A bill currently up for vote in the Maryland General Assembly would require all Maryland residents to wear a helmet when they ride a bicycle, but the bill is attracting debate and criticism from around the state.
House Bill 339, proposed by Baltimore Del. Maggie McIntosh, necessitates the use of helmets “at all times while a bicycle is being operated on any highway, bicycle way, or other property open to the public or used by the public for pedestrian or vehicular traffic.”
Wheaton bicycle riders came down on both sides of the issue. Many said that while the law may represent the best interests of many riders, they personally would not like to see the bill passed.
“If you’re a good biker, it should not be necessary to require the use of helmets,” said Thomas Lopez. “That seems intrusive, forcing people to do something against their will.
Robin Ghertner, who rides his bike home from the Wheaton Metro Station every day, agreed, saying that he “wouldn’t like it.”
However, the two riders differed on their opinions of whether the law would lower bike usage in Wheaton.
“If someone gets a ticket for not using a helmet, how likely would they be to continue using a bike as basic transportation,” said Lopez. “I would start using the bus.”
Ghertner, however, said, “I don’t think this will lower ridership at all. If anything, it may actually increase, because people may be more likely to take their families bicycling if they know they will be safe.”
Other Wheaton riders, meanwhile, came out in support of the controversial bill.
“I’m absolutely for it,“ said Khari Kambom. “We have been teaching our kids the importance of bike safety since they started riding, so it will be good to see it required at a state level.”
Daniela Reichert said that while she does not usually use a helmet currently, the new bill, if approved, would “probably be a good thing.”
According to The Baltimore Sun, McIntosh decided to propose the bill while driving to work, when she saw a bicycle rider next to her riding without a helmet.
Although not voting on the bill, Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Floreen supports the proposed law. In a statement on her personal website, Floreen gave a first-hand account of a bike accident that left her in the emergency room 15 years ago.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of wearing a helmet,” Floreen said in the statement. She cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, that more than a half a million people in the US are treated in emergency rooms annually--and more than 700 people die--as a result of bicycle-related injuries. Ninety-one percent of those killed in biking accidents are not wearing helmets.
However, Shane Farthing, Executive Director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, delivered a strong rebuke to the bill on the blog Greater Greater Washington. Farthing argued that the law would decrease ridership significantly while actually increasing the dangers individual riders face while bicycling.
Farthing cited studies from around the world, which indicate that helmet laws decrease ridership from anywhere to 20 to 44 percent. He estimated that the Maryland law would decrease ridership by 37 percent across the state.
Citing a study by Peter Jacobson, titled "Safety in Numbers: More Walkers and Bicyclists, Safer Walking and Bicycling, Farthing said when bike ridership decreases, the per capita risk to each bike rider would increase.
Farthing and other critics alluded to the recently expanded Capital Bike Share program, which they argue would be negatively impacted by the law. The majority of people to use a bike share program are casual riders who do not use helmets, he added. Therefore, a law requiring the use of helmets would significantly decrease usage.
No matter what side of the issue they supported, Wheaton bike riders were adamant that steps could be taken to improve bike safety in the area.
“While the parks are great places to bike as a family, the streets of Wheaton are very dangerous,” said Lopez. “You have to be very careful at intersections or crosswalks, because cars rarely look.”
“Besides my neighborhood, there aren’t many places I feel safe on a bicycle in Wheaton and Kensington,” said Reichert. “Georgia and Connecticut Avenues are downright scary.”