Experts, bicyclists discuss helmets laws

Laws that would require bicyclists to wear helmets are being debated.

Varsity Bike and Transit employee Neal Linder talks about bicycle helmets on Friday in Dinkytown. Linder attributes wearing a helmet with sparing him from serious injuries in two collisions with cars while biking.

Simon Guerra

Varsity Bike and Transit employee Neal Linder talks about bicycle helmets on Friday in Dinkytown. Linder attributes wearing a helmet with sparing him from serious injuries in two collisions with cars while biking.

Bryna Godar

In June 2011, Neal Linder was biking when a driver pulled out of a parking lot and hit him. Linder’s head and shoulder slammed into the windshield.

This was the second time in fewer than six months Linder was hit by a car while biking. Both times, his helmet prevented serious injury, the 27-year-old said.

As more bicyclists take to the roads for summer, researchers and transportation planners are discussing whether Minnesota should implement a law requiring helmet use for bicyclists.

Most bicyclists recognize helmets are safer, but still many choose not to wear them.

Studies have found helmets greatly reduce the damage caused by crashes.

Nearly 70 percent of all fatal bike crashes involve head injuries, but only 20 to 25 percent of all bicyclists wear helmets, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who is an avid bicyclist, said some legislation has been discussed regarding a helmet law, but it hasn’t gained much traction.

“You really need the bicycle groups to seriously get behind it,” she said. “It’s hard to push these things just from the Legislature.”

Jon Roesler, the injury epidemiologist supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Health, spoke about the importance of helmets at the University of Minnesota’s annual Transportation Research Conference in late May.

“I think about students — you’re spending all this money to develop your brain,” he said. “Your brain is your most important organ … you [have got to] wear a helmet.”

But many students at the University choose not to. Some students said they don’t want to mess up their hair, some find carrying a helmet is a hassle, some believe they are safe bikers, and others just don’t want to.

Twenty-one states have helmet laws for young bicyclists, and some cities have ordinances for all ages.

Minnesota, consistently ranked one of the most bike-friendly states, has no laws or ordinances regarding bicycle helmet use but does require a front light and a rear red reflector.

Bicyclists who do wear helmets were emphatic about the importance and common sense of protecting their heads while biking.

“If my head hits the ground, I’m much more likely to maintain my non-vegetable status if I wear a helmet,” said Ben Fulner-Erickson, a worker-owner at the Hub Bicycle Co-op at the University of Minnesota Bike Center.

Would a helmet law work?

Bicycle helmets are 85 to 88 percent effective in reducing head and brain injuries, according to the NHTSA. Yet some students said they would likely not follow a law if it existed.

“I would understand [the need for the law], but I don’t know if I’d follow it,” said University housing studies senior Jim Pankratz.

Even bicyclists who always wear helmets were skeptical of a law requiring it.

“Having a mandatory law for helmets makes cycling seem a lot more dangerous than it is,” said Linder, an employee at Varsity Bike and Transit in Dinkytown.

“As much as I would recommend that every cyclist wear a helmet, I think the problem with a mandatory helmet law is that it would reduce the amount of people riding bikes.”

Some research shows helmet laws do reduce the use of bicycles.

“From a health perspective, it is really important to keep people bicycling,” Roesler said, indicating that a law might not prove the most effective in promoting health and safety.

Some bicyclists said officials should focus on safety education instead of a law.The University has various programs to educate bicyclists about safety.

The “Safety is easy. The pavement is hard” campaign aims to make pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists more aware of their surroundings, and the Campus Bike Center offers a course called U-cycle 101 to help build confidence in cycling.

“It takes time for these efforts to take root,” said Steve Sanders, the alternative transportation manager for the University’s Parking and Transportation Services.

Boynton Health Service also provides helmet and headlight sets to students, staff and faculty for $20.

“If you don’t think your brain is worth $20, then you don’t need to wear a helmet,” Kahn said.