Two-Wheeled Trouble: Is the Helmet Law Just a Covert Attack on New York’s Bike Share Program?

Watch your head. (Edward Reed/Mayor’s Office)

Is it possible that requiring every New Yorker to wear a helmet while cycling might actually be more dangerous for bicyclists than letting them continue on their merry way—cranium at the mercy of crazed drivers, hapless pedestrians, flying rats and their own personal incompetence?

That is exactly the argument made by every cycling enthusiast from Mayor Bloomberg to Joe Twowheels after Brooklyn City Councilman David Greenfield proposed a bill last week that would mandate cyclists don a Styrofoam dome before hitting the streets. Right now, that applies to children under 14, who also have the right to ride on the sidewalk, and delivery cyclists, who believe it or not, do not.

Mr. Greenfield wants to charge cyclists $25 for their first helmetless offense, $50 for the second and $100 thereafter. He points out that a good bike helmet does not cost much more than that first ticket, so what’s the excuse? “It’s basically common sense,” he said of his bill.

But bike advocates argue that the bill will have the opposite effect, making the city less safe for cyclists because it will depress ridership—after all, most New Yorkers are more worried about suffering helmet head than head trauma.

“There is safety in numbers,” said Michael Murphy, communications director for Transportation Alternatives. He pointed to the fact that as the number of cyclists has quadrupled in recent years in the five boroughs, the number of accidents and deaths has concurrently fallen despite the greater number of bikes. “The more bikers, the more awareness, the better off we all are,” Mr. Murphy said.

But, it is those numbers that have Councilman Greenfield worried, especially with the city rolling out 6,000 new bike-share bikes this summer and a total of 10,000 by next year. “We’re talking about thousands of tourists and new bikers,” he said. “New York is a unique city, and it’s one of the most challenging places to bike on the planet. I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure our cyclists are safe. This isn’t Topeka, Kansas.”

Backers of the helmet law have pointed to the fact that the administration once supported such a plan, five years ago, under then-Commissioner Iris Weinshal. They also tend to ignore the fact that she has been leading an anti-bike campaign ever since a protected lane appeared outside her Prospect Park West doorstep.

Still, the timing of this proposal seems to be what has so many bike bigs bothered. If helmets mean fewer riders, that will be doubly the case where bike share is concerned. The entire point of the new Citi Bike program is to encourage hop-on, hop-off convenience. A helmet requirement makes it almost impossible to do that unless one carries a helmet hooked through a belt loop at all times.

“This is a huge canard,” one DOT insider said. “If you want to do something about safety, this is not the problem. No world class bike-sharing city has this law.”

Councilman Greenfield, who said it is not his intention to curb the bike-share program, says no matter, just build a kiosk beside bike stations with helmets inside. “They’re adjustable,” he said. Well, only so much.

And DOT counters that any bike share user gets a coupon for a discounted helmet at local bike shops and can even call 311 for a free helmet, something the department has done for the past five years, handing out thousands in the process. To claim the city is anti-helmet is not exactly correct.

“I think everything is a balance,” Councilman Greenfield said. “But public safety has to come first.” Whether a bike helmet does that, is the question.

Two-Wheeled Trouble: Is the Helmet Law Just a Covert Attack on New York’s Bike Share Program?