Cycling advocates fight proposed helmet law, preferring 'safety in numbers'

Tim Barnett rides his bike without a helmet on Eutaw Place
Tim Barnett rides his bike without a helmet on Eutaw Place (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

It seems as if it would be a common-sense maxim for cyclists: Wear a helmet.

Maryland law mandates the practice for children 16 and younger, similar to standards in nearly two dozen states. Under a Sykesville town ordinance, a person of any age can have their bike impounded for being caught without one three times. A bill in the General Assembly would make Maryland the first state in the country to extend helmet requirements to any person on any bike.

More helmets, more safety? Not so, according to cycling enthusiasts, who are fighting the legislation because they say such a mandate would discourage people from riding. Safety in numbers, they say, is more important than protecting individual skulls.

"There aren't enough cyclists on the road," Light Street Cycles' owner, Penny Troutner, told a House of Delegates committee Tuesday. "We have to hit that point where cars are aware of them, thinking about them and not resenting them. That is what would have saved Nathan Krasnopoler."

Krasnopoler, a Johns Hopkins University student, was riding his bike on West University Parkway in February 2011 when an elderly driver turned right into a driveway, crossing into the bike lane and running over Krasnopoler. He died of brain injury six months later — but he was wearing a helmet at the time of the crash, cycling advocates emphasized.

For the bill's sponsor, Del. Maggie McIntosh, the issue is black and white. The idea dawned on the Baltimore Democrat as she passed by a cyclist during her morning commute. In the bike lane next to her car on St. Paul Street, a popular route for city cyclists, a rider was cruising along with traffic, head uncovered.

"I thought, 'Wow; we're doing all this stuff in the legislature to keep cars away from bicyclists, and we should,'" McIntosh said. "But there are people commuting to work on a busy city street and they do not have a helmet on."

McIntosh, who said she blows off steam after legislative sessions with long-distance bike rides, said she has two friends whose helmets saved them from injury or death within the past year. She cited statistics showing that a majority of fatal bicycle crashes involved head injuries, and of those, the majority of riders who died weren't wearing helmets.

She was joined in support of the mandate by Nancy Floreen, a Montgomery County Council member who told lawmakers she spent five days in intensive care after a fall from her bike 15 years ago. Three years ago, she suffered another fall and broke her shoulder — but her head was protected by a helmet, which cracked from the impact.

"We have a moral obligation to help people in this regard," Floreen said.

Cycling advocates say they have nothing against helmet use, and they encourage riders to wear helmets. But mandating helmet use has been shown to discourage people from riding, they said.

"The idea of having mandatory helmets is, in a way, saying that what you're doing is dangerous," said Tim Barnett, organizer of Baltimore Bike Party, a monthly ride in which hundreds of cyclists — some in helmets, some not — tour Baltimore streets. "If we're telling them what they're doing is a dangerous activity when it's not, it's going to keep people away from it and continue to maintain a car-centric standard within the city or the state."

Barnett, like many of his peers, ditches his helmet for short rides around the city, including on his daily commute from Mount Vernon to Druid Hill Park. Given the stoplights and relatively low speed limits, he doesn't think he needs a helmet for those rides, but wears one on faster, longer rides through country roads with higher speed limits.

Some, including cycling advocacy group Bike Maryland, are not taking official positions on the issue in Annapolis. But their leaders are, as private citizens.

Chris Merriam, executive director of Bikemore but speaking on his own behalf, urged lawmakers to focus on driver safety. Bikemore, a city-focused cycling advocacy group, is on record opposing the bill. Nate Evans, a city employee who leads the Baltimore Transportation Department's efforts to promote biking, also spoke out against the mandate.

"Biking is only dangerous when people drive recklessly around cyclists," Merriam said.

Lawmakers have tried twice in recent years to raise the helmet age to 18 in Maryland. This session, another bill would open up sidewalks to cyclists to give the road-shy a place to pedal, said Del. Aruna Miller, a Montgomery Democrat. But cyclists oppose that measure, too, in the name of promoting driver awareness of cyclists.

McIntosh acknowledged the criticisms, but said it doesn't change the fact that helmets can save lives. If the cost of helmets is prohibitive for some, perhaps programs could offer free helmets to those with low incomes, she suggested.

"This idea of requiring someone to wear a helmet and they're going to stop riding their bicycle? I don't know. That's what the motorcyclists said to us too," she said. "I don't see it as something that would suddenly make you not like biking."

An earlier version of this article misstated Bikemore's position on the mandatory helmet bill. The Sun regrets the error.



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