Cuomo’s Helmet Obsession is Going to Ruin Everything

What, governor, no helmet? Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
What, governor, no helmet? Photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
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Who needs a helmet when you’ve got an empty skull?

Gov. Cuomo’s veto on Thursday of a bill to legalize e-bikes and scooters because the legislation did not include a mandatory helmet requirement has set up the first major Albany brawl of 2020 — pitting the car-loving governor against basic fact … as well as advocates for delivery workers and an emboldened state legislature that passed the measure nearly unanimously earlier this year.

“I won’t let the governor bully me,” the bill’s main mover, State Senator Jessica Ramos, told Streetsblog, after calling the governor’s veto message “disingenuous” for suggesting that a helmet requirement is “common sense.”

It’s not common sense at all; it’s folksy gibberish from a car-loving guv who trots out a muscle car whenever he gets a chance — including terrorizing the West Side earlier this year in a 480-horsepower Mustang.

Delivery workers will have to wait until 2020 for justice, but it could come quickly if lawmakers get their way. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Last year, Ramos rallied with delivery workers, who work hard, earn low pay and are subject to random crackdowns by the NYPD that robs them of a week’s wages. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

If the governor cares to engage lawmakers in facts, he will be reminded that helmet laws have been shown to reduce cycling (which makes cyclists less safe), do nothing to increase the safety of bike riders who have been run over by 10,000-pound trucks (as the majority of this year’s fatalities in the city have), undermine bike share programs (which are often used by casual riders), would have no effect on delivery workers, who are already required to wear helmets (and do!), and certainly do not increase safety of pedestrians (who are not being injured in any significant numbers by cyclists, yet are often evoked by the governor, the mayor, and some Manhattan community board members as the reason for their “safety concerns” about e-bikes).

After his veto, Cuomo took to Twitter to promise that he’d unveil new e-bike legislation on Jan. 8, the first day of the legislative session, that won’t force people to “choose” between legal bikes and safety.

But that wasn’t the choice that made it to the governor’s desk — where he signed his veto message. Rather, it seems, the governor believes cyclists need to be protected from themselves. In addition to the helmet requirement, e-bike riders would also have to wear high-visibility clothing — which suggests the governor considers cycling a dangerous activity, even though car and truck drivers are the ones who have killed more than 200 people this year alone in New York City and have caused more than 60,000 injuries.

The veto message willfully mischaracterized an American Journal of Otolaryngology study as claiming that head injuries have tripled in the past 10 years due to motorized vehicles — even though the study was specifically about scooters, which are a relatively new addition to an already dangerous traffic mix dominated by cars.

The governor also suggested that e-bike or scooter riders need helmets because a teenager in Elizabeth, N.J. died, though Cuomo failed to point out that he was run over by a truck driver who failed to yield to the scooter rider, then crushed him under his several-ton vehicle. He didn’t die because he wasn’t wearing a helmet. He died because a truck driver ran him over.

There is, of course, common ground: Both Cuomo’s version of legalization, which he presented in his FY 2020 budget, and the bill passed by the legislature, would legalize e-bikes and electric scooters. The governor wanted one category for all electric bikes (currently legal pedal-assist or currently illegal throttle-controlled): “locally authorized motorcycles,” which would be subject to the helmet requirement. The legislature’s bill would create three classes of electric bike: pedal-assist bikes whose motor cuts out when the bike reaches 20 miles per hour, throttle-controlled e-bikes that can’t go faster than 20 miles per hour and throttle e-bikes that are capped at 25 miles per hour. The third class of e-bike also would only be legal in New York City (which could decide to cap their speeds anyway).

That’s a surmountable difference in policy approach. And, indeed, Ramos told Streetsblog that she would like to work with the governor on a bill that he could support. But she drew a firm line against a helmet mandate.

“It’s an issue because the data shows that it wouldn’t save lives,” Ramos said, adding that the city already requires commercial cyclists to wear helmets, making the issue of worker safety a moot point in a state bill.

About the one thing she and the governor agree on is urgency. “We need a bill signed as soon as possible in order to protect delivery workers,” said Ramos, who is looking to sit down with advocates and the governor’s office as soon as the session starts on Jan. 8. At least publicly, she did not play the Albany game of vowing to re-pass the same bill and threatening to get her colleagues to over-ride the veto.

Whatever happens, Cuomo’s attempt to do some Twitter diplomacy with the mass of disappointed New Yorkers who had pushed for e-bike legalization did not go over well at all.

The governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on what kind of language he was looking to put into his proposal in January.

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