Should Every New Yorker Have a Bike Helmet? Should They All Have a Car?

58 img2929christopherwso Should Every New Yorker Have a Bike Helmet? Should They All Have a Car?

Scofflaw? (Bridget Flemming/Downtown from Behind)

City Councilman David Greenfield is introducing a bill today to require every New York City cyclist to wear a bike helmet.

It is an intriguing proposal on a number of levels.

Currently, only children 13 and younger are required to wear a bike helmet. Think of the last time you saw a cyclist cruising by—were they wearing a helmet? Through highly unscientific personal observation, this reporter would say odds are evenly split for and against helmets. Maybe it’s a little higher, hopefully, so this is simply a safety measure, and a warranted one, like seat belt laws.

This is to be the attitude of the councilman, who told The Observer, “This is the simplest thing a cyclist can do to protect themselves. To do anything else is frankly irresponsible.” He pointed to federal statistics showing that 96 percent of bicycle fatalities involve people not wearing helmets (which may have as much to do with the cyclists attitude and actions as the presence of a helmet, but the numbers still speak volumes.)

Still, the best way not to get killed on your bike in the city is to keep from getting hit by a car. Which begs the question if this is not simply more anti-bike legislation masquerading as pro-bike legislation. Going back to the back-of-the-envelope assumption that half of city cyclists don’t wear helmets, dumb if legal as that may be, how many of them might stop riding if it meant the choice between mussed hair and a $25 fine? With thousands of bike share bikes on the way, could this kill the program before it even gets off the ground?

There has been a rising current of such legislation amidst the bike backlash, some good, some bad. The call for bicycle registration has been widely viewed as a way to cut down ridership, while everyone can agree cracking down on bad delivery bikers is good for all New Yorkers—they can make life miserable for walkers, riders and drivers. Even the supposed NYPD crackdown on bikes is good if done right. Harassing riders safely traversing Central Park is one thing, but people going the wrong way down streets or blowing through stoplights not only present a safety risk but also create animosity among the ranks by giving the good cyclists a bad name. (Ditto angry drivers and jaywalkers, of course.)

With the exception of his complaints about the Ocean Parkway bike lane being shoveled while surrounding streets were not—a reasonable complaint, but one that also ignores that different machines for different jobs were used on the job—Councilman Greenfield is generally progressive when it comes to transportation issues, with the possible exception of leading the charge against those Department of Sanitation shame stickers, which proponents argue help enforce parking rules.

“It’s basically common sense,” the councilman said of his bill.

Perhaps bikers really should start wearing their helmets voluntarily. Maybe they should even be more diligent about following the laws, even when it’s not convenient or entirely necessary. Sure, putting a foot down at an empty intersection where the light is nonetheless red might slow you down but it will also win you some respect. Even as a jaywalker next to you decides to cross since things are all clear.

This is what we were thinking when reading Justin Davidson’s bracing defense of driving in the latest issue ofNew York magazine. Amazingly, he makes the practice sound appealing, rather than appalling.

Driving in the city is an extreme sport. Arriving from more placid places, you can feel the intensity spike as you home in on it. Lanes become notional, tailgating distances narrow, and you become more attuned to the body language of other cars. If you’re vigilant and blessed with good peripheral vision, you can often predict when another car will swing from the left to dart into a right turn.

Once you get into the lurching, irregular groove of city driving, it has a perverse adrenaline kick. Sharp as a forest beast, you process the crackle of random stimuli at a rate that would make a processor blanch. The other day, in the 30 seconds it took to drive one Manhattan block, I registered a double-parked SUV, a weaving bike messenger, a bus muscling abruptly into my lane, a jogger sprinting across the street as the light changed, an eighteen-wheeler filling the center lane, a massive pothole at my right wheel, and, at the corner, a walker gripping half a dozen dogs eager to bound into oncoming traffic. Somehow, my brain filtered those relevant observations from the streaming data of awnings and mailboxes and jackhammer noises and passersby. If mental exercise can slow the aging process, then driving in New York just might be the fountain of youth.

But for driving to work, so must every other mode of transportation—the more the merrier, and the merrier everyone will be:

Fulminating against drivers makes them feel beleaguered and resentful of changes that improve their lives. From behind the wheel, each new bike lane can look like an incursion into automotive territory, but it’s actually an amenity that gives us all more ways to travel and eases pressure on the roads. Streets designed solely as traffic conduits attract unsustainable amounts of traffic. For those who must—or choose to—drive, the best way to make the route more fluid is to help others ditch their cars.

[…]

If New York is to become a better habitat for automobiles, it should never be cheaper to drive than to take a less convenient form of transportation. To put it another way: Saving time should cost money, and vice versa. That way, car-­haters can stop spluttering about the ills of driving and let the rest of us whip around the city in ­motorized tranquility.

So long as a bike helmet law is done for the right reasons, to make the entire transportation system safer and smarter, it will be hard to argue with. But if it undermines these goals, then the whole debate is headed downhill faster than an out of control delivery bike.

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC