Section I. Executive Summary

This report presents the experiences of six jurisdictions in enacting and implementing bicycle helmet use laws. In brief, this report explored:

  • The introduction, passage, and implementation of bicycle helmet use laws, with a focus on enforcement issues;

  • Significant factors in the passage and implementation of these laws;

  • Whether or not the effectiveness of these laws was being measured; and

  • Those factors that influenced whether or not these laws were evaluated.

The following chart provides a general profile of the six jurisdictions.

Profiles of the Six Jurisdictions (as of 2000)

Site
Jurisdiction
Law Effective
Age Covered by
Helmet Law
Penalty
Agency Enforcing The Law
Section for Legislative Language
Population
Make-up
Austin, TX City of Austin 05/19/96 Modified 10/97 Originally all ages, then amended to ages 17 and under Original ordinance: $50 for first offense, $100 for subsequent offenses. Modified ordinance: $20 for first offense, $40 for subsequent offenses. Charges can be dropped with proof of purchase of helmet within 30 days. City of Austin Police Dept. Section VIII A. Page 108 Population 642,992 Urban/Suburban Econom.
Diverse.
54.5% white 28.4% Hispanic 11.5% Black 5.6% Asian and other
Jacksonville/ Duval County, FL State Law, County-wide activities 01/01/97 Children under 16 State Law: $15; counties have the authority to levy an additional monetary penalty (i.e. Duval County added an additional $8 for total penalty of $23.) In Duvall County, the Jacksonville Sheriff's office Section VIII B. Page 114 Population ~ 773,000
State of MD State Law 10/01/95 Children under 16 (one exemption: sections of the boardwalk in Ocean City, MD) No Fine. Warnings and educational materials State, county, city, park police agencies Section VIII C. Page 124 Not provided
State of OR State Law 07/01/94 Children under 16 $25 which can be waived with proof of bicycle helmet ownership Any sworn police officer Section VIII D. Page 141 Not provided
Port Angeles, WA City 01/01/94 Penalty Provisions Effective 01/01/95 All ages and guardians of persons under 16 $15 City Police Section VIII E. Page 145 Population ~ 19,000 Predom. mid- Income, white
Seymour, CT Town 07/01/98 Suspended 07/21/98 Repealed 09/98 All Riders $25 first offense (could be waived with proof of helmet ownership); $100 for subsequent offenses Section VIII F. Page 148 Population ~ 15,000 Predom. mid- Income white Suburban/Rural

For more information on the background and scope of this report, see Section III, “Method of Approach.” Readers are urged to read the full analysis and the profiles on which the executive summary is based.

Common threads found in these profiles include:

  • The presence of coalitions that were focused on child safety, injury prevention, bicycling or brain injury prevention was a key factor in program delivery, bill introduction, bill passage, and implementation of the bicycle helmet use law.

  • Pediatric and emergency medicine professionals were identified as key constituencies in support of bicycle helmet use laws.

  • The enactment of bicycle helmet use laws followed the conventional legislative process, supplemented by concerns unique to the bill (described below).

  • The law enforcement community was generally not deeply involved in the law’s introduction, passage, or evaluation.

  • These laws routinely allow the fine to be waived if a bicycle helmet is purchased.

  • Bicycle helmet use laws led to unique enforcement issues (described below), compared with infractions committed by motor vehicle operators.

  • Effectiveness was not formally defined and informal descriptions of effectiveness varied.

The Legislative Experience:

  • Bill Introduction. The local-level jurisdictions usually had bicycle safety education and bicycle helmet giveaway programs in place so pursuing a bicycle helmet use law was seen as a natural next step. The most common factor leading to a bill’s introduction was the presence of an active coalition, as mentioned above. High-profile bicycle crashes or elected officials independently initiating legislative efforts were less common factors cited as triggers for introduction of the bill.

  • Arguments Pro And Con. The most common issues raised in opposition to bicycle helmet use legislation were:
    • The law would undermine individual rights and parental prerogatives;

    • The law could place a burden on low income residents by requiring bicycle helmet use (bicycle helmet use law proponents indicated this concern was relatively easy to address through bicycle helmet subsidy and giveaway programs); and

    • The law could lower bicycle ridership (little data exist to support or rebut this argument).

  • The issues raised most often in support of such legislation were:

    • Statistics describing the high costs of head and brain injuries;

    • Statistics on the effectiveness of bicycle helmets; and

    • Personal stories about deaths and injuries that could have been prevented or were prevented by using a bicycle helmet.

  • Constituencies. The posture of the bicycling community on these laws was mixed: some groups supported legislation (usually minors-only laws); some were opposed; and some were divided on the issue.

    Law enforcement’s involvement, when it occurred, usually involved technical assistance to lawmakers, such as in the drafting of enforcement provisions. Though law enforcement officials were seldom at the forefront of the debate on these laws, legislators often wanted their position on proposed legislation.

    In several jurisdictions, motorcyclists who opposed motorcycle helmet use laws also actively opposed bicycle helmet use laws.

  • Process and Timing. At the local level, ordinances were adopted relatively quickly. At the state level, bicycle helmet use laws often, but not always, required a multi-year effort for legislative adoption.

  • All-Rider Versus Children-Only Laws. In three jurisdictions, legislative proposals that were initially introduced as all-rider laws were subsequently modified to cover only minors.

    Two of the local laws that began as all-rider laws were later scaled back: one was completely repealed while the other was modified to cover only minors, a year after its enactment.

    To some bicycle helmet advocates, the all-rider proposal was a negotiating tactic and they anticipated that the likely outcome would be a compromise to a minors-only bill. Others saw a rollback from all-riders to minors-only as a substantial or total defeat.

Implementation:

In most cases, the law provided for a delay of six months or more after passage before its provisions took effect.

In several cases, additional phase-in steps were taken, such as prohibiting fines for an additional year after the law’s effective date.

During the phase-in period, activities at the local level usually consisted of an expanded version of existing programs, such as bicycle helmet giveaways and subsidies, bike rodeos, and other education programs. The degree of effort at the state level varied. While some statewide efforts were undertaken, most activities were locally based.

In some jurisdictions, little or no activity occurred through the schools to assist with implementation. In others, schools sponsored a variety of activities to support the law, such as educational efforts and adopting bicycle helmet-use policies.

Enforcement:

With some exceptions, the law enforcement agencies in these jurisdictions were not deeply engaged in enforcing the bicycle helmet use law.

The law’s language reflects the general perception that the intent of the bicycle helmet use law is to increase bicycle helmet use, not penalize violators.

  • Fines are low (or non-existent) and are rarely imposed.

  • As mentioned above, the laws routinely allow fines to be waived upon bicycle helmet purchase.

Unique enforcement issues for bicycle helmet use laws emerged.

  • Officers cited challenges in ticketing children (“Who do you give the ticket to? Do you put the bike in the trunk and drive the child home?”).

  • The law conjures the distasteful image of “troopers ticketing kids.”

  • Some officers use the law as an opportunity for positive interaction and education. One common mechanism is for officers to give positive reinforcement (such as coupons for free ice cream) to children who are wearing bicycle helmets rather than citations to those who are not.

Effectiveness:

Effectiveness was informally described variously as:

  • Changes in bicycle helmet use;

  • Changes in bicycle crash-related deaths or injuries or fatality or injury rates;

  • Level of enforcement (citations or warnings issued); and

  • The law’s value as a tool for parents.

Challenges to measuring effectiveness included:

  • Difficulty in obtaining injury, crash, citation and use data;

  • An annual incidence of bicycling deaths and serious injuries in a jurisdiction too low for conducting a statistically valid analysis; and

  • Difficulty in separating the impact of the law from the impact of concurrent, related education and give-away programs.

Where measures of bicycle helmet use were reported, increases in bicycle helmet use were observed after bill passage. For example:

  • A 316 percent increase in bicycle helmet use occurred among children ages 5 to 14 in Austin, TX (see the Austin, TX, profile’s Chart 1, “Bicycle Helmet Usage Rates in Austin”);

  • From 1996 to 1999, the bicycle helmet usage rate increased 393 percent among children ages 12 and under in Jacksonville/Duval county, FL (see the Duval County, FL- profile’s Table 1, “Duval County, FL, Bicycle Helmet Usage Rate Comparison by Age, 1996-1999”); and

  • Bicycle helmet use in Oregon after the law took effect was about twice as high as pre-law use, increasing from 24.5 percent to 49.3 percent in those under 18, and from 20.4 percent to 56.1 percent among those under 16.

Several jurisdictions that tracked deaths, injuries, and fatality and injury rates reported improvements in these measures after bill passage. For example:

  • From 1996 to 1999, the Jacksonville/Duval county, FL, bicycle injury rate (per 100,000 population) decreased from 51.07 to 33.62, or 34 percent (see the Duval County, FL, profile’s Charts 1 and 2, “1996-1999 Duval County Comparison & Correlation of Bicycle Helmet Usage Rates and Bicycle Injuries Involving a Motor-Vehicle, Fatal & Nonfatal for the 0-12 Age Group”); and

  • A sharp decline in bicycle-related head injuries (BHIs) was observed in Oregon; in the first full year after the bicycle helmet use law was in effect, actual BHI cases were 70, compared to 121, the number of cases predicted.

Evaluations:

Evaluations of these laws are not routinely conducted. When evaluations are done:

  • Federal funds (from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) frequently are used to conduct these evaluations; and

  • The injury prevention communities, such as health departments, usually conduct these evaluations.

Barriers to conducting evaluations that were identified included:

  • Time;
  • Resources;
  • Difficulty in obtaining data (injury, bicycle helmet use, citations issued);
  • Challenges of conducting observational bicycle helmet use studies; and
  • Lack of interest by government leaders.

The tradition and culture of relevant agencies were identified in some jurisdictions as encouraging evaluations and, in others, as impeding evaluations.

Emerging Issues:

Respondents emphasized several trends that they believed would be influential in shaping future activities related to bicycle helmet use laws.

  • Changes in transportation and lifestyle (e.g., concerns about obesity and other health issues and changes in land use to address sprawl such as through the “Smart Growth” movement) were predicted to change cycling’s role, likely increasing bicycling participation as well as institutional support for bicycling.

  • Most bicyclists are adults, yet bicycle helmet use laws typically focus on children.

  • A growing cadre of bicycling/pedestrian professionals is emerging in the transportation and planning fields.

An issue often raised, chiefly by those in the bicycling community, was that bicycle safety efforts are (or are perceived to be) singularly focused on the adoption of bicycle helmet use laws. They observed that bicycle helmet use laws do not “solve” all bicycle safety problems yet they are concerned that the focus on bicycle helmet use laws distracts attention and resources from other bicycle safety issues.