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Wouldn't bike lanes make riding safer in Anchorage than helmets?

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

What if the do-gooders of Anchorage passed a local law that looked good for kids but was really bad for them? What would you say? Better yet, what would you do? Would you just go along, knowing that the law might be destined to cost everyone -- or at least every taxpayer -- thousands of dollars somewhere along the road toward the future?

Probably you would. Because we're talking "safety'' here, and in America -- once the land of the free and the brave -- people seem willing to accept almost any government imposition on freedom in the name of safety. Have you traveled lately? Have you endured the huge, costly and intrusive bureaucracy that has been created simply to give people the impression they are now safe from terrorists attacking an airline?

Security expert Bruce Schneier has labeled it all "security theater," which is probably pretty close to the truth. And yet we all participate in it because it makes us feel safer. At some level, we don't really care how much it costs or what pain-in-the-ass it might become because, well, it makes us feel safer.

This is not, however, about airport security. This is about another of those do-gooder ideas that make us feel we are making the world a better, safer place. This is about bike helmets.

I wear one, though I'm not really sure there is a good reason to do so. If you're under 16 years old, it's mandatory in public places, according to municipal ordinance 9.38.200.  

A bicycle helmet is designed to protect you in a crash at 15 mph or less. I've crashed lots of times at 15 mph or less. Rarely did I land on my head. Seldom did I get injured. That's the norm. More than 20 years ago, G.B. Rodgers examined 8 million cases of injury or death to cyclists in the U.S over 15 years and concluded there was no evidence that helmets reduced head injury or fatalities. That injury survey remains the largest ever done.

Not only did it lead Rodgers to conclude helmets don't work, according to the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation, it also led him to conclude "that helmeted riders were more likely to be killed." The foundation is not some anti-helmet crazed, personal-liberty organization. The foundation's website sets out good arguments both for and against helmets. The foundation claims to have been "established to provide a resource of best-available factual information and to challenge evidence and policies that do not stand up to scrutiny."

Generally, the organization appears to favor helmets, maybe somewhat on the premise that they might not really help but they can't hurt. Or maybe it is run by people like me who've just bought into the anecdotal "evidence," if it can be called that, of others. I know people who have been in bad cycling crashes. Many of them claim "I'd be dead if I hadn't been wearing my helmet." There is absolutely no scientific reason to believe this claim. They have no data to back up the statement, and an objective reading of the data on bicycle helmet performance would tend to argue against their conclusions.

If you are traveling at high speed, and you are involved in the kind of crash that requires serious head protection to prevent a traumatic brain injury, your bike helmet is not going to provide it. If you truly want some head protection while biking at speeds faster than 15 mph, you really should wear a motorcycle helmet, but no one on a bike is going to do that because motorcycle helmets are hot and heavy. Were the government to require me to wear such a helmet, because it really might actually protect me in the event of a serious crash, I'd probably rebel and become some sort of outlaw rider. Or I'd quit riding.

And that is what this column is really about.

How helmets make bike riding more dangerous

Bicycling helmet laws, it is increasingly clear, have fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences. A study out of New Zealand this year concluded that country's mandatory helmet law for cyclists "has failed in promoting cycling, safety, health, accident compensation, environmental issues and civil liberties." The researchers certainly didn't mince words there after discovering that what helmet laws do is discourage people from riding.

Look around, and you'll see it in Anchorage. When I was young and growing up in this country, every kid had a bike and rode it everywhere. Not anymore. Kids don't ride like they did. There could be a reason. Now, if you're a kid, you best not get on that bike unless you have a helmet handy because you'll get in trouble. Anchorage, you see, is one of five communities in Alaska with a mandatory helmet law for kids. The others are Bethel, Juneau, Kenai and Sitka. They are all national trend followers. America today is full of communities with volunteer, do-gooding, safety police willing to impose their safety views on others.

Almost two dozen states have state laws requiring helmets on kids, and the list of cities and counties with such a requirement is too long to list. It seems like a good idea, right? What could be wrong with it? Well, the Kiwis found that their mandatory cycle helmet law cut reduced riding by about 50 percent. The Dutch cyclists union believes this makes cycling inherently less safe.

The argument is a little counter-intuitive, but there is some logic: Most of the truly serious cyclist injuries happen when they are struck by motor vehicles, and the fewer cyclists on the road the less attention paid to cyclists by the drivers of motor vehicles. Swamp the roads with people on bikes, the Dutch contend, and motorists will be unable to ignore their responsibility to be alert to bike traffic. (The Dutch, of course, consider it a crime for a car or truck to run down a cyclist. In this country, it's more of a toss-up. If you're a cyclist and you're hit by an automobile, you best hope the driver is drunk; otherwise, the authorities are likely to look the other way.)

More bikes, the Dutch argue, make the roads safer for bikes, and helmets decrease the number of bikes. Those crazy Europeans.

Safety police should turn attention elsewhere

Americans know the roads are owned by automobiles, and everyone ought to act accordingly. The roads are so owned by automobiles in this country that fewer and fewer people, especially young people, walk or ride a bike anymore, and there's the problem. We're paying a price for this.

The great threat to American children isn't from injuries suffered while riding a bike without a helmet. The greatest threat is what is politely called "childhood obesity."

"...It's hurting our kids," an Anchorage television station reported only weeks ago. "Three out of every 10 Alaska kids are obese, and will more likely grow up to be obese adults dealing with major illnesses."

Fat kids were not a problem when I was growing up in Minnesota four decades back. Why? Because we walked or rode our bikes everywhere -- and in summer it really was everywhere. We roamed helmetless on two wheels for miles and miles and miles in and out of town. We grabbed the bike to wheel ourselves to the store and never thought about asking mom or dad for a ride.

All of us survived. I remember a few serious crashes, but I don't remember anyone ever getting seriously hurt. I did suffer at least one concussion, I recall, but a bike helmet wouldn't have prevented it. I was at the time riding a bike with a "Swede saw," as we called a bow saw, over my shoulder on a trip to build a log treehouse in the woods. The saw had a handle that extended past the bottom of the bow. The handle hit the spokes of the bike at considerable speed, kicked up, caught me under the jaw, and punched me off the bike into the ditch. I got up eventually and stumbled around for awhile with friends wondering if I was OK and finally managed to get back on the bike.

They knew what had happened: "Craig got 'his bell wrung.'" We all knew about getting your bell wrung from playing football. It was a normal thing. It still is, but because football is played in the nice, "safe" and organized confines of a field, it has of late begun to draw some attention, and then only because National Football League players sued seeking compensation for long-term health declines related to multiple concussions. This is not just a problem for professionals.

NBC reported there are more than 4 million concussions in sport and other recreational activities in the United States each year, and football accounts for more than half. And the safety police are worrying about cycling?

Maybe it's because football players wear helmets, so it must be safe. Cyclists might not wear helmets, so it might be unsafe. We love to judge things on appearances, but sometimes appearances are really, really misleading.

The aforementioned New Zealand study on cycling helmets noted British research that "calculated that life years gained by cycling outweighed life years lost in accidents by 20 times.'' Twenty times.

Anchorage Assembly: Encourage bike riding, fund bike lanes

What Anchorage ought to be doing, if it cares about its children, is encouraging them to get out and ride. What Anchorage ought to be doing, if it cares about its children, is designing safe routes to schools, playgrounds, ball fields and other activity areas. And what Anchorage ought to be doing, if it cares about its children, is dumping a do-gooder law that discourages kids from riding a bike.

Unfortunately, the odds of this sort of community investment are about nil. Selfish Alaska motorists, and the politicians who kowtow to them, don't want to spend money on making safer bike routes for anyone, and since a lot of bike routes in Anchorage are unsafe by design, the safety police will continue to preach the necessity of wearing a helmet -- even if it appears from some studies that pulling on a cycling helmet puts a target on a cyclist's back.

"Strange but True: Helmets Attract Cars to Cyclists," reported Scientific American. It's almost enough to make me hang up my lid. But, as noted early on, I drank the Kool-Aid. I bought the propaganda. I pull on a helmet for almost every ride in the belief, unfounded though it might be, that a helmet could save my life. It's a comforting thought.

I am not so sure, however, it is a thought we should implant in our children's brains. More than that, though, I'm pretty well convinced -- from the research and my own observation as someone who cycles around town a lot -- that Anchorage's cycling-helmet requirement for children should go away. We need to be encouraging kids to get on bikes instead of giving them a reason to stay off. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.