February 8, 2013 12:15PM

Bike Advocates Oppose Mandatory Helmet Laws

This morning's Washington Post reports that organized bicycling enthusiasts in Maryland, though a very safety-oriented bunch, are mostly not supporting a bill in the state House of Delegates filed by Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore) that would make helmet use mandatory for riders: 

“We feel that everyone should wear a helmet,” said Carol Silldorff, executive director of the nonprofit group Bike Maryland. “We don’t feel that it should be necessarily the law that you have to wear a helmet.”

Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, is quoted similarly: "we are fully supportive of the use of helmets and encourage everyone who rides a bike to use one,” he said. “We’re just not convinced that a mandatory helmet law is going to improve safety."

For bike advocates, the main problem seems to be that fear of being ticketed under a mandatory law is likely to discourage casual short-hop users from participating in the sort of Bikeshare program that has become popular in Washington, D.C. and is expected to spread soon into the Maryland suburbs.  Bike advocates cite a "safety in numbers" theory: once the novices and impulse users drop out for fear of being hassled by police for their lack of head protection, the only urban bicyclists will be the dedicated types who carry a helmet around with them just in case, and motorists (the theory goes) are more likely to ignore bicyclists' safety needs when they don't see them around much. Farthing, of WABA, is also concerned that once helmet use is legally obligatory, officials may be unwilling to open Bikeshare docking stations "for fear that they would be legally liable" after an accident for facilitating unhelmeted use.

In other words, you can care about safety, but not want it enforced by government decree. Kind of a revolutionary idea -- especially in today's Washington, D.C.