Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Mandatory Helmet Law

One of the agenda items (PDF) for the next Spokane County Commissioner's Board Meeting, (at 5:30 pm, Aug 23 in the commissioner's hearing room at the Public Works Building), concerns a county ordinance to require helmets for people on bikes, skates, roller blades, etc. The Spokesman Review has an article about the topic.

Personally, I'm all for wearing a helmet and I almost always wear one when I'm riding a bike. However, I find there are times when a helmet isn't necessary, like puttering around the neighborhood or a taking a leisurely roll on a non-motorized trail. I think going without a helmet is appropriate for Summer Parkways but since I wear one going to the event I keep it on out of habit. As for a mandatory helmet law, I thought I'd take a different look at the problem I perceive we would be trying to solve.

Presumably the most important reason for this law is preventing injuries and saving lives. I went to the Center of Disease Control site and checked out reports on non-fatal unintentional injuries and fatalities caused by unintentional injuries. Note: I looked at five year's of data nationwide for each query.

In the injuries query, cycling is listed as a specific cause is for three age groups nationwide:

* 5-9 years old - 5.3% or 450,141 out of 8,544,751 nonfatal unintentional injuries.
* 10-14 years old - 5.3% or 577,949 out of 10,932,943.
* 15-19 years old - 2.1% or 287,224 out of 13,645,416.

Here's the chart from the query I ran.

(Click to embiggen.)

And here is a summary for all ages.
(Click to embiggen.)

Next I looked at fatalities. The leading cause of death for ages 1-44 is unintentional injury. On this report you can drill down into the category to get more details.

(Click to embiggen.)

Here's the breakdown by age group where cycling was involved. Again, this is nationwide.

* 1-4 years old - .1% or 11 of 8220 deaths.
* 5-9 years old - .5% or 28 of 5303 deaths.
* 10-14 years old - .8% or 54 out of 6848 deaths.
* 15-19 years old - .2% or 68 out of 33,348 deaths.
* 20-24 years old - .1% or 46 out of 45,252 deaths.
* 25-34 years old - .1% or 93 out of 69,501 deaths.
* 35-44 years old - .2% or 168 out of 84,621 deaths.
* 45-54 years old - .3% or 249 out of 91,108 deaths.
* 55-64 years old - .3% or 179 out of 53,313 deaths.
* 65+ - .1% or 204 out of 181,065 deaths.

Here's a summary chart for all ages. I apologize for the poor quality but that's how it was displayed by the report.

(Click to embiggen.)

According to the Review article, the county commissioners have reserved the right to limit the ordinance to children ages 5 through 15. Given the CDC data, I think that approach fits best. But there's something else about the data that really stands out.

From the data we can see that cycling rates very low in the nonfatal unintentional injuries and as well as in the list of fatalities as a result of unintentional injuries. The number of injuries and fatalities attributed to falling, on the other hand, is HUGE in comparison.

Therefore, to prevent an even greater number of injuries and fatalities, it seems it would make more sense for us to pass an ordinance that requires everyone to wear a helmet all the time.


Anonymous said...

One of the "expert" proponents of the helmet law helpfully explained that it's not the car hitting the bicyclist that causes injury, it's the pavement hitting the bicyclist's head.

The sophistry in this account of causation shifts blame for injury to the bicyclist, no matter if the driver was at fault. And of course, the logic completely excludes infrastructure and law, the responsibility of governments.

The most successful programs of bicycle/ped injury reduction systematically focus on collision reduction, and identify those elements most linked to collision prevention.

Helmets don't prevent collisions.

Anonymous said...

Are there any studies on the impact of helmet laws on the percentage of people who ride, and perhaps on the prevalence of obesity (particularly in children) in the population?

Everybody rides bikes in places like the Netherlands, people look a lot fitter, fewer kids are fat, there are relatively fewer serious accidents...but few riders wear helmets.

The American approach seems to be to make bicycling as specialized, expensive, dangerous, and stigmatized as possible.

Anonymous said...

The StickmanKnows campaign chooses the following statistic as one of the most important for its newspaper ads: "In Spokane County, 4 out of 5 cyclists injured in a collision were male."

But, there's no mention of the percentage of cyclists who are male. The assumption may be that men take more risks as cyclists, but the statistic doesn't prove that.

Even in Portland, male cyclists outnumber female 2 to 1 (as of 2006). Spokane has nowhere near the proportion of female cyclists as Portland.

The problem with so many of these "facts" from the "safety" people is that they are incomplete.

The larger gender issue is "why aren't women riding bicycles?"

Also, note that Stickman thinks the injury rate for males ON BIKES is relevant, but not injury rate for men IN CARS or the gender makeup of drivers who collide with bicycles.

We need an objective approach to the statistics on bicycle safety, thanks for bringing up the issue.

Hank Greer said...

Third Anon,

I ran the same queries but only for males and found that they do make up the majority. However, like you point out, that doesn't mean anything all by itself.

Anonymous said...

Given the apparently low percentage of women bicycle commuters and recreational riders in Spokane County, I actually thought the 20% statistic seemed high for women. Particularly since I do see more men taking risks.

If it's true, maybe drivers are more likely to hit women. Why? Is that why women ride less?

I get the sense that Stickman and the helmet law are the prelude to a big crackdown on bicycling and bicycle political activism. They are definitely attempts to be "authorative" rather than promote discussion of the realities of bicycle safety in a car-dominated county.

I'd urge people to read the material critically, and also the supporting documentation (when they supply it, the don't in their ads). Keep the good, question the bogus.

Anonymous said...

Let's hear it for the nanny state!