Feds urge bike helmets for all, flouting cycling safety advocates

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The concept has been strongly advised against by planners who say cycling becomes safer as more people ride bikes.

Federal investigators are recommending helmet requirements for all American cyclists, flouting advice and research from city planners.

In light of rising cycling fatalities across the country, the National Transportation Review Board on Tuesday approved a package of new recommendations, including one for all states — and Puerto Rico —  to require cyclists to wear age-appropriate helmets.

The concept has been strongly advised against in New York City, where planners have argued for years that cycling becomes safer as more people ride bikes — a concept popularized over years of research across the world.

The NTSB, the independent agency charged with investigating transportation crashes, backed the concept under the reasoning that head injuries are the leading cause of cycling-related fatalities across the country.

“The individual bicyclist can take steps to avoid a crash by obeying traffic rules and controls, such as signals, and enhancing conspicuity – for example, through the use of bicycle lights,” said NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt. “In the event of a crash, bicyclists are safer wearing a bicycle helmet that meets federal bicycle helmet standards.”

But planners, including city Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, have warned that helmet requirements could suppress cycling—making riding more dangerous. The “safety in numbers” phenomenon, first popularized by researcher Peter Jacobsen, documents that drivers are less likely to crash into pedestrians or cyclists if there are more people walking or riding.

“We’ve been saying this for decades, with the exception of protected bike lanes, the only thing that protects me as a cyclist is other cyclists’ presence on the road which sends that subliminal single to drivers that we are there,” said traffic expert Charles Komanoff. “Safety in numbers—it’s been qualified it’s been fairly well established.”

There were 857 cycling deaths across the country last year, marking a 6.3 percent increase from 2017, according to federal data. Mayor Bill de Blasio revived a local debate around helmet requirements in September, when he publicly mulled it’s a “valid discussion” to require helmets for Citi Bike usage in response to the sharp uptick in city cycling deaths in the city this year. though the quickly faced backlash from the cycling community.

Roughly 85 million trips have been completed on Citi Bike since its launch in 2013 and only two bike-share riders have died after being struck by vehicles.

Trottenberg followed up at a City Council hearing late last month that the city supports helmet use, but wouldn’t support making it mandatory for adults. Cyclists under 14 years of age are currently required to wear helmets under state law.

“There is a creative tension of, in cities where…adults [are] required to wear cycling helmets, cycling goes down — particularly for things like Citi Bike,” Trottenberg said.

Advocates said the focus needs to be on encouraging cycling and building safe infrastructure. Joe Cutrufo, a spokesman for the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, said the recommendation would potentially be most damaging in other parts of the country without strong cycling communities and advocacy.

“We could see electeds buying into this rationale elsewhere in the country, but here in New York our elected leaders should know better,” he said.

Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for Bike NYC and former policy director at DOT, said the “federal government is completely bankrupt on the issue of road safety” and pointed to countries like the Netherlands or Denmark, where cycling rates are high and helmet use is nonexistent.

“What makes cycling safe — its safe places to ride,” he said. “They don’t have helmet laws, they do have bike paths everywhere. It’s not aviation science; it’s easy.”

Of NTSB, Orcutt posited, “I would disregard their recommendation and they should stick to plane crashes.”

Vincent Barone