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Oregon lawmaker says safety concerns prompted child biking bill


Unsafe? Really?
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“Everybody should just stay calm, this is part of a deliberative process.”

Representative Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) says that his concern for the safety of children is behind House Bill 2228. The bill, which would make it illegal to carry a child of six years or younger on the back of a bike or in a trailer, has quickly caused an outcry among people throughout Oregon and the country.

Reached by telephone at his district office a few minutes ago, the 76-year old legislator prefaced his response to my questions by reminding me that he’s a professor of public health at the Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) – the same institution that published a bike commuter injury study in November that Greenlick says prompted him to introduce the bill.

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“We’ve just done a study showing that 30 percent of riders biking to work at least three days a week have some sort of crash that leads to an injury… When that’s going on out there, what happens when you have a four year old on the back of a bike? From a precautionary principle, I felt it was important to discuss the issue and start a debate.” (Greenlick said he was particularly surprised to find that the study results were based on “serious riders” and not just novices. Please note: That study was widely misinterpreted due to how it defined injury. See a good analysis of it by Mia Birk.)

Greenlick has certainly started a debate. Many people have emailed and called his office with their concern that his bill isn’t necessary and that it would be a major step backwards in Oregon’s quest to be the most bike-friendly state in the U.S. Greenlick maintains that he is simply trying to start a discussion. To back up his hunch about safety, he says his office is already looking into studies that might support the idea of the bill. They haven’t found any yet.

When asked if it might be wiser to find such evidence and then introduce a bill, he said, “Because this is just how the process works.” Greenlick acknowledged that he’s heard a lot of feedback from Oregonians concerned about the bill. “Everybody should just stay calm,” he urged, “this is part of a deliberative process.”

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“If it’s true that it’s unsafe, we have an obligation to protect people. If I thought a law would save one child’s life, I would step in and do it. Wouldn’t you?”

In backing up his safety concerns, Greenlick told the story about how when his kids were young — back in the 1950s — he would drive them around in the back of his car without seatbelts on. “I now look back and realize that’s not safe. If we find that carrying kids on the back of a bike isn’t safe, I would think that people would agree we need to do something about it.”

I mentioned to Greenlick that the OHSU study found that the main cause of reported injuries were environmental factors (like potholes and other road condition variables) and not motor vehicle collisions or rider error. He said he’d also support legislation that looks into those issues as well (he has not proposed any such measures, nor has anyone else).

Greenlick said he’s aware of the statistical evidence showing that as more people ride bikes, the crash rate goes down and the streets become safer. When I asked him if he’s concerned then, about the impact his bill could have on ridership he said, “I don’t think it will discourage people from biking.”

I explained to Greenlick that many people will choose to drive (if they even have that option) and not bike when faced with a potential ticket for carrying their young child on their bike. He didn’t address that concern directly, but he did say that if they do find out that the practice of carrying and/or pulling a child by bike is “unsafe” than he feels it’s the right thing to protect people from it.

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“If it’s true that it’s unsafe, we have an obligation to protect people. If I thought a law would save one child’s life, I would step in and do it. Wouldn’t you?”

Rep. Greenlick has decided that the way to open a debate on an issue is to propose a new law. We have seen this repeatedly backfire in Oregon. In July of 2008, Senator Floyd Prozanski — out of a concern for safety after a friend of his was hit and killed while bicycling — planned a mandatory, all-ages helmet law. After hearing a lot negative feedback about that idea, he wisely pulled the idea out of consideration. In March 2009, Representative Wayne Krieger proposed a mandatory bicycle registration bill. After hundreds of upset emails and phone calls came into his office, the bill ended up dying in committee.

Judging from my conversation with Rep. Greenlick tonight, it’s clear he feels his concerns have enough merit to warrant a debate. Hopefully, we all learn something once this over and the result is safer bicycling for everyone.

In the meantime, please contact Rep. Greenlick and express your thoughts on this issue. His email is rep.mitchgreenlick[at]state[dot]or[dot]us and his district phone number is (503) 297-2416.

UPDATE: Rep. Ben Cannon has posted a comment I think everyone should read.

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