Compulsory bike helmets for the land of the free? US Government agency calls for mandatory cycle helmet law

Free to carry a gun… but not to ride a bicycle without a helmet? National Transportation Safety Board publishes its first report into cycle safety in almost 50 years

The federal government agency responsible for road safety in the United States is calling for cycle helmets to be made compulsory for all bike riders as part of a series of measures aimed at reducing cyclist casualties.

Other measures put forward yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in a public meeting in Washington DC yesterday include improving the ‘conspicuity’ of cyclists, building more protected infrastructure, and focusing on issues including junction design which contribute to a high proportion of casualties.

Yesterday’s meeting of the NTSB board adopted the key findings and recommendations of a forthcoming report by the agency into cyclist safety.

The report, entitled Bicyclist safety on US Roadways: Crash Risks and Countermeasures is the first such study it has undertaken in almost half a century, the last one being published in 1972.

​It follows the recent publication of statistics that revealed that 857 cyclists died in collisions involving motor vehicles in the US last year, up 6.3 per cent over 2017and contrary to the trend in all road traffic fatalities, which fell by 2.4 per cent over the same period.

In the report, the NTSB notes that 25 per cent of cyclist fatalities happen when the rider is being overtaken by a motorist, while 65 per cent of all collisions involving cyclist took place at junctions.

Few cycling campaigners would disagree with some of the report’s recommendations, such as reducing speed limits on roads shared by cyclists and motorists, improving signage at junctions and building safer infrastructure.

However, the NTSB’s call for cycle helmets to be made mandatory at national level and for all cyclists is likely to be met with strong resistance.

Across the country, 21 states and the District of Columbia have state-wide laws requiring minors to wear cycle helmets, although ages vary; in Connecticut, for example, it applies to under-16s, while in Louisiana it is under-12s. Nowhere has a state-wide law requiring all riders to wear one, irrespective of age.

While 29 states have no state-wide cycle helmet legislation, jurisdictions at a lower level can have their own local laws and it can be hugely confusing.

In Missouri, almost all of the three dozen municipalities that make up St Louis County have a mandatory helmet law, in most cases for under-17s, but in 12 applying to all cyclists; in Illinois, meanwhile, bike messengers in Chicago are required by law to wear a helmet.

In its report, the NTSB said: “The investigators’ primary focus was on crash avoidance, but in those instances when crashes do occur, they said the use of a helmet was the single most effective way for riders to reduce their chances of receiving a serious head injury.

“Because research shows that less than half of bicyclists wear helmets and that head injuries were the leading cause of bicyclist fatalities, the NTSB recommended that all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, require that all persons wear a helmet while riding a bicycle.”

The report also addressed the issue of ‘conspicuity’ of cyclists, which it said had been “identified as another key factor that could prevent crashes.”

The NTSB said: “Investigators found about a third of the motorists involved in fatal crashes while overtaking a bicyclist did not see the bicyclist prior to the collision,” and that “improvements to the visibility of bicyclists to not only the human eyes of motorists, but also to collision avoidance systems and connected vehicle technologies, would also likely reduce crashes.”

The agency added that “actions taken by bicyclists themselves – following traffic rules, obeying traffic signals and using bicycle lights – will reduce their risks on the road.

NTSB chairman Robert L Summwalt said: “If we do not improve roadway infrastructure for bicyclists, more preventable crashes will happen and more cyclists will die in those preventable crashes.

 “If we do not enhance bicyclist conspicuity, more bicyclists will die in preventable crashes. If we do not act to mitigate head injury for more bicyclists, additional bicyclists will die.”

He added: “All road users have a right to arrive at their destinations safely. And with so many more people using bicycles as a means of transportation, clearly more needs to be done to protect these most vulnerable users of our roadways.” 

Opponents to compulsory helmet laws introduced in countries such as Australia and New Zealand maintain that evidence does not support the assertion that they improve the safety of riders and also discourage people from riding bikes in the first place, leading to a negative impact on public health in general.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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