable” does not seem to be true in New York, and the assertion that “in a bicyclist / pedestrian contact situation, the bicyclist is more likely to be hurt.” is unequivocally false.

    Now if you said that bicyclists were equally (or more) vulnerable to motor vehicles because neither has much in the way of protection and cyclist mix more with motor vehicles, that would be more based in reality.

    Trafficking in falsehoods does us no favors as bicycle safety and active mobility advocates.

  • 8FH

    The second, Canadian one is much more convincing because it compares different areas of the same country at the same times.

    I do like both articles though.

  • Joe R.

    Overall, you’re correct. I’m just positing a possible reason for the data you gave. Actually, when you look at pedestrian fatalities caused by motor vehicles those tend to skew older. Whether it’s because older people are more frail, or are unable to get out of the way of motor vehicles, or both, is unknown. Most of the pedestrian fatalities caused by cyclists have tended to skew older also.

    …it’s also possible that handlebars and wheels being the points of initial contact, as well as more prevalent helmet use by cyclists may be protective.

    Yes on the first point. Often when I’ve crashed the bike did most of the sliding, with me on top of it. That prevented worse knee/elbow abrasions. I’m doubtful on the second. First off, head injuries in a bike crash are rare. Overall, per hour of activity, there’s about half the risk of TBI while cycling compared to walking. Second, I’ve been studying bike helmets for years. There’s no set of data out there that suggests they improve cyclist safety. You have metastudies which show the overall effect of helmets to be neutral to slightly negative. You also have population data on injuries/deaths in many countries before and after widespread helmet use. In all cases, there’s no change in the trend line after helmet use. Nearly everywhere, the numbers have been trending downwards since the 1970s due to road improvements, reducing drunk driving, etc. Pedestrian fatalities also followed the same trend, and they don’t wear helmets.

  • 8FH

    I don’t think there’s much we disagree on here. Can you provide the source on head injuries? I was under the impression the risk was slightly higher per unit of time for bicyclists than for pedestrians, but much lower per distance traveled. And even if head injuries are incredibly rare, a helmet may help (not advocating helmet laws or shaming those who don’t wear helmets, but they may help account for the differences in injuries alongside age and the way people fall.)

  • Joe R.

    http://www.howiechong.com/journal/2014/2/bike-helmets

    Risk of head injury per million hours traveled:

    Cyclist – 0.41
    Pedestrian – 0.80
    Motor vehicle occupant – 0.46
    Motorcyclist – 7.66

    “And even if head injuries are incredibly rare, a helmet may help (not advocating helmet laws or shaming those who don’t wear helmets, but they may help account for the differences in injuries alongside age and the way people fall.)”

    I don’t doubt helmets make a significant difference to a certain subset of people. For example, I have a friend who’s a klutz and always wears a helmet. He actually did fall off his bike once, at only 15 mph. He not only hit his head on the curb, but he broke his sternum bone. In fact, his account sounded exactly like one of those “a helmet saved my life” stories where people get into crashes even most beginner cyclists could easily avoid. If a person is really that prone to falling, and they hit their head a lot when they fall, I don’t doubt a helmet will probably do them some good. It likely won’t save them from a concussion, but it’ll certainly avoid head abrasions.

    I hardly fall or crash, and I never hit my head once in a bike crash (although I have in mishaps at home). In fact, until last October I had gone over 22 years between crashes. I crack in a concrete bus stop which I thought was more benign than it was due to poor nighttime lighting did me in. Fortunately, I still knew how to fall. So I’m not really a candidate for a helmet. I’ve never even owned one, much less worn one.

    This is a better concept for bike helmets:

    https://hovding.com/

    It doesn’t block your vision, impair your hearing, make you overheat, or make you look dorky. It’s unobtrusive until you need it. And it seems like it would offer a lot more protection than regular bike helmets. The only downside is that it’s pricey.

  • Driver

    Quoted from the article you cited…
    “Let’s first get one thing out of the way: if you get into a serious
    accident, wearing a helmet will probably save your life. According to a 1989 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, riders with helmets had an 85% reduction in their risk of head injury and an 88% reduction in their risk of brain injury. That’s an overwhelming number that’s backed up study after study. Nearly every study of hospital admission rates, helmeted cyclists are far less likely to receive serious head and brain injuries. These studies confirm what we feel when we’re out for a spin on our bikes: We are exposed.Vulnerable. Needing of some level of protection.”
    “There’s an important caveat to the results of that 1989 New England medical study: It shows that bike helmets may reduce the risk of head
    and brain injury by 85-88%—but only for those who get into accidents.”
    “If we take a closer look at the article we see that both the experiment
    and the control groups studied are those who have already been
    hospitalized for bike injuries. If one were to examine the medical and
    epidemiological literature on bike helmet effectiveness, you’ll find the
    exact same condition over and over: Studies show that helmeted cyclists
    who are hospitalized are far less likely to have serious head trauma
    than bare-headed cyclists that have been hospitalized.”

  • Joe R.

    I’m not sure why the author even mentions that 1989 study given the topic of the article. That study was deeply flawed:

    https://www.cyclehelmets.org/1131.html

    Even the CDC no longer backs that study:

    https://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2013/06/04/feds-no-longer-back-1989-seattle-helmet-effectiveness-study-city-should-modify-its-helmet-law-before-bike-share-launches/

    Me and a few others who wrote letters to them actually had a hand in that.

    The problem with all these studies is that there is no control group. In this case for a control group you would need to have two sets of people who got into exactly the same type of incidents, with one set wearing helmets, and the other not wearing helmets. You can’t draw any conclusions from looking at the seriousness of injuries of helmeted versus non-helmeted cyclists. For one thing, the data doesn’t include fine details on each incident, like impact speed, how they fell, etc. For another, I don’t doubt some of the cyclists with “no helmet” were in fact wearing helmets, but the helmet was thrown clear in the crash.

    There’s also this in the article which you should have linked to:

    “But a broader look at the statistics show that cyclists’ fear of head trauma is irrational if we compare it to some other risks. Head injuries aren’t just dangerous when you’re biking—head injuries are dangerous when you’re doing pretty much anything else. There’s ample evidence showing that there’s nothing particularly special about cycling when it comes to serious head injuries.”

    Whether or not helmets offer some measure of protection (and I’ll concede in some cases they offer minimal protection), you’re protecting against something which occurs very infrequently. Fewer people might die from lightning each year if everyone wore lightening proof suits but the number would be so small as to not make it worthwhile.

    In the US about 800 cyclists die annually. Over 90% involve a motor vehicle collision, which means a helmet is pretty much useless for that 90+%. That leaves under 10%, let’s say 70 people, who potentially might have been helped by helmets. However, some percentage of those 70 people are likely already wearing helmets. Based on the current figures for helmet use in the US, probably half were wearing helmets, yet the helmet didn’t save them. Of the remaining 35 people, none of whom were wearing helmets, even if you assumed a helmet was 100% effective you’re saving at most 35 people. In actuality, helmets are neutral to slightly negative preventing injuries. That means maybe half that group would have been saved wearing helmets, or under 20 people. In other words, if we could magically get every single cyclist in the US to wear a helmet, you might save 20 lives per year, assuming ridership numbers remained the same, which they wouldn’t.

    Mandatory helmet laws decrease ridership by 25% or more, if we go by Australia’s example. Helmet advocacy, which is what we have in the US, also decreases ridership by making cycling seem more dangerous than it really is. I have no idea of how much, but consider this. If even 1,000 people decide not to ride a bike because the constant push to get people to wear helmets makes it seem too dangerous to them, some of these people will have increased risk of heart disease, stroke, or cancer as a result of a sedentary lifestyle. How many? This article puts the figure at 30% for heart disease alone:

    https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/being-sedentary-may-be-as-bad-for-the-heart-as-being-overweight

    If 1 in 10 of those 30% die early as a result, that’s 30 more deaths among those 1,000 people who didn’t ride as a result of helmet advocacy. In actuality the numbers who never ride as a result of helmet advocacy or childhood helmet laws are likely in the 7 figures. That’s thousands of people who die young.

    If your goal is to save lives, pushing people to wear helmets is a bad way to do it. There’s no scenario where you’re net positive. You’re just trading a small number dying from head injuries for a much larger number dying from heart disease, stroke, or cancer.

  • isabell

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  • Andrew

    If you want to wear a helmet, wear a helmet. Nobody is suggesting that helmets be outlawed.

  • JohnBrownForPresident

    no kenny – but you should buy 100 helmets, test them and then forward the results!

  • Vooch

    agreed that the data shows car occupants and drivers are 15% more likely to have head injury that cyclists.

    Therefore helmets should first be required for drivers and their passengers

  • Knut Torkelson

    The worst part of this insanely stupid endorsement by de Blasio is that is has emboldened all kind of anti bike crazy people.

    No serious mayor of a world city except for BDB would propose something this utterly moronic and counter productive, but I expect nothing less from someone who gets ferried back and forth to a fucking YMCA in park slope in an SUV motorcade while preaching about climate change.

    And now we have ever mouth breathing buffoon in the comments section (and presumably real life) thinking that licensing and helmet laws are a good idea and something we should talk about.

    God I hate this POS.

  • This would be a good rule.

  • Driver

    You keep focusing on cyclist fatalities as if that is the only barometer of helmet effectiveness.

    Head injury, and TBI are serious conditions that can possibly be mitigated with helmet use.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29677686

  • Joe R.

    The stats I gave in my earlier post show the overall rate of head injuries, not just deaths. It’s twice as high for walking as it is for cycling, yet nobody suggests wearing helmets when you walk.

    Also, that study claims a 23% reduction in face injury which makes no sense since bike helmets don’t cover any part of your face, nor are they designed to protect against facial injuries.

    By design bicycle helmets mostly protect against minor head abrasions, not serious TBI. They can’t protect against concussions. Even football helmets can’t.

    Here’s another study which shows the number of head injuries only declined by 13%, despite the increase in helmet use from 31% to 75%:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8870773

    Since the number of cyclists decreased by more than 13% (other studies put the reduction around 30%), this means the rate of head injury actually increased after more people started wearing helmets.

    “The percentage of cyclists with head injuries after collisions with motor vehicles in Victoria declined by more, but the proportion of head injured pedestrians also declined; the two followed a very similar trend. These trends may have been caused by major road safety initiatives introduced at the same time as the helmet law and directed at both speeding and drink-driving. The initiatives seem to have been remarkably effective in reducing road trauma for all road users, perhaps affecting the proportions of victims suffering head injuries as well as total injuries.”

    “The benefits of cycling, even without a helmet, have been estimated to outweigh the hazards by a factor of 20 to 1.”

    The bottom line is whether you’re focusing on death or on injuries, helmets don’t seem to make any difference when whole population studies are done. Focusing on helmets, instead of safe bicycle infrastructure, is counterproductive on many levels. It’s a needless distraction done by people who want to appear to be doing something but don’t want to spend the money needed for good bicycle infrastructure.

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