Do Mandatory Helmet Laws Work?

State mandated bicycle helmet laws appear to do more harm than good. State mandated bicycle helmet laws promote rider safety, but recent evidence suggests these laws have inverse effects and negative consequences. 

In 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB) sought laws to help reduce the number of crashes between cyclists and motor vehicles. As a result, the NTSB encouraged all 50 states to acquire laws ordering that adults wear bicycle helmets while riding. By increasing the number of people wearing bicycle helmets while riding, the NTSB believed that the number of serious crashes and fatalities would decrease. However, while it’s important that people wear helmets and take precaution, the enforcement of helmet usage presents negative consequences. 

The introduction of state bicycle helmet laws promotes rider safety; however, these laws make bike riding less convenient, resulting in less riders on the streets. With fewer riders on the streets, riders are inherently less safe and more likely to experience an accident or injury. 

“Even when the rider of a bicycle is wearing a helmet and obeying traffic rules, a collision with a motor vehicle can have catastrophic results,” says Attorney Ryan McKeen of Connecticut Trial Firm, LLC. “Since bicycles share the roads with bigger, faster vehicles, and bicyclists lack the protections afforded to motorists, lawmakers have established some regulations and restrictions related to roadway behavior.” 

According to research conducted by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the addition of bike lanes and improvements to infrastructure increases the number of riders and decreases the risk of crashes and injury. By implementing law that has reduced the number of riders, there has been an inverse effect on rider safety. 

Another underlying issue of mandated bike helmet laws is that the reduction of riders has influenced the use and operations of bike-share systems. Bike share companies are now responsible for providing helmets to riders every time they ride and must have a helmet for each of their bikes across cities.  By implementing bike helmet laws, bike share companies suffer financially due to decreasing ridership and costly provision of bike helmets to riders. In addition, private companies are not subject to these laws and without the provision of helmets, the number of riders continues to decrease as riding becomes less convenient.

Furthermore, mandated helmet laws have also caused communities of color and lower income communities to face more police interactions. Communities with funding for improved street conditions and infrastructure that create safer riding environments generally are higher-income, white, and educated communities. On the other hand, lower income communities and communities of color tend to be more policed and have less funding towards improving street conditions. Bike laws have disproportionately affected these communities before. In 2013, the Fort Lauderdale police department was accused of racial profiling when it comes to bike registrations and rider laws. According to the Miami New Times, 86 percent of 460 bike citations in the Fort Lauderdale community were issued to members of the black community over the course of three years. The introduction of bike helmet laws could further disproportionately affect these communities, increasing the number of interactions and citations between black communities and police. 

While the NTSB aims to reduce the number of fatalities and serious crashes through rider safety, enforcing helmet usage laws among adults presents more harm than good, putting more riders at risk and reducing the riders on the streets. In order to make streets safer, voluntary helmet use and improvements to street conditions would encourage more people to ride and promote rider safety through public awareness. It’s important to take precaution and stay safe while riding, but riders need to have access to safer routes and cycling environments to stay safe on the streets.