Bicycle helmets are proven to be effective in preventing head and brain injuries. One often-cited study found that bicycle safety helmets reduce the risk of head injury from a bicycle crash by 85 percent.i
Thus, not surprisingly, increasing bicycle helmet use is a primary focus of many bicycle safety and injury prevention efforts.
The effectiveness of bicycle helmets in preventing death and injury has led policymakers and safety advocates to pass laws requiring bicycle helmet use as one way to increase the number of bicyclists who wear helmets. The past decade has seen great interest in such laws and ordinances. Since 1987, 19 states, the District of Columbia, and dozens of local jurisdictions have adopted some form of bicycle helmet use requirement as of May 2002 (see Section IX A, “Helmet Use Laws for Bicycle Riders”).
*As of March 2005, 21 States, including the District of Columbia have enacted age-specific bicycle helmet laws and more than 131 localities have enacted some form of bicycle helmet legislative.
These ordinances and statutes vary, from the populations subject to the law, penalty provisions, the approach to implementation, to the law’s relationship to other bicycle safety efforts.
This report seeks to detail the experiences of several jurisdictions to better understand the enactment and implementation of bicycle helmet use laws and their effectiveness. For a chart of the jurisdictions and the key provisions of their laws, see Section IV, “Chart Summarizing Jurisdictions Profiled.”
See Section III, “Method of Approach” for information on the methodology used for this report. Section IX C, “Matrix Used for Information Collection,” outlines the topics investigated for each jurisdiction.
See Section VII for the profiles of each jurisdiction’s experiences and Section VIII for the statutory or ordinance language considered and adopted in each jurisdiction. Model ordinance language developed by the National SAFE KIDS Campaign is in Section IX D. For additional information about bicycle helmet use laws, bicycle helmet promotion programs, and bicycle safety, see Section IX M , “Information Resources.”
This review sought to determine what bicycle helmet promotion and other bicycle safety activities, if any, were underway in these jurisdictions before a bicycle helmet use law was enacted.
In local jurisdictions, bicycle helmet promoters had usually conducted education and giveaway programs before they began seeking laws. For example, in Seymour, CT, the community’s injury prevention coalition saw an ordinance as a next step in bicycle safety. The Injury Prevention Program of the Duval County (FL) Health Department had a Traffic, Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Education Program (TBPSEP) in place for several years before the adoption of the state bicycle helmet use law. TBPSEP conducts a wide array of bicycle safety and helmet promotion activities.
Injury prevention coalitions in the jurisdictions reviewed were frequently affiliated with non-profit organizations that focused on childhood injury prevention (such as the National SAFE KIDS Campaign), preventing head and brain injuries (such as THINK FIRST and Brain Injury Association chapters), or community-based safety efforts (such as the NHTSA-sponsored Safe Communities program).
At the state level, the degree of activity appeared to be more varied. Oregon conducted a number of bicycle safety activities and helmet promotions around the state, including bicycle safety education programs in many schools. Maryland conducted some activity, which increased as serious legislative consideration of a bill emerged during a period of several years. Maryland’s local SAFE KIDS coalitions were reported to be more involved in the bill’s passage than the state SAFE KIDS coalition, which was described as more focused on child safety seat and seat belt use. There did not appear to be “state-wide” programs as there were “community-wide” programs. Delivery of bicycle helmet programs was primarily local. Even in states where a variety of activities were taking place, the activity was primarily locally based.
The interest level of the relevant agencies shapes the resources for bicycle safety programs and their delivery. Some government agencies dedicate few resources to bicycle safety, according to spokespeople, because their traffic data do not show bicycle crashes to be a problem. For example, one official said: “We don’t do a lot in bicycle safety. We use an outcome-based planning process. We look at data, which says that we don’t have a bicycle safety problem relative to other areas. We’re at or below the national average in bicycle accidents.”
Some of the bicycle safety programs were supported by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grants and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 402 highway safety funds.
Impetus For Legislation:
This review gathered information on the “initiating factors” that led to the consideration of a bicycle helmet use requirement. For example, was an ordinance triggered by a highly visible bicycle crash or did an elected official propose it without community input?
Based on the jurisdictions reviewed, a bicycle helmet use requirement is usually proposed when some sort of coalition effort is in place. The coalition frequently is focused on child safety rather than on injury prevention for all ages, but it may be focused on bicycling and/or on injury prevention generally.
Tragic crashes were generally not the motivating factors for pursuing a bicycle helmet use law in the jurisdictions that were reviewed. One exception was Seymour, CT, where two factors were identified as initiating the law. An active coalition was in place promoting bicycle helmet use, and two children were killed in different bicycle crashes, both of which received widespread community attention. Fatal crashes were an initiating factor for the bicycle helmet use law in Howard County, MD. Given that this county ordinance is given some credit for leading to the state law, it could be said that a crash was an indirect initiating factor in Maryland.
Another, less common, initiator of a law or ordinance is the elected official or staff person who decides to pursue legislation. In Oregon’s case, a state-sponsored coalition was “originally set up to treat the entirety of bicycle safety.” Then a state legislator, unaware of this nascent effort, introduced a bicycle helmet use law. “Once a bill with possibilities came to the fore, the group leapt on the task of passing the law.”
A law that results from an elected official’s vision without a corresponding support network in place appears to be less effective, based on the limited examples available in the jurisdictions reviewed. One cannot assume that a constituency will emerge to support the provision and its effective implementation. According to one observer: “You’ll have a city council person that’s supportive of the helmet law and will work to get it passed. Then that person will leave office, so that after a while the support is not there. The police can’t do it alone.”
Frequently, the legislation initially developed would require bicycle helmet use by all ages. In every jurisdiction reviewed in which a coalition launched the process and an all-rider bill was “in play,” the provisions ultimately enacted were for minors only. In one case the all-rider provisions were in place for a year before being scaled back due to community opposition.
An interesting contrast was the community in which an active coalition approached the town council seeking a minors-only law. The council changed the law, without input from the coalition, to an all-rider law. Within a few weeks, and influenced by complicating factors, that bicycle helmet use law was repealed.
The “major players” in these coalitions were medical professional individuals and organizations (emergency nurses and pediatricians, for example), and frequently SAFE KIDS coalition members and government employees in health agencies.
The Process Of Adoption:
In many ways, the legislative process to enact a bicycle helmet use law is like any other. Key considerations include legislative and executive branch leadership, committee assignments, partisan issues, opposition arguments, the process of bill development and compromise, and the “savviness” of supporters.
However, one legislative staff member described the effort as different in one way. In her experience, a bill’s author could usually be successful by working with a few powerful legislators in key leadership posts. In contrast, the bicycle helmet use law effort was fought “one legislator at a time.”
At the local level, ordinances were all adopted relatively quickly, but sometimes “un-adopted” quickly as well.
Local laws appeared to aid efforts to enact a state law both directly and indirectly, based on the situation. In Maryland, the three county-level laws provided evidence that a legal requirement would be effective in increasing bicycle helmet use and also that such a requirement would be politically acceptable. The local ordinances were also indirectly effective because they limited the ability of legislators from those districts to oppose the state law, according to a knowledgeable observer.
The Legislative Debate:
The argument made most frequently in legislative debates in opposition to bicycle helmet use laws was that the law would be an unwarranted government intrusion that infringed on individual rights.
Another frequent argument concerned economics. Lawmakers were often concerned about bicycle helmet availability and cost for low-income families. They required assurances that bicycle helmet giveaway and subsidy programs existed or would be established before agreeing to support bicycle helmet use legislation. This was a condition that was easily met by bicycle helmet proponents in the jurisdictions reviewed, especially since such programs were usually already in place.
Another frequent contention was that requiring bicycle helmet use would decrease bicycle ridership, that cyclists would stop cycling rather than wear a helmet.
A different argument was raised outside of the legislative chambers in some cases, such as among the various stakeholder groups. Some were concerned that a focus on requiring bicycle helmet use would create the perception that a bicycle helmet use law would “solve bike safety problems.” This concern, raised primarily by those in the bicycling community, was that a law would detract from other bike safety efforts such as training, bike paths and access, and sharing-the-road activities.
The arguments identified as “most effective” in persuading lawmakers to support bicycle helmet use laws were statistics on the costs of head and brain injuries and the effectiveness of bicycle helmets in preventing injury (for example, the 85 percent reduction in the risk of head injury cited earlier).ii
Frequently, the experiences of disabled crash victims were presented to put a human face on the statistics, although observers in general believed that the benefit of these efforts appeared to be secondary to the statistical and cost figures and the breadth of support for the law demonstrated by the bicycle helmet coalition.
This review focused on the time period between adoption and enactment of these laws. How long was this time period? What programs were instituted during this time period? Were fines or other penalties phased in?
Most of the jurisdictions reviewed set effective dates for their bicycle helmet use law ranging from six months up to 12 months after the bill’s passage. In two cases, the law allowed for the issuance of warnings while further deferring penalties for a year after the effective date to allow for education about the law and to give residents time to obtain bicycle helmets (as well as for bicycle helmet distribution programs to work). For example, in Port Angeles, WA, the ordinance was passed in May 1993 with an effective date of January 1, 1994. However, for the first year, only warnings could be issued; the fines allowed under the law ($15) could not be imposed until after January 1, 1995.
Some jurisdictions undertook substantial activities during the phase-in period. The Oregon state health division created the position of bike helmet coordinator for a three-year period. This coordinator undertook a multi-disciplinary approach to promoting the law.
In communities with active bicycle safety programs in advance of a bicycle helmet use ordinance, such as Austin, TX and Jacksonville/Duval County, FL, activities during the phase-in of their ordinances were a continuation and expansion of existing activities.
When state level laws were enacted, some statewide efforts were undertaken. In Oregon, a community-planning guide was distributed. (The guide is reprinted in Section IX E, page 144). But most of the activities appeared to occur at the local level.
Schools did not appear to be deeply involved in the law’s adoption in the jurisdictions reviewed but some activities promoting bicycle helmet use and the law were reported. In Jacksonville/Duval County, FL, the school board passed a proclamation in support of the law and stated that bicycle helmets should be worn when bicycling to and from school. (The proclamation is reprinted in Section IX K, page 212).
In Oregon, the bike helmet coordinator worked through the state Department of Education to ensure that children were wearing bicycle helmets. For example, they contacted schools to determine if the school had policies requiring bicycle helmet use by children bicycling to school.
Some schools had bicycle safety activities that promoted bicycle helmet use but may not have been related to the law. The Jacksonville/Duval school district added a bicycle and pedestrian safety component to their standards, which was later phased out. (See Section IX L, page 213, for these performance standards.) In Austin, many grade school children are taught a bicycle safety curriculum that includes an entire lesson on bicycle helmets. In Maryland, before the state law was adopted, the state received CDC funds to compare school-based bicycle education to community-based bicycle safety/helmet wearing programs.iii
In addition to bike helmet distribution programs, other activities such as bicycle safety rodeos and bike safety classes were often held to promote the law and to distribute and fit bicycle helmets. (Sections IX F, G, H and I illustrate, respectively, Duval County, FL, bicycle helmet sale order forms, bicycle helmet sale procedure guidelines, observation guidelines for their bicycle helmet use and behavioral survey, and coding instructions and form for the survey, pages 189 through 202).
In Maryland, NHTSA 402 funds were used to promote the law and to distribute bicycle helmets. Every county receives injury prevention monies, which some counties have used for bicycle helmet efforts.
An important element of most highway safety countermeasures is the role and commitment of the law enforcement community. This review investigated the role of law enforcement, specifically during the initial phase-in of the law and after the law’s effective date, including the level of enforcement of the law.
Enforcing The Law:
In general, the law enforcement agencies in these jurisdictions were not deeply involved in enforcing the bicycle helmet use law, few tickets are issued under these laws and respondents believed the law to be rarely enforced.
During the year in which Austin, TX had an all-rider law, a number of citations were issued. Enforcement decreased, however, when the law was scaled back to a minors-only law. Law enforcement officers interviewed often state that enforcing the law is not a high priority for them or their agency. In some jurisdictions, information on the citations and/or warnings issued was difficult to obtain.
The Austin Police Department “is supposed to but does not write tickets for the offense,” in the words of one bicycle helmet use law supporter. A few individual officers, such as the bicycle patrol or those assigned to schools, are exceptions.
When elected officials in a community, not a coalition, initiated the ordinance, the local police department was responsible for implementing the ordinance. This lack of community or organizational involvement is believed to undermine the effectiveness of the law.
A number of reasons were cited for the limited enforcement of these laws. Some injury prevention experts believe that law enforcement officers “don’t understand” the need for the law. Few jurisdictions reported taking steps similar to those taken by Oregon to educate officers about the impact of traumatic brain injury and the effectiveness of bicycle helmet use. In Oregon, bicycle helmet supporters believe that law enforcement’s commitment to the law remains relatively high, perhaps due in part to this educational effort.
Officers “have enough to do” already and don’t want to be “the bad guys” so those considerations also discourage officers from enforcing the law. Some jurisdictions instituted a “positive” approach to enforcement, such as having officers give coupons for free food (at fast food restaurants) to children wearing bicycle helmets rather than citing un-helmeted children.
In one community, a law enforcement spokesperson said that most of the area’s fatalities, including bicycling fatalities, were the fault of motor vehicle drivers, so the police department chooses to place its traffic safety emphasis on the behavior of motor vehicle drivers.
In a few jurisdictions, disinterest in the courts or lack of consistency in adjudicating these offenses was mentioned as a factor for the lack of enforcement.
In some cases, confusion existed about the basic provisions of the law. In one state, several individuals who had been deeply involved in the law’s passage complained, several years later (in the words of one): “I bet no citations have ever been issued.” However, that jurisdiction’s law did not allow citations to be issued.
In another community, where the bicycle helmet use ordinance had been changed from an all-rider to a minors-only requirement, a police officer, when asked about the law, declared that it had been repealed.
Minors-only laws raise unique enforcement problems, according to a variety of observers. “What do you do? Have the officer take the kid home, put the bike in the trunk? It’s a complicated thing.”
In one jurisdiction with a minors-only law, police officers were reported to believe that if they stopped a child younger than 14, the ticket would have to be written to the parents, which discouraged officers from enforcing the law.
The image of “troopers giving tickets to children” was mentioned as being distasteful to lawmakers and the general public, as well as to the officers themselves.
One officer stated: “It is hard to enforce. You have to write the citation to the violator; most are 6, 7, 8, 10 years old. Writing a ticket for someone that age is hard for the police officer.” As a result, officers “do more education” about bicycle helmet use and the law than citation writing. “Our enforcement effort is very minimal.”
In one community, a charge of selective enforcement based on race and ethnicity, was leveled, although a review of the citations issued disputed that contention (See the Austin, TX, profile’s Charts 2 and 3, “Ethnic Breakdown of Bicyclists Receiving Citations for Riding Without Helmet,” page 43). However, according to one observer, this controversy convinced the police chief not to enforce the law.
The picture presented in the jurisdictions reviewed is of a commitment to the law by the injury prevention community but limited interest and/or understanding of the law by enforcement agencies. (Certain individual officers, or bike patrols, were commended for their promotion and enforcement of the law.) One observer commented that “buy in” to these laws is needed from senior levels of law enforcement.
This picture should also take into account that these laws are generally described to be “educational.” For some respondents, the level of enforcement is not necessarily an indication of success or effectiveness. Some bicycle helmet use law supporters, while wanting greater enforcement of existing law, also commented that “the focus is not on citations” and “I didn’t care if they didn’t write a single ticket as long as helmet use went up.” Therefore, analyzing law enforcement’s role as a component of the effectiveness of a law depends upon how one defines effectiveness.
The review sought to better understand the impact of bicycle helmet use laws. For instance, how is effectiveness defined? Is it being measured? Are these laws effective? Lawmakers did not define “effectiveness” for the bicycle helmet use laws in the jurisdictions under review, nor did they require that the laws be studied or evaluated. None of the statutes or ordinances reviewed contained provisions covering these topics.
Where measures of bicycle helmet use were reported, increases in bicycle helmet use were observed after bill passage:
Several jurisdictions that tracked deaths, injuries, and fatality and injury rates reported improvements in these measures after bill passage. For example:
Some respondents offered their opinions on their law’s effectiveness. A number of people said they believed their bicycle helmet use laws were effective. To paraphrase one bike helmet supporter, these respondents believe that as long as bike helmet use goes up, the law is effective “especially since the (before-law usage) rate was so low. Even if we only get to 6 or 10 percent helmet use, it would still be better” than before the law.
One bicycling activist in a jurisdiction with a minors-only law said he was “not a real proponent of the law originally,” but now observes: “It’s very clear to me that (the law) is very effective. I think it’s highly successful with children. I see a lot of helmet use and it’s rare for me to see a child without a helmet now. Something did happen. I see helmets on kids in rural areas, where I least expect it; helmets on kids using training wheels; when they’re just going up and down the driveway. I’m always impressed when I see it and glad that it happened. There was an impact. I think it's promising.”
A few believe the law made no difference or that the lack of enforcement or penalties renders it ineffective. One observer said that “people who want to wear helmets will do so whether there is a law or not” and believes that the law is not effective because it “has no teeth. By that I mean no ticket, just the educational materials.” This observer also believes another reason why his jurisdiction’s law is not very effective is a lack of follow-through by the government agency that had been deeply involved in the law’s passage. During the law’s implementation, the agency did not continue its high level of activity in support of the effort.
One person questioned whether there is “an issue of unintended consequences,” believing that bicycle helmet use laws decrease bicycle participation at the same time that the nation is facing a burden to the health care system due to obesity and lack of exercise.
Another believed that, in some communities, “with an educational program we would probably have gotten about 50 percent compliance already (without a law). An awareness campaign has gotten them where they are.”
However, even though criticisms were offered about a law’s lack of effectiveness or enforcement, no respondent advocated that their law be repealed. A few had concerns about bicycle helmet use laws being the sole focus of bicycle safety efforts. “We must consider other aspects of bike safety; not take a one-shot approach to bike safety.”
Few suggested changing the age coverage of their laws. In fact, only one respondent wanted to expand their minors-only law to cover all riders and only one respondent proposed further lowering the age on their minors-only law to cover a smaller population of children. Several observers did express concern that minors-only laws will keep today’s children from translating their experience into wearing a bicycle helmet as an adult. (Specific suggestions are detailed in the “retrospective analysis” section.)
Even when a law is not being enforced, measured or somehow proven successful, some respondents see its existence as an important tool to help parents get their children to wear a bicycle helmet. Even a bicycling activist who is critical of some aspects of his jurisdiction’s law said: “I think it should still stay on the books. It gives parents a great lever. One of the biggest benefits of passing a law is giving a tool to a parent . . . it gives a parent the opening to talk about it. When you explain to a kid as young as 9 or 10 years old that it’s against the law, they’re much more likely to wear a helmet.”
In addition to examining a bicycle helmet use law’s effectiveness (however defined), this report sought to identify factors influencing whether or not an evaluation was conducted. What factors would encourage a jurisdiction to undertake an evaluation of its law? What barriers exist?
The jurisdictions that conducted the most complete evaluations of their laws did so using grant funding from the CDC or state highway safety funds apportioned by NHTSA. These evaluations were products of the injury prevention community, generally with little coordination with law enforcement agencies.
Several barriers to evaluation were suggested by those interviewed. Primarily and most frequently cited was a lack of fiscal resources and time. Some jurisdictions had difficulty obtaining injury data. In some cases, statistics on citations were not available or were hard to obtain. Crash forms did not collect data on bicycle helmet use; nor did summaries of citations provide such data in some jurisdictions.
Conducting an observational survey on bicycle helmet use was described as more challenging than a seat belt use observational survey. In the opinion of one observer, there is simply not interest by government agency leaders to conduct any evaluations. Another said that “buy in” by law enforcement leadership and others in the community is needed to evaluate the law.
Attitude and tradition also appear to play a role. In one jurisdiction that regularly conducts program evaluations, agency employees cited state and local traditions, individual leadership, and employee attitudes as reasons for these practices. Alternatively, some government employees, in describing their agency’s responsibilities, might mention education, advocacy, and awareness, but not evaluation.
In one jurisdiction, no clearinghouse of information or mechanism for announcing relevant studies conducted by various government entities exists. Therefore, “only a few people (in an agency) would know about a study,” making such information hard to get, according to one employee. “The data could be existing somewhere; perhaps some entity has done such a study. It is easier for me to get it through NHTSA than to ferret it out” from colleagues.
One approach to increase the likelihood that a law would be evaluated is to require evaluations or reporting in the law itself. However, one expert advised that such a strategy should be carefully weighed. While such a provision could generate important information down the road, it may also delay or jeopardize the bill’s chance of passage.
In one jurisdiction, the agencies charged with implementing the law took it upon themselves, without a statutory mandate, to report to legislators and the governor about the impact of the law. In addition to filling an important educational role, such reports may forestall challenges to or complaints about the law.
As part of the questions about their jurisdiction’s bicycle helmet use requirement, respondents were asked for general observations and to suggest changes that they would have made to the adoption and implementation of their bicycle helmet use law to increase its effectiveness.
Not surprisingly, since the experience of every jurisdiction varied and the provisions of the laws differed, the opinions expressed were sometimes contradictory. As mentioned above, one respondent suggested expanding their minors-only law to cover all riders and one respondent suggested further lowering the age on their minors-only law to cover a smaller population of children. When discussing their law’s penalty provisions, some proponents said, “decriminalize it” or “make education the sanction instead of a fine.” Others called for imposing a fine where currently none exists, believing that the lack of a penalty provision rendered their law ineffective.
One local official believes a state law would be more effective than local laws. “I believe until we have a state law, it will be a problem for jurisdictions for getting the word out. If there is a state law, then education efforts would come forward from the state.” However, the experience in jurisdictions with state laws indicates that most efforts would be conducted at the local level and state resources and programs dedicated to the law would not necessarily emerge.
The two communities that scaled back or repealed their laws may serve as examples that these laws, like any other, are affected by community attitudes and politics.
In virtually all cases, a key component of legislative success was establishing a coalition as the organizational structure for pursuing and implementing a law, similar to the experience of enacting safety belt anti-impaired driving, or other highway safety provisions.
Some of the suggestions for increasing effectiveness post-enactment are common to other safety countermeasure programs:
Citing themes familiar to highway safety activists, one bicycle helmet use law supporter said that experience taught him that, “just throwing a helmet out there isn’t enough. Coordinated activities are needed.”
Jurisdictions that reported increased bicycle helmet use after adopting a bicycle helmet use law had undertaken additional interventions, such as education, awareness efforts, bike helmet distribution and enforcement.
However, other areas mentioned may be unique to bicycle helmet use laws.