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Milton repeals helmet law + How bike share and helmet laws might coexist

Helmet-free zone (via Google Maps)

There are a handful of topics that online forums seem completely incapable of discussing rationally. Gun control, white male privilege and George Lucas are examples. In the biking world, the most irrational topic of conversation is probably helmets—specifically, all-ages mandatory helmet laws.

So when the City of Milton (east of Tacoma, south of Federal Way) decided to repeal a law mandating helmets for people skateboarding and biking “in public space” due to concerns about legal liability, the decision was met with the kinds of data-free knee-jerk reactions typical to such conversations.

“One remedy would be for the helmet-haters to renounce all claims to publicly funded care in the event of preventable brain injuries,” writes the Editorial Board of the Tacoma News Tribune. Of course! Injured people who, in retrospect, might have been able to lessen the severity of their injuries shouldn’t get any public funds for their health care! In fact, if everyone just took all possible precautions at all times, then nobody would ever get hurt doing anything! Why didn’t we think of this before?

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On the flip side, you’ll have people arguing that biking will NEVER be mainstream in a city that has a mandatory bike helmet law because people are afraid of looking like a doofus or messing up their hair.

The reality of the debate is far more boring than either unmovable extreme would have you believe.

Portland and Seattle have the two highest bike commuting rates in the nation. Portland does not have an all-ages helmet law. Seattle has one. Portland has higher rates of cycling and (likely) a lower bike injury rate than Seattle (bike injury rate data can be a bit murky). But that probably has more to do with their more advanced bike infrastructure and flatter terrain than it has to do with their lack of a helmet law.

All-ages helmet laws are very rare in the US. Yet Seattle still has high and ever-growing numbers of people cycling compared to the hundreds of helmet-law-free cities in the nation. And, like Portland and cities around the globe have experienced, as the number of people cycling in Seattle grows, the injury rate drops. Seattle is achieving this growth by making streets safer, building more bicycle facilities and providing people with the encouragement to give it a try. This growth has little or nothing to do with our helmet law.

Therefore, it is far more effective from a public safety perspective to prevent collisions from ever happening by making streets safer and encouraging more people to cycle than to focus on preventing head injuries when collisions occur. At the same time, biking remains cool and popular in Seattle, even with our helmet law.

The Bike Share Conundrum

However, there is a looming issue that may require King County to rethink the specifics of our helmet law: Bike share. Cities around the country and the world are finding that bike share systems are shockingly safe, and we know more cycling reduces heart disease, diabetes and other health scourges related to inactivity and obesity. Any public health law that stops us from improving public health needs to be changed.

Here’s a lengthy excerpt from a story we wrote last year on the issue (note, all stats quoted are from August or earlier).

The potential for bike sharing in transit-dependent Seattle is enormous, but one big impediment stands in the way: We have a rare, all-ages helmet law that is enforced as a primary offense. Of the hundreds of bike share systems across the world, the only major bike share systems in the world that have completely flopped are in Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia. Those systems are also the only ones in cities with all-ages mandatory helmet laws.

A bike share feasibility study conducted by the University of Washington found that, despite the great potential for a system here, our helmet laws would need a solution to avoid having a negative impact on the system’s success:

The self-service nature of most bike-share programs limits their ability to provide helmets. Most bike-share programs in existence do not require helmets for users over the age of 18, and we did not find any program that actually requires users to wear helmets. Helmet use would be a challenge to bike-share use in Seattle and throughout King County, as people might not always be carrying a helmet with them. Unless a way around the helmet law in King County is discovered, the helmet requirement could dramatically reduce the number of bike-share riders by eliminating the spontaneity of bike-share use.

King County is very interested in starting a system, and the county received a grant to study and design a system here. That study is currently under way. Ref Lindmark with King County has been leading the effort, and he recently acknowledged the challenge of starting a system under our current helmet laws on KUOW’s the Conversation.

“There’s a lot of folks who just want to walk up to one of the kiosks and check out a bike and make that short trip,” he said on KUOW. “It definitely can suppress short-term walk-up demand.”

Bike share is among the safest forms of urban transportation in the world:

Whatever the reason (or, likely, combination of reasons), after 4.5 million trips on London’s bike share system, there has not been a single fatality. In the first 1.6 million trips on London’s public bikes, only ten people were injured, none of them seriously.

And the incredible safety record with these systems is not just over seas. The system in DC, hardly a bike-friendly mecca, saw similar safety numbers. From Streetsblog:

So while only seven bike-sharing riders were injured in 330,000 trips, on average, 13 people riding personal bikes are injured over the same number of trips. And bike-sharing riders suffered no serious injuries, while riders using their own bikes suffered injuries that were sometimes serious or even fatal.

Same with Minneapolis:

Similarly, Minneapolis’s NiceRide system reported “no significant accidents or major injuries” in its first year of operation. In that time, Minnesotans took 37,000 NiceRide trips.

Bike sharing is among the safest ways for people to get around, yet a law intended to increase safety could make it impossible to implement a successful system in Seattle and King County. A law intended to save lives might prevent our city from saving lives in a different way.

Something needs to change.

However, there are options that may not require the painful process of completely reversing the law in the case that the county remains steadfastly opposed to repeal. Kennon presents two ideas:

  • Make riding helmetless a secondary offense. Adjusting the law so cyclists cannot be cited unless they do something else illegal would allow people to take safety decisions into their own hands. Helmets are often compared to seatbelts, so why not give them the same legal status?
  • Make an exemption for bike-share users. Pedicabs (three-wheeled rickshaws for hire) are excluded from helmet laws, both for drivers and passengers, and their safety records are stellar. Vancouver’s bike share feasibility study (.pdf, see page 56) found that in the twelve years since the pedicab helmet exemption took effect there has not been one reported head injury. There are also exemptions for people with religious objections (it’s hard to put a helmet over a turban), children on tricycles, and even people with big heads. Why not public bikes?

First off, I am pretty sure wearing a seatbelt is actually a primary offense in Washington State, not a secondary offense as Kennon notes (correct me if I’m wrong). However, I am intrigued by his suggestion that helmet laws would more comfortably fit into the secondary offense category, meaning law enforcement could only tack it onto a ticket for a separate traffic offense. After all, the adult unhelmeted users that attract the most attention and scorn are the minority of people illegally blowing through stop lights and weaving dangerously through traffic, and the helmet law would still target them. The laws mandating helmet use among children would also remain unchanged. Regardless of how you feel about helmet laws in general, this seems like a good compromise.

Should we repeal our helmet law? The law is probably doing little or nothing to improve public safety (evidence is, at best, inconclusive). But I also don’t think the bitter fight it would start is worth it right now, and no county politician that I know of has even uttered the idea, let alone proposed it. Maybe once our roads look a little more like northern Europe and less like urban highways, the idea will gain political traction. But in the meantime, there are compromise solutions that can get parts of the law out of the path of urban progress and improved public health.

Seattle is designed for bike share. Our neighborhoods are basically islands of bikeability connected by transit. Bike share would revolutionize daily life in our city for very little money (Capital Bikeshare in DC actually pays for its own operating costs).

We are falling behind. Let’s not bicker our county into mediocrity. Instead, let’s get moving on passage of a comprehensive bike share plan that funds an initial phase and adjusts all relevant laws that could get in the way.

Note to commenters: I dare you to try to have this conversation without calling people who don’t wear helmets idiots or talking about the public cost of their brain injuries. Likewise, I dare you not to mention that study by that one doctor who rode down the road and noticed that people gave him more passing space when he didn’t have a helmet. And yes, for the record, I do wear a helmet.

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62 responses to “Milton repeals helmet law + How bike share and helmet laws might coexist”

  1. Joel S.

    Mandatory helmets for all people at all times while in public, or no people at no times. You never know what will fall on your head.

    Or exempt bike share helmets.

    1. Jeremy

      Helmets, not such a good idea all the time:


      But as we all know, playgrounds are dangerous, so we should definitely ban those. Also, if you’re this worried about the struck-by-lighting sorts of odds bicycle helmets may or may not help with do not, repeat, do not look at cancer rates, nor into why various industries would spend decades fighting a study on the effects of diesel exhaust.

      (We could also encourage trikes, so that the tippy elderly and youths are less likely to spill, but culture approves the balancing act…)

  2. Gary

    “Note to commenters: I dare you to try to have this conversation without calling people who don’t wear helmets idiots or talking about the public cost of their brain injuries. Likewise, I dare you not to mention that study by that one doctor who rode down the road and noticed that people gave him more passing space when he didn’t have a helmet.”

    Sorry, brain injuries are the core argument for wearing a helmet. I dare you to write an argument about gun control that doesn’t mention the damage bullets do to people. Come-on! Don’t be ridiculous, it’s not like we can talk about foot injuries for not wearing a helmet.

    On the other hand we don’t mandate wearing shoes except in restaurants. Which I suppose makes no sense because really how many foot injuries are there while eating vs walking?

    And who is the target bike share riders? Tourists? The hotel could provide a helmet. Commuters? They can bring one, they bring umbrellas, lunch, laptops etc. And if there is a bike share, why not a helmet share? Worried about head lice? What about flu viruses on the handlebars, those kill people.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      This discussion is about public health. Bike share is an immensely safe means of urban transportation, and even rainy, hilly Dublin has seen their bike share network return a remarkable safety record. And no, they don’t have a helmet law or even very good bike infrastructure (at least in European terms).

      This discussion is not about whether, on an individual level, a helmet might lessen the severity of an injury or even prevent death when a tragic collision occurs. It’s not even about whether helmets are a good idea (I wear one and I actually think it’s a good idea in Seattle due to our poor road conditions and steep hills). It’s about whether, on a citywide and even countywide scale, the law helps public health more than it hurts. The data is simply inconclusive.

      But the data is very conclusive on bike share: It is among the safest forms of urban transportation in the world. If our helmet law gets in the way of successful bike share system, then it will be a negative influence on public health.

      Bike share trips are very short, and they are spontaneous. Vancouver is experimenting with helmet vending machines, but I have little faith in that working (prove me wrong Vancouver!). I’m sure many people will bring helmets, but it will also be common for someone to, say, be at Columbia Tower and decide they want to grab a bite at Pike Place Market. That’s just a couple minutes on a bike (on our new protected cycle track, of course) and they’re there. Short spontaneous trips make up a significant percentage of bike share trips in these networks (see at beginning of the excerpt), and helmet laws discourage this use. Less use means less money for the system, which means less expansion, etc, etc.

      1. Gary

        “Columbia to Pike Place Market”

        It also used (or will be soon) to be a quick free bus ride… Which is how most folks are going back up the hill… Who wants to lug one of those heavy bikes back up the hill.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        Transit crawls through downtown. If it’s faster and more fun, I bet people will use it.

        DC has found that the majority of their system’s heaviest users were people who did not bike previously. But suddenly this transportation tool came along and made more sense than the way they had been getting around.

        I probably won’t use bike share often because I love my bike and it goes everywhere with me. But that’s the best part about bike share: It’s for everyone, not just us crazy bike everywhere folks ;-)

    2. JAT

      In other words, Gary, you just couldn’t do it, could you?

      I believe we mandate shoes in restaurants due to sanitation concerns. (Likewise, the argument could be made that we mandate helmets to “sanitize” the status quo of giving over most of our transportation infrastructure to motorists without requiring them to drive prudently with due regard for other road users.) Have you seen school crossing guards with their flags and vests and ceremonial hard hats? They are required to wear plastic hair condoms to prevent the potential spread of lice. Do you really want to wear a loaner helmet from a hotel? Even if you do, not everyone does; your handlebar flu argument is spurious, and you know it. At least at the bowling alley you keep your socks on.

      I think the target for bike share bikes is: Everybody. Helmets are large rigid three-dimensional objects, far more inconvenient for Everybody to carry around at all times than an umbrella (and nobody is carrying those around anyway. If you’re in the U-district but have a quick errand to run in Roosevelt or downtown but have a quick errand to run in Belltown or (you get the idea) a bikeshare bike well could make the difference between getting it done over lunch or before your next class or having to do it later. But if you can’t do it without having remembered to haul your helmet around, then hell, you might as well book a Zipcar.

      The question here is does the helmet requirement scuttle the feasibility of bikeshare, not are helmets a good thing. I wear a helmet; I’ve had bizarre crashes that were entirely my fault (black ice, mud, broken chain, etc) and have replaced damaged helmets per the manufacturers’ advice. Would the hotel take that step? I doubt it.

      1. Gary

        “would a hotel take that step?”

        Sure what’s $25 vs a liability lawsuit.

        I’ve rented bicycles when I’ve traveled and with the bike rental came a free helmet rental. No issues, no lice etc.

        And fortunately for my wife who also rented a bike, and then on the way back did an end-over right in front of the dang bike store. (Unfamiliar bike issue) We were both glad she wore a helmet that day.

        “shoes as a health issue?” Give me a break. No one washes the bottom of their shoes off before going into eat, how are they any cleaner than the soles of your feet? It’s just as ridiculous except that restauranteurs which drop glass, or plates could have sharp stuff on the floor.

        Since the data is “inconclusive” why get worked up about a helmet law and bike sharing?

    3. Doug

      Are helmets actually that effective against injury? The tests used to certify them use speeds up to 13 mph in ideal conditions. Under less than ideal conditions the speed of impact is reduced to 7mph.

      In my mind, this indicates helmets are useless in the conditions that they are most frequently cited as the most important: high speeds and in heavy traffic. Both of those conditions involve high speeds and huge amounts of energy I doubt a few ounces of styrofoam can mitigate effectively. Given that people frequently die or are seriously injured while wearing helmets suggests there might be some truth to my hunch.

      Unfortunately, no studies provide much evidence either way. The study that provides the oft-cites “85% reduction in brain injuries” also suggests that people wearing helmets are more likely to get hit by cars. In reality, it probably indicates people with helmets are more likely to go to the ER for less serious injuries.

      I wear a helmet, but I don’t pretend that it does me any good safety wise. It doesn’t. Maybe of I forget to clip out at a stop and topple – it might help then. But when I’m bombing hills are riding in traffic I know the only thing keeping me safe is my skills as a cyclist.

      All that said, get rid of the helmet law. There is no evidence such laws improve safety anywhere in the world. Most people will still choose to wear helmets anyway, since it’s part of the culture.

      Finally, the “no public assistance if they crash” argument is stupid. People engage in publicly subsidized risky behavior all the time. Driving a car without a helmet is probably the most common example.

      1. Gary

        The evidence “from my own eyes” is conclusive. I watched my neighborhood kid ride right into a parked car, it was a total head smacker, he was shook but no injuries. And judging from other kid injuries it would have been a trip to the emergency room.

        If you don’t want to wear a helmet, just sign your organ donor card, there are thousands waiting for good kidneys.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        Not sure what you mean by “kid,” but nobody is suggesting changing the law for minors. This only about the adult portion of the law (I think most bike share systems require you to be an adult, but I could be wrong about that). I think many are activated by credit card, but they vary city to city.

      3. Doug

        Wel, Gary, sure. Like I said, I wear a helmet for every ride these days. But for all of my serious crashes (one involving a broken collarbone) I was not. I suffered no head injuries. So my anecdotal experience cancels yours out.

        The problem remains: nobody has bothered to prove helmets are essential beyond a doubt. And I still think risk-compensation is very dangerous.

  3. LWC

    I’ve often thought about starting to wear a helmet regularly while driving my car. First, as a passively cynical statement about helmet requirements while cycling. Second, because there’s a nonzero chance it might save my life one day.

  4. Has anyone tried helmet laws that are speed-based? Flying down Pine is a little different than moseying along a trail.

    Or it might be provocative to make helmets required only on arterials without separated bikeways.

    1. Gary

      It’s not the speed that is the problem, it’s the height. A 6ft drop causes a lot of damage. And by this measure yes pedestrians should wear a helmet!

      1. Although I disagree with your insistence that every person that steps on a bicycle should be forced by the state to wear a helmet when there’s no real evidence the law is effective at reducing the chance of anything but a successful bikeshare system and a true mass cycling culture, I’ll help you out of your ridiculous conclusion that pedestrians should wear helmets. People walking are a lot less likely to fall that six feet than people on bikes. And when you fall it’s easy to avoid hitting your head if (a) you’re not going very fast and (b) your center of gravity is low.

        The Dutch had it right. The solution for the safety of people traveling isn’t to armor cyclists, it’s to reduce the number of, and speeds of, autos.

    2. Brian Porter

      Hans, I mentioned something like this in a thread last year. I think it might work for Seattle as a middle-ground, common sense policy. Perhaps there could be a way to install some technology in the hubs of the bike share bikes to limit them to less than 20 mph or something, so that someone riding on one of them could go helmet-free all the time, even on a downhill.

      Alternatively, some sort of splitting-the-difference kind of law to protect riders of “upright” bikes might work. For example, riders of bikes with drop handlebars might be required to wear a helmet. I ride a bakfiets some of the time (slowly) and I think my risk of head injury is close to nil when I am separated bike infrastructure like the Burke. I still wear a helmet just because I don’t want a ticket, but if I had a preference I would probably go without. And yes, this is an idea lifted straight from the Aaron’s Bike Repair website…

    3. Doug

      Nobody, not even safety nuts, would wear a helmet that would protect the brain on high speed descents.

      These helmets exist, and they’re marketed a motorcycle helmets. Ever see a cyclist wear one?

      1. Brian Porter

        Ha! I haven’t ever worn my motorcycle helmet on my bike but I’ve considered it just to see what it would feel like. BMX racers do have full-face bike helmets though. I don’t know how effective they are in a crash, and to your point, it’s folly to expect regular people to wear them in going about their daily business.

        If the county had the political will, it really seems like it would make the most sense to simply reverse the ban and let individual cyclists decide what kind of risks they are willing to take.

  5. JAT

    I suppose technically we haven’t violated the terms of Tom’s dare: not to call people who don’t wear helmets idiots or talk about the public cost of their brain injuries, but it sure feels like we failed…

    1. Gary

      Not really. Tom set up a case like this:

      “Things happen that harm people”

      “Now argue that laws designed to help prevent harm are useless without citing statistics about actual injuries. Or calling each other names.”

      We haven’t called anyone a name, but I refuse to let a statement which limits discussion on the very item which Tom cited be left alone.

      1. JAT

        Not really, indeed.
        Tom set up a case more like this:
        There is a topic which always generates the same kind of argument on the internet, I’d like us to bracket that usual kind of argument so we can talk about a different aspect.

        And then the same kind of argument got launched and discussing the different aspect didn’t happen. Righteousness couldn’t be put on hold for even a day; I think that’s weak.

      2. Gary

        I beg to differ.

        The sole purpose of a helmet is health safety. Its not about rain protection, sun shade etc.

        If we are going to talk about health but not about helmets, ok, but we aren’t. We are talking about helmets. Specifically whether we should require them for a bike share program.

    2. Daniel

      I have worked in ER and always wondered how all these individuals could justify failing to protect themselves from head injury and then sponging off the taxpayer when it all goes wrong

      However by far the most common “Offenders” were not on cycles, but on foot

      Pedestrians are a real drain on our taxes…. or is it acceptable for pedestrians and not cyclists

  6. merlin

    Tom, thank you for daring to believe we can talk rationally about helmets! I do believe we will come up with a compromise around bike share, especially if others follow your calm and common sense example.

  7. Anthony

    Simple reality for me is a helmet saved my life essentially one day back in 1988, on pavement. I try to always remember to wear it, but this week I actually forgot the freakin’ thing as I left the house.

    Sure felt good to not wear it. When I’m off-roadin’ XC style say near Stevens Pass, I worry way less, if at all about having it on me. The problem mostly with head injuries are the surfaces we choose to ride, walk, etc on. Most mtn. bike trails are much more forgiving than any regular road, fortunately.

    I applaud Milton’s decision, glad to hear they actually have voice against mandatory helmets. That said, it is still a good idea to wear one, I have three in fact.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Milton’s official reasons for the decision are strange. I’ll agree with the Tacoma News Tribune on that. I don’t think they did it so they can have a bike share system or because they want to be like Copenhagen. That said, they have certainly sparked dialog.

  8. Jeff Dubrule

    Injuries on bike-share rides are probably low for a few good reasons:
    – Bikes are heavy, slow, and unfamiliar, so nobody races around on them.
    – Located in bike-friendly areas
    – People don’t ride them if walking/busing/taxi/etc. will be easier/safer
    – Not many long-haul trips with awkward parts.
    – You don’t have to ride it home, if you don’t want to. With your own bike, you’re kinda stuck with it for the day, even if there’s a busy street with bad bike-facilities between you and home.

    It’d be better, instead of making helmets optional for bike-share users, if helmets are optional in designated areas that are designed to be bike-friendly. Mostly flat, bike lanes, and low speed-limits for cars.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Hmm, that’s an interesting idea, Jeff! I’ve never heard anyone suggest it before. So like the Free Ride Zone, except for bikes. If you are going to ride a bike share bike (or any bike) out of this zone, be prepared that you could be ticketed.

      I would especially be interested in that if the creation of such zones came with a very serious investment to ensure said zones have modern, family-friendly bicycle facilities. And the long-term plan could be for these zones to expand as more work is completed…

      I love it, especially if we make sure that the zones are distributed equitably (i.e. not just the wealthy areas that already have safer roads than poor neighborhoods).

      1. Brian Porter

        Rats, messed up the HTML on that. The link works though.

    2. merlin

      Jeff, you make some interesting guesses about why bike share systems are so safe. The only one I’d cross off is “located in bike-friendly areas.” From what I’ve read, bike share in Paris preceded most of the changes in infrastructure, and I believe London is still quite lacking in bike-friendly facilities.

      1. merlin

        Oh, and Mexico City too – not very bike friendly but still safe bike share.

  9. Emulate Mexico City. Simple and effective.

    1. Gary

      Not sure what you would want to emulate about Mexico city. Last I read they have terrible bicycling conditions. And recently a lot of headless people… guess they wouldn’t need a helmet.

      1. But despite their terrible bicycling conditions their bike share is effective and safe.

        Without helmets.

      2. Todd

        That’s funny Gary. Sick but funny. Dark humor is always good in my book.

      3. Erik G.

        Drug cartel violence in Mexico is occurring near the border with the U.S., not so much in Mexico City.

  10. Kirk from Ballard

    Keep it simple. Repeal the bike helmet law for adults. I’ll still wear mine, I’ve crashed twice this year (pothole on a dark rainy night, fender sucked up into front wheel) and for sure my helmet protected me both times. But the benefits of the bike share far outweigh the requirement for people to wear helmets. I’m sure most people would still wear a helmet, I certainly would. I don’t wear it just because it’s required….

    1. JAT

      Gary’s going to disagree in three, two, one…

      1. JAT

        Sorry. I’m done; I’m turning snide and not who I like to be.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        It’s bike helmets, man. It’s just about impossible for humans to discuss them in an online forum.

        Han shot first!

    2. Daniel on alki

      I just dot understand i guess.. I rode my bike recklessly in the 80’s as a kid, we all did, yeah we got hurt so what what boy doesn’t. This whole idea that we should pass law to save people from themselves goes too far. came across this article when searching for bike laws in seattle. And it sucks i was going to take my 5 year old out to ride his bike with training wheels, but he has no helmet, so no bike ride….

      to sum it up.

      Its my head why do you care? helmets are available for those who want them
      personally i cant hear or have the same sense of awareness of my surroundings, its more dangerous than the chance i might fall.. oh no

      1. Gary

        Hey Dad! Get a helmet! Kid’s skulls are not fully formed. If there was any time in your life when you should be wearing a bike helmet it’s when you are learning to ride.

        Also I’d advise taking the pedals off and the training wheels off as well. Your kid will learn to ride faster.

  11. Gary

    Look, I’m not insensitive to the bike share vs helmet requirement. But I am disputing that one precludes the other. The only actual bike share program that failed was Melbourne Australia, and from my reading of the data it’s not clear that the requirement to wear a helmet was what caused it.

    And I’d rather people wore no helmets and rode a bike, it would be safer & healthier than driving a car.

    I’m just saying it’s not an impossible problem to solve. And that the solutions while include a repeal of the helmet law, also have other options.

    1. Daniel on alki

      sucks to tote a helmet around all day as well..

      1. Erik G.

        As it is to haul around a car seat. Which is why they ARE NOT REQUIRED in Taxis or Buses or Trains or Airplanes.

        (In fact, we don’t even required infants to have a seat on an airplane because we recognize that it is safer overall for the family to fly to their destination as opposed to driving a long distance).

    2. Erik G.

      Here’s all the evidence I need of what has happened in Melbourne and will happen in Seattle (and Vancouver, B.C.):

  12. Dave L

    I feel the same way about helmets as I do about seat belts. I’m going to wear mine, whether or not you want to do the same is your own choice.

  13. Reading this from Arlington Virginia, where the Capital Bikeshare program started (not in DC, which joined later with Arlington), I would make a few comments.

    It may be difficult for folks who are readers of a blog like this, who are dedicated to cycling on their own bikes, to imagine how a bikeshare system actually is used and why mapping your personal experiences with your own bikes to bikeshare isn’t always a good point of reference.

    For example, the Capital Bikeshare program is an amusing (at least to me) combination of (sorta) high tech and low tech – that works. The solar powered stations, for example, are wonders of independence, conducting transactions and checking in/out bikes while providing the details of where the bikes are to a central office that manages the distribution of the bikes to stations where demand is greater than supply. (Yes, that means trucks are involved, to move bikes around.) The bikes themselves are arguably more on the low tech side – they are heavy for one thing and use a three-speed hub gearing that is more than 100 years old. Still, even if low tech in some sense, the bikes are cleverly designed to minimize maintenance issues over the long term for bikes that spend all their time outside and are ridden by many different people. (Aside from helmets, there no point in having any tools with you because nothing you could adjust with a tool is reachable.)

    At any rate, all of these decisions combine to create a utility (bikeshare) that is not the same as the “riding your own bike” experience. Remember, bikeshare systems (at least that I have read about) all have some entry pricing (whether for the day or a longer period) and then rides up to 30 minutes are at no additional cost. As a practical matter, people use bikeshare for short rides wearing their street/work clothes, from one station to another that is typically less than a couple of miles away. It can be a part of a complex commute involving the subway and/or busses to create a new bicycle segment or it can be used to make short trips that are not practical to work during the work day and skip using taxis, or many other possibilities. It provides access to a transport system for trips longer than a five minute walk but less then say three miles that is highly flexible, is low cost, seems reasonably green, and doesn’t require managing ownership of the vehicle (the bike). And of course notwithstanding the sorta crap nature of the bikes from a certain perspective, it’s fun.

    To make an analogy, sure we’re talking about bikes when we talk about bikeshare, but a discussion of bikeshare and helmets based on personal bikes is almost like discussing the safety of hand saws based on experience with electric circular saws or a band saw. Or, closer to home, it’s like asking why we don’t have to wear seatbelts on public transit when we are required to wear them in our personal cars. And all the stats available speak to this – bikeshare programs just don’t have rider safety problems.

    Another thing that is clear (notwithstanding the Australians) is that a mandatory helmet law requirement can only take away from the liklihood of success for a bikeshare program. The Capital Bikeshare program now is fairly close to self-sustaining (that’s right – it takes in about as much $ as it costs to run it – compare that to public transit!) BUT of course there was a significant capital investment aside from the operating costs, even if you are going to get some commercian entity (like NYC did) to fund that part as a sponsorship deal. With a helmet law in place that includes bikeshare riders, the risk of failure for a bikeshare system (and losing the attendant benefits of having bikeshare) is higher, and what are you getting in return?

    1. merlin

      Thanks for noticing us here and sharing your experience, Michael N.

  14. Todd

    As someone who sustained a serious head injury 25 years ago in a car no less, I will never go along with the idea that biking without one is a good idea. Of the few spills I’ve had, I can tell you 2 out of the 3 my head hit metal or pavement and I was wearing a helmet. I don’t care what you all want to do — but I will always be wearing one. I think it’s probably an individual choice — a law passed to mean well — but I say give every one the right to literally knock themselves out. But I’ll be wearing one. Always.

  15. […] the original: Milton repeals helmet law + How bike share and helmet laws might … This entry was posted in Blog Search and tagged bike, helmet, highest, injury, lower, nation, […]

  16. Without wading into the slop of debating helmet laws, i’ll note that the widely-embraced correlation of helmet laws to bikeshare system ‘failure’ is based on two cities in Australia. Not to say that mandatory helmets wouldn’t impair the types and levels of use we see here in the DC area for Capital Bikeshare. But I just suspect that with the environment you describe in Seattle, the biking populace seems to have adjusted their habits to include helmet compliance, and might do the same for bikeshare, especially if station siting and pricing schemes adjust to accomodate planned trips, rather than the spontaneous ones. Key word is “might”.

    1. merlin

      Bike share is not primarily for the “biking populace.” People who don’t already ride bikes don’t walk around with helmets (although maybe they should, see comment above from Daniel ER worker).

  17. Erik G.

    Has anyone in Seattle actually ever seen and touched a typical Bikeshare bicycle??

    These things are sit-up three-speeds. They are *not* capable of going very fast at all. A rider will not be crouched more than half-way over the handlebars like some Lance Armstrong-wannabe MAMIL.

    I think some of you need to see one of these in person before passing judgment.

    And follow the money sometime; the cycle helmet industry is a multi-million dollar enterprise that grew from nothing in just 35 years. Funny isn’t it that helmets do not get promoted for cars as they would save 7 times as many lives as bicycle helmets allegedly do; you think Detroit has quashed that message? Nah, they wouldn’t do something like that.

  18. […] strong tourism sector, moderate weather and ranking as a top-10 U.S. cycle-commuting city. But one key question persists: Can a bikeshare system be implemented in our city, which has mandatory helmet laws? […]

  19. […] To Avert Liability, Washington Town Drops Helmet Laws – NYTimes.com – Milton makes the NY Times. See also our post. […]

  20. […] doom the project (which also faces the usual hurdles of the city’s climate and topography). Seattle Bike Blog proposed some compromise steps short of repealing Seattle’s helmet law (which they believe is […]

  21. […] biggest concern about bike share in Seattle remains King County’s rare all-ages helmet law. No other big system in the country operates in a city with a helmet law in place, and PSBS is not […]

  22. […] biggest concern about bike share in Seattle remains King County’s rare all-ages helmet law. No other big system in the country operates in a city with a helmet law in place, and PSBS is not […]

  23. […] goes without saying that some of the laws are just downright confusing. In fact, the struggle for accountability over bicycle and traffic laws between advocacy groups and residents in our great city has created a bicycles-versus-vehicles war, which we have even […]

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