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Proposed Bike Helmet Law Generates Controversy

Wheaton riders see positives, but some feel it to be an unfair restriction

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.”   

Ben Schumin February 25, 2013 at 06:00 PM
All bicyclists *should* be wearing a helmet, on the off chance that they do have an accident, much like seat belts in cars. I'm also confident that the people who would follow a helmet law are already wearing helmets, and natural selection will take care of the rest. But making Wheaton more bicycle-friendly is important as well.
Tom Termini February 25, 2013 at 07:16 PM
It is not as simple as one might imagine. I wrote recently why helmets are a bad idea -- when the goal is more cyclists, not less: http://www.intellectualcapitalism.com/2012/10/want-more-cyclists-on-road-forego.html
Simon Burke February 25, 2013 at 07:48 PM
I can see both sides of this but I think cyclists need to cede a little bit in order to fight other battles. Its sensible to wear a helmet and much like Ben said above, seat belts are mandatory. The goal should be to get more cyclists out there but some people need to be legislated into cycling safely and the helmet law is a good law. I've seen the stats that say if cyclists had to wear helmets less would ride. That's probably true but I'd rather cyclists fought for more important things like bike lanes than trying to avoid their safety. I wear a helmet every time I go out and for good reason.
Tom Termini February 25, 2013 at 08:59 PM
Not sure in these the days before Sequester why anyone thinks more government babysitting is a good idea, but, the statistics favor you smacking your noggin more frequently in the tub than on a bicycle. Again, if the goal is "zero injuries in life," then we need government-mandated bubble-wrap suits. If the goal is more cycling, less cars, look at the results of the studies I referenced in my blog -- in countries like France, helmet laws for cyclists REDUCED cycling. Voila - less injuries, perhaps, but less bicycling for sure.
Anton February 25, 2013 at 11:08 PM
I don't ride bicycles any more but even so I am against any law that forces you to do something for your own "safety." I ride motorcycles and I always wear a helmet but that is my personal choice, and even though there is a seat belt law for driving I never wear one, I feel too constricted. It should be you option to wear a helmet or seatbelt, not forced to by the city, state or federal government, I never wore a helmet riding a bike and as with the current seatbelt law I never will wear a bicycle helmet if I ever do ride one again no matter what any law may state. I know it is a simple law that is done for "your safety" and it does not seem like much but it never stops there. They already have cities where you cannot get a drink over 16 oz because of "health" issues. We are slowly letting the government decide what they think is right, safe or healthy for us and we willingly go along with it. It won't be too long before they will tell us how much we can eat, drink, spend, drive, etc. they are already working to control our doctors and health care by forcing you to obey or fine you and it will only get worse....
Ronnie Adams February 28, 2013 at 05:14 PM
This law does not go far enough; I feel we need to make it mandatory that people who jog, run, walk, skip or in any way move with the use of their legs in any public sidewalk, median, trail or other public thorughfare be required to wear knee and elbow pads.Studies and statistics indicate that the wearing of knee and elbow pads will not only save lives, prevent ijury but also save Marylander's from substantial economic loss.

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