When it comes to helmet laws, language matters

Bike camping at Champoeg St. Park-134
Mandatory helmet laws say
the little guy should wear one.
(Photos © J. Maus)

After reading about the helmet survey launched by the Bicycle Transportation Alliance last week, I wanted to share a cautionary tale about helmet laws. I live in Vancouver, Washington where we’ve been living with a mandatory, all-ages helmet law since 2008.

If you’re of the persuasion that mandatory helmet laws are a good thing, keep in mind that not all mandatory helmet laws are created equal and — as Vancouver is finding out with its 2008 ordinance — subtle wording can have a profound effect on the scope of the law.

Sidestepping the seemingly non-existent impact Vancouver’s law has had on helmet use, bike ridership and injury rates, it contains a few real-world complications that highlight why it’s important to pay attention to subtle wording.

The most complex dilemma of Vancouver’s all-ages helmet law is one that it shares with Oregon’s helmet law (which applies only to people under 16 yrs of age): both apply to infants despite a lack of on-the-market helmets that fit them and questions surrounding if it is even safe to put helmets on infants to begin with.

“I got stopped by an officer over the summer. He said I needed a helmet for my three-month old riding in my kid trailer. When I told him no one makes helmets for babies he told me that ‘I guess you can’t take him in your bike trailer.’”
— Christy Patterson, Vancouver resident

According to Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Kim Kapp, “If an infant is a passenger in a bicycle the parent or guardian is responsible for requiring that child to wear a helmet. An infant passenger is not excluded due to their age.”

The coupling of the helmet law with a lack of available infant helmets leaves some Vancouver parent’s feeling like Vancouver is “banning” infants from not only bikes, but kid trailers as well.

“I got stopped by an officer over the summer. He said I needed a helmet for my three-month old riding in my kid trailer,” says Vancouver resident Christy Patterson. “When I told him no one makes helmets for babies he told me that ‘I guess you can’t take him in your bike trailer.’”

(UPDATE: I just heard from an Oregon Department of Transportation official that said the Oregon law was written specifically to not include a child in a trailer. A trailer is a vehicle, my ODOT source said, not a bicycle, and therefore the under 16 bicycle helmet law does not apply. — Jonathan Maus)

Banning babies from bicycles isn’t new as Section 1238 New York State Vehicle and Traffic law states: “No person operating a bicycle shall allow a person who is under one year of age to ride as a passenger on a bicycle nor shall such person be carried in a pack fastened to the operator.”

However, in that case, the infant bicycle ban is a clear part of an active, rather than an indirect complication of, a helmet law. It also doesn’t pertain to infants riding in child trailers.

Eric Ophardt, a New York State Department of Transportation spokesperson told me that their law “does not address children less than one year of age as passengers in a trailers or pedicabs.” (Don’t even get me started about Oregon’s now infamous 2011 baby biking ban fiasco.)

Another confusing part of Vancouver’s law is whether or not it means people in pedicabs are required to wear helmets.

Most pedicabs are essentially three-wheeled bicycles or trailers pulled by two-wheeled bikes. That means they fall under the legal definition of a “bicycle” as per Vancouver Municipal Code Section 9.62.020.

Now, requiring pedicab passengers to wear helmets might not be an issue in pedicab-less Vancouver, but what impact would a similar requirement have on, for instance, Portland’s thriving pedicab industry?

Vancouver’s legal definition of “bicycle” further muddies the helmet law waters when it comes to electric-assist bikes. The law says bicycles are “propelled solely by human power,” so you’d think that means e-bike riders are exempt from wearing a helmet right? Nope. Not according to Vancouver patrol officers I talked to for this story. And court records indicate that no one has been cited under the helmet law on an electric bike yet so there’s no established city case law to clarify the matter.

Adding further potential confusion to Vancouver’s helmet law is the exemption it allows due to religious beliefs and practices and the fact that it doesn’t specifically list four-wheeled surreys (popular with tourists) as vehicle types included in the helmet requirement.

Considering the numerous grey areas in Vancouver’s law, the true debate might not be whether or not helmet laws are needed, but whether or not a confusing law does more harm than good.

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