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Responding to feedback, BTA clarifies and modifies helmet policy

Posted by on December 7th, 2011 at 10:12 am

Rabbit on his tall bike-1
BTA says they’ll oppose
mandatory helmet laws “if
a bill does not advance cycling
in Oregon.”
(Photo © J. Maus)

In an email to members this morning, Bicycle Transportation Alliance Board President Stephen Gomez wrote a letter offering, “Clarity on the BTA’s helmet stance.”

The letter comes in response to a new helmet policy released by the BTA back in October. That policy, which came after tallying results from a member survey on the issue, rubbed many in the community the wrong way.

The key part of the policy some people expressed disappoint in was this: “If confronted with a proposed mandatory helmet law, the BTA will not stand in opposition to the law. Neither will we devote resources to passing such a law.” While subtle, the new policy marked a shift toward a more pro-helmet stance than they’d had in the past. The BTA had previously been opposed — both philosophically and in practice — to laws that would make helmets mandatory for adults.

“It is unlikely that a mandatory helmet law would advance this mission. But we promise to actually read a mandatory helmet bill before opposing it. If a bill does not advance cycling in Oregon, then we will fight against it.”
— Stephen Gomez, BTA Board Chair

In his letter this morning, Gomez wrote, “It is unlikely that a mandatory helmet law would advance this mission. But we promise to actually read a mandatory helmet bill before opposing it. If a bill does not advance cycling in Oregon, then we will fight against it.”

Here is the full text of Gomez’s letter:

To our members:

There are few topics in bike advocacy that elicit such an emotional response as helmets. We all know someone who managed to avoid serious injury by wearing a helmet. And we all know someone who reserves the right to ride helmet-free.

Just reevaluating our helmet policy forces us test our assumptions, reaffirm our core beliefs, and confront some of the hardest issues head on. This is a good thing for an organization to do, and it is important to consider input from all sides.

From the feedback that we received from our restated helmet policy, it’s clear that you feel the same way. And with your input, we would like to clarify and modify our policy.

    We believe in safer streets.
    The BTA exists to push for safer streets and to make our roads more bike-friendly. Cycling is fun. Cycling is safe. Cycling builds community. We believe that you should be able to bike anywhere in Oregon with the same confidence that you do down your own street. This is what we work for, not just because we are people who ride bikes, but because of the countless benefits that increased cycling brings to our cities and communities.

    We think you should wear a helmet.
    Cycling is safe, but not without risk. Helmets are safety devices that make bicycling safer by mitigating injury in the event of a fall or crash. We believe that helmets can and do save lives. We believe that if you are under 16 that it should be required.

    We will keep growing the movement.
    Our mission is clear – we work to create healthy, sustainable communities by making bicycling safe, convenient and accessible. It is unlikely that a mandatory helmet law would advance this mission. But we promise to actually read a mandatory helmet bill before opposing it. If a bill does not advance cycling in Oregon, then we will fight against it.

We love helmets because they can help in certain situations. Our larger focus remains on making our roads more bicycle friendly through infrastructure improvements, reducing auto speeds, and fighting distracted driving.

Oregon is a great place to ride a bike. But we feel there is a lot of work ahead of us to make it truly world-class. This is the hard work we do as an organization every day, and of course we invite you to join us.

Gomez’s letter supersedes the BTA’s previous helmet law and usage policy. It’s almost a given that the legislature or other regional government agency will propose a mandatory helmet law in the future. When they do, it will be interesting to see how the BTA responds.

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Comments
  • Randall S. December 7, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Considering that it’s been repeatedly demonstrated that helmet laws reduce the number of people cycling, I can only assume this means they will oppose a helmet law.

    That said, I’m fully in support of any helmet law that covers all persons that could be protected by helmets: motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians.

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    • Scott December 7, 2011 at 10:52 am

      Are you saying that you support helmets for pedestrians?

      Also this law will get passsed because ticketing generates revenue for the city and in an economic downturn one would expect to see more laws going on the books creating ticketable offenses.

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      • Randall S. December 7, 2011 at 11:03 am

        Absolutely. For example, if the man who was injured in the bus-stopping incident had been wearing a helmet, he would likely have less severe injuries. Pedestrian helmets will save lives. There’s no arguing it.

        Plus, roughly 20,000 people are killed every year in slip and fall injuries, roughly half of which are due to head injuries. If you use the Thomson/Rivera “85% head injury reduction” claim, pedestrian helmets could save 8500 lives per year. That’s 13x the number of cyclists killed!

        As for revenue: put a cop at the corner of 6th and Broadway in the afternoon. I see about 2 red light runners in each direction, plus between 4 and 8 people blocking the intersection, per light cycle. At something like $400 per violation, they could pay off the Sellwood bridge in a week.

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        • lisa smillie December 7, 2011 at 11:53 am

          Randall is right, why should cyclists be singled out for mandatory noggin protection? And the relentless focus on this issue distracts from the sociopathic practice of speeding and red light running. I wonder how many members the BTA will lose to this nuanced repositioning.

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      • Jack December 8, 2011 at 8:05 am

        Your reasoning implies a shortage of opportunities to generate revenue through citations given current traffic laws. Pretty sure this isn’t the case. In fact, I believe I witnessed someone violating a speed limit just a few days ago.

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    • John Landolfe December 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm

      Hmm. But in ten years in Portland, helmet use has doubled and biking has grown exponentially.

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      • Randall S. December 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm

        Cool, but what does that have to do with cycling helmet laws? Helmet USE hasn’t been shown to reduce cycling. Helmet LAWS have.

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      • Erik Sandblom December 8, 2011 at 11:29 am

        But growth in biking has slowed, only +5% in 2010 over 2008, two years earlier. Mode share appears stuck at 6% or so, IIRC.

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  • sorebore December 7, 2011 at 10:53 am

    What aspect would it take in regards to “advancement”, that would induce the BTA backing of mandatory helmet law?

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Aaronf December 7, 2011 at 11:15 am

    By framing the criteria for judging a bill to be so vague as “advance cycling” they write themselves a blank check to justify almost any future decisions.

    I guess the board decides what “advance cycling” means, since their members are opposed to helmets, generally. I guess experts know better. That isn’t very democratic. Glad I’m not a member.

    Recommended Thumb up 3

  • Paul Johnson December 7, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Anybody else notice that the +1 buttons on BikePortland speak Italian?

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • wsbob December 7, 2011 at 11:15 am

    “…While subtle, the new policy marked a shift toward a more pro-helmet stance than they’d had in the past. …” maus/bikeportland

    ‘effectively’ so…maybe…though I don’t recall ever reading that the BTA previously had decided not to oppose possible future all age bike helmet laws because the advocacy group was taking a more pro-helmet stance than they’d had in the past by favoring such laws.

    Impression I got, was that the group simply offered the statement it did, hoping to avoid getting mired up, expending resources in a contentious debate over laws it possibly thought had little if any chance of being approved by Oregon residents.

    Might not it cleared the air more effectively for the BTA simply to have said something on the orders of?:

    On the principle of freedom for adults to choose and make decisions regarding their personal safety, the BTA opposes possible future bike helmet law proposals for people over the age of 16 yrs, the existing age limit for Oregon’s mandatory bike helmet law.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Alexis December 7, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I continue to be unimpressed, though at a less irate level.

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • GuardRail December 7, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    It should always be between you and the pavement. I broke my dome last 4th of July in a bike wreck and ever since then I always wear a brain bucket. It’s still between me and the pavement.

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • BURR December 7, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    BTA opposed mandatory helmets for youth when it was originally proposed; now they support it. They are still backpedalling.

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • Chris I December 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    Why is it “almost a given” that they will pass a helmet law in the near future?

    Recommended Thumb up 1

    • El Biciclero December 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm

      “Propose” a helmet law, not necessarily pass one. There was a law “proposed” a couple years ago that would have banned carrying passengers in bike trailers. Didn’t pass. There have been several laws “proposed” that would require mandatory registration/licensing of bicycles or riders; they haven’t passed either. There was an ordinance “proposed” in Vancouver some years back to mandate all-ages helmet use; it DID pass.

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  • Jim Lee December 7, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    I would join BTA if they would adopt a policy banning all bikes but fixies.

    Then they would be forced to acknowledge the ineluctable effect of backpedaling.

    Recommended Thumb up 1

  • 9watts December 7, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Why can’t the BTA focus on something important, urgent, useful, like opposing the CRC?! I haven’t gotten/don’t recall receiving any e-mails from them about that issue.
    Or about the post-auto infrastructure questions?

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  • Opus the Poet December 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    What about mandatory helmets for motor vehicle occupants? Requiring helmets instead of airbags would save about 15% on fuel annually. The support structure required to hold the airbags so deployment doesn’t collapse the structure (deployment forces are about 10 times higher than the forces from the occupant impacting the bag) weighs 800-1000 pounds per vehicle, removing that weight would significantly impact fuel use, especially in smaller cars where the weight is a higher percentage of the overall weight.

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    • 9watts December 7, 2011 at 5:01 pm

      “weighs 800-1000 pounds per vehicle”
      um, do you have a citation for that claim? I find that very hard to believe. Very very hard. I know the weights of certain models pre and post airbags and the difference is nowhere near that much. I wouldn’t doubt if there was a small weight penalty, but nothing like 1000 lbs.

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    • wsbob December 7, 2011 at 6:06 pm

      “What about mandatory helmets for motor vehicle occupants? …” Opus the Poet

      Are you going to write up a serious bill proposal for that kind of law? Do you think such a law proposal would have anywhere close to the wide public support that laws requiring people around 16 years and under wearing bike helmets have?

      Some of the language the BTA uses in its statement is vague:

      “….We will keep growing the movement.
      Our mission is clear – we work to create healthy, sustainable communities by making bicycling safe, convenient and accessible. It is unlikely that a mandatory helmet law would advance this mission. But we promise to actually read a mandatory helmet bill before opposing it. If a bill does not advance cycling in Oregon, then we will fight against it. …” BTA

      Oregon already has a mandatory bike helmet law that requires bike helmet use by people 16 and under. Is the BTA discreetly implying it thinks the current law is not advancing the BTA’s clearly stated mission?

      And “…read a mandatory helmet bill before opposing it. …”: Very considerate of the BTA to be willing to read mandatory helmet law proposals. So if someone comes up with a mandatory helmet law proposal that they can persuasively argue to the BTA, will advance cycling, the bill for the law will have BTA’s support.

      BTA’s statement did have at least one maybe unintentionally funny line: “…and confront some of the hardest issues head on. …”. Ka-Boom!

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  • Erik Sandblom December 8, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Any serious helmet research will tell you that there are a zillion other safety interventions which are much more effective and a lot less controversial. Helmet policies are a complete waste of cycling advocacy efforts.

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    • Erik Sandblom December 8, 2011 at 11:21 am

      Other than opposing their mandatory use, I should add.

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  • GlowBoy December 8, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    I guess I’m pretty aligned with the BTA on this one. I think everyone with a brain worth protecting ought to wear a helmet, but I don’t like using the force of law to force people to wear them. Nominally I oppose helmet laws, but there are far bigger battles to fight IMO and to me it’s not worth devoting a lot of energy to fighting them. If anything it just brings more publicity to the mandatory-helmet cause.

    I find it a more than a little facetious to suggest that if we mandate helmets for cyclists, we ought to for pedestrians as well. Yes, many pedestrians do suffer head injuries from falls, but the RISK of whacking your head on the ground is far, far higher once you’re traveling at bicycle speeds. Personally, I wear a helmet while bicycling, rollerblading or riding my kick scooter, because those activities take place at speeds where there’s a significant chance of not landing on my feet (and/or hands and knees) if I crash. I do not wear a helmet while walking or jogging because the risk of something happening that would crack my skull is much, much lower. You’d think this would be common sense, but common sense tends to fly out the window in debates about helmets.

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    • Erik Sandblom December 8, 2011 at 1:02 pm

      ” the RISK of whacking your head on the ground is far, far higher once you’re traveling at bicycle speeds”

      Are you sure? I’ve read a lot about bicycle helmets and there’s one statistic always missing from all the studies. How many cyclists get permanent brain damage? Helmets don’t help against cars, that’s been documented (and cars cause the overwhelming majority of cyclist deaths). And nobody worries about breaking an arm because it heals; reasonably people feel the same way about concussions and other brain injuries which heal.

      So if helmets don’t help against the majority of cyclist deaths, and if we don’t even know how many cyclists get permanent brain damage, what is the problem helmets are meant to solve?

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      • wsbob December 8, 2011 at 2:13 pm

        “…what is the problem helmets are meant to solve?” Erik Sandblom

        Use of a bike helmet allows a reduction from the degree of injury a person would sustain to their head if they weren’t wearing a bike helmet, in the event of a fall from a bike with their head possibly impacting some hard surface.

        I think speed traveled on a bike has something to do with the advisability of wearing a bike helmet. I think so because, in a slow speed traveled..15mph and less… and resulting fall, there’s probably a better chance of arresting the fall with hands, arms or feet before the head hits.

        15mph and faster, going off the bike, things happen so fast, there’s not much to do but hope everything works out alright. Nice to have a helmet in that event.

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        • Erik Sandblom December 8, 2011 at 4:05 pm

          That sounds reasonable in theory but it’s turned out that when more people wear helmets, head injury does not fall. See Wikipedia’s helmet entry, the section on time trend analyses.

          Bike helmets are designed to work at impacts up to 20 km/h. So they’re not much use if you’re going faster. And again, if they don’t protect against cars and if we don’t know how many cyclists get permanent brain damage, what problem are helmets the solution to? If they only protect against injuries that heal anyway, why not wear leg and arm protection and look like the Michelin man?

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          • wsbob December 9, 2011 at 6:55 pm

            “…Bike helmets are designed to work at impacts up to 20 km/h. So they’re not much use if you’re going faster. …” Erik Sandblom

            You’re suggesting an incorrect assumption of what the use of a bike helmet is designed to, and capable of protecting against. Collisions people may have, very likely won’t occur the way a helmet test is conducted in a lab situation (basically: the straight drop on an anvil test.).

            In collisions, there are all number of variables, some of which may intercede to break the speed at which a person collided with was traveling before actual impact. In other words, a person on a bike, traveling say…30mph, who, for whatever reason, falls from the bike, very possibly will be traveling less than 30mph when and if their head should eventually hit some hard surface.

            In such situations, use of a bike helmet could be beneficial in reducing impact to the wearers head.

            The question of whether or not people should decide to wear bike helmets while riding a bike, or whether society should require that people of certain ages should wear one while riding a bike, should not simply come down to whether or not wearing bike helmets while riding will reduce bike related head injury rates, as reflected in various studies.

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  • GlowBoy December 8, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    “Are you sure?” YES, I am quite sure I am less likely to fall in a manner that causes me smash my head on the pavement if I trip while walking at 3mph than if my rollerblades hit a pebble at 10, or a car throws me while I’m going 15 on my bike.

    No, if that isn’t obvious to you I’m certainly not going to elaborate, nor will I engage in a pointless extended debate about the value of helmets (though others may be willing to). You believe what you believe, and I’ll believe what I believe.

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    • Erik Sandblom December 9, 2011 at 11:55 am

      Yes but how serious will the injury be and how many times are you likely to injure yourself like that in a lifetime of bicycling? People have this idea that hitting your head while cycling will turn you into a vegetable, but there’s just about no statistics suggesting that is common.

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