The western Pacific island of Guam has become the latest place to introduce compulsory helmet legislation for cyclists – although motorbike riders there remain free to choose whether to wear one, providing an unexpected angle to the helmet debate that we certainly haven’t seen before.
Cyclists riding without helmets on the roads of the island, which is an unincorporated territory of the United States and home to around 160,000 people, now face being warned by police and, if they are caught a second time, a fine of $50.
The Pacific Daily News reports that while police have said they will seek to enforce the new law, which took effect last week when it was signed by Acting Governor Ray Tenorio, they do not currently have any procedures in place to log the details of cyclists who have received warnings for riding without a helmet.
The absurd situation that motorcyclists don’t have to wear a helmet on Guam but those riding bicycles do appears to have arisen due to a combination of two main factors.
The first is that a law initially designed to apply only to under-16s mutated on its passage through the legislative process into one covering all those on bicycles, and perhaps didn’t receive the publicity that might have ignited a comprehensive debate on the issue.
Secondly, there seems to have been little opposition mounted by cyclists themselves to the legislation, in contrast to a campaign fought by motorcyclists that resulted in a law making helmets compulsory for them being repealed in 1997.
Indeed Ben Ferguson, president of the Guam Cycling Federation, positively welcomed helmet compulsion, "Certainly anything that makes cyclists safer on our roads is always going to be a good thing," he said. "So I think it is a step in the right direction and we are certainly pleased."
He pointed out that the federation itself stipulates that helmets must be worn at its events and that the majority of its members already wear one, meaning that the law would afford protection for what he termed “recreational riders.”
He added that the existence of the law, which the Pacific Daily News notes attracted little attention as it passed through the legislative process, needed to be communicated adequately so that cyclists without helmets were not caught out.
Not all cyclists are as welcoming of the new law as Mr Ferguson is, however, Darryl Teggarty, described as a “keen cyclist,” said: "It puts adults riding bicycles in the category of children."
Mr Teggarty had backed the originally proposed legislation, designed to apply to under-16s only, and said he was at a loss to understand why it had been amended to cover all cyclists following a public hearing in December, especially given the fact that motorcyclists continue to have a choice.
"If there was a law on the books for motorcycles, requiring them to wear a helmet, I wouldn't bat an eyelash," he explained.
Senator Adoplho Palacios, one of the co-sponsors of the law and chairman of the Guam Legislature's committee on public safety was reported as saying he now wanted to examine the reasons behind the repeal of compulsory helmet legislation for motorcyclists in 1997.
The Pacific Daily News says that an attempt was made to reintroduce that law in 2009, with what it described as “a crowd of motorcyclists” turning up at a public meeting chaired by Mr Palacios to protest against the proposals. No further action was taken.
At the time, Mr Palacios told the newspaper: "Some of the motorcycle riders who testified said they know the risk they are taking, they understand it, and they know how to manage it. They said they know what to do to be safe,"
According to the Pacific Daily News, four motorcyclists have lost their lives on Guam since 2004 in incidents in which they were not wearing a helmet. During the same period, there was just one fatal incident involving a cyclist riding without a helmet.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.