Among safe streets and environmental advocates in New York City, the track record of Brooklyn State Senator Simcha Felder is checkered, to say the least. His tenure in Albany is noted for his repeated efforts to block or reverse laws supported by these advocates, including, among others: voting against allowing the city to expand its school speed camera program, repeatedly trying to raise the speed limit along Ocean Parkway to 30 miles an hour (potentially making the street even more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists), and leading the successful charge to block New York City from enforcing its own tax on plastic bags, a charge he led with such gusto that you could have easily mistaken him for a Captain Planet villain.
His reputation, then, is not held to a high esteem in these circles, and if he has his way, he will be able to add another item to this long list: mandating that all cyclists in New York City wear helmets at all times.
It’s a law that honestly doesn’t sound that bad in principle. After all, using a helmet is something that cyclists are constantly told to do, and for good reason. Wearing a helmet can prevent serious injuries in some crashes, and the benefits of helmet use have been espoused in study after study in various academic publications.
So, if helmets can prevent serious injuries and if wearing them is something we all should be doing, why would a law mandating their use at all times be something to oppose? As with all things that seem simple at face value, the devil is in the details, and the details in this case could not only make cycling in New York less safe than it is now, but could also complicate efforts to treat cyclists, non-white cyclists especially, more fairly as road users.
To start, an important facet of bike safety, herd safety, would be directly impacted. Herd safety, also known as the safety in numbers effect, is a phenomenon where cycling becomes safer the more cyclists there are on a road. This is because, as the number of cyclists increases, so does their presence, making it more likely for other road users, especially drivers, to respect their right of way.
This is a phenomenon that’s been seen in most places where cycling rates have increased. Here in New York, for instance, between 1998 and 2008, while the number of bicycle commuters increased by about 100,000, the number of injuries and deaths from cycling crashes was cut in half. Similarly, in Minneapolis, a 3,000 person increase in the number of bicycle commuters was also paired with a half-fold reduction in their total crash rate.
This effect can also be seen at a national level, with the most dramatic examples coming from the biking meccas of the Netherlands and Denmark. In these countries, a typical resident bikes, on average, 864 and 513 kilometers per year, respectively. These high cycling rates, along with being some of the highest in the world, are paired with some of the world’s lowest bike fatality rates, with the total number of deaths per billion kilometers of bicycle travel being 10.7 and 14.6, respectively. Compare this to the United States, where not only are cycling rates much, much lower (only 47 kilometers per year per resident), but bike fatality rates are also more than three times higher.
These statistics are important because an observed consequence of helmet laws is a reduction in cycling rates. This was first observed in Australia, where, between 1990 and 1992, state governments enacted helmet laws similar to the one proposed by Felder that made their use mandatory for all cyclists. Because they were the first ever laws of their kind, their effects were closely monitored by researchers, and, while there is still debate in the scientific community about their total effectiveness, one effect that’s not disputed is a decline in Australian cycling rates, which plummeted between 30-40% percent nationwide after enactment. Similar reductions were also seen in New Zealand and British Columbia when they enacted helmet laws.
Herd safety, then, would be negatively impacted as less people bike on a regular basis, and for those who continue to bike regularly under Felder’s law, there exists another danger around the hyperinflated benefits of helmets, for, while the safety a helmet provides in a minor incident is not disputed, the safety a helmet provides in a severe one very much is.
The effectiveness of helmets in severe incidents varies considerably depending on which researcher you ask, with at least one analysis of helmet studies in the last two decades showing that effectiveness can be anywhere from 10-40% depending on the study. In this area, then, a clear consensus hasn’t yet developed.
Despite this, statements espousing the benefits of helmets in severe incidents are used frequently. Most PSAs on bike helmets feature text proclaiming how they will save your life even in the most severe of incidents, and government-sponsored helmet drives generally use this pitch when trying to encourage cyclists to wear them.
It’s already known that this exaggeration of helmet benefits can have detrimental effects, including more aggressive behavior around cyclists. This was observed when Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist at the University of Bath, conducted a study where he rode a bike in mixed traffic with and without a helmet, taking measurements from 2,500 passing cars, trucks, and buses along the way. What he found was that drivers passed him, on average, 3 1/3 inches closer when he wore a helmet as opposed to when he didn’t, thus reducing “the safety margin that cyclists need to deal with obstacles in the road” (He was also hit twice during the course of the study, both times while wearing a helmet). It was also found that, worryingly, when wearing a helmet, buses and trucks passed much closer to him than cars (9 and 7.5 inches closer, respectively).
If Felder’s law is enacted, then, there exists the risk that this effect, along with other effects associated with inflating helmet benefits, could worsen, which, along with a reduction in herd safety, would make cycling in New York City more dangerous and nerve-racking than it is currently. There’s also another risk that falls outside of safety, but is just as, if not more, relevant: that bike ticketing disparities could worsen.
Ticketing disparities based on class and race within New York are already at crisis levels, and bike related ticketing is no exception. Data released by the Biking Public Project show that non-white cyclists already face much higher levels of policing and ticketing than their non-white counterparts, both where they live and where they work. For example, in the case of immigrant delivery cyclists, between 2007 and 2015, 92% percent of commercial cycling tickets were issued in just four Manhattan precincts in the Upper East and West Sides and parts of Midtown; majority-white areas where a majority of commercial cyclists are not white, but Asian and Latino. Similarly, most non-commercial cycling tickets and summonses issued in the same time span were in areas with majority-minority populations, with eight of the top ten precincts for these infractions being in these areas.
At this point in time, then, cycling enforcement is inherently unfair from a racial perspective, and a helmet law can only make this situation worse by introducing yet another law that can be used in a discriminatory manner. We’ve already seen this sort of discriminatory application with e-bikes, motorized bicycles that, while completely legal to operate in most areas of the United States, are not allowed to be operated within New York City, despite it being completely legal to buy and own one here. This makes the legality of e-bike operation in the city murky at best, but despite this, the NYPD has gone out of their way to confiscate as many e-bikes as they can in street stings aimed mainly at immigrant delivery cyclists as opposed to any white e-bike users.
Remember, this, combined with the convoluted process for e-bike users to get their bikes back (if they can get them back at all) stems from a grey legal area that’s not at all clearly defined. Whether or not the city can fairly enforce a bike rule based on a set-in-stone law, then, should be directly called into question, and if the city can’t do this, the only purpose this law would serve, along with making cycling more dangerous, would be as another way to excessively ticket non-white cyclists for no good reason.
All of these points are ample reason to stop Simcha Felder’s helmet law from seeing the light of day, and thankfully, we have time to do just that. At the time of writing, Felder’s bill is currently in committee in the State Senate, with no on-floor vote yet scheduled, which means that we, as the general public, still have time to air our grievances about it. So, you know the drill: find out who your state representative is, call or mail their office, and say why they should oppose Simcha Felder’s law if it comes up for a vote, and if we do this enough, not only is there a good chance that lawmakers in Albany will see why Felder’s law should not become reality, but we will also be able to deny him another item on his long list of actions.