Why Helmet Mandates Move Us Away from More Mindful Mobility

Screenshot from the closing of the "Wave" video of Austin created by The Butler Brothers

Screenshot from the closing of the "Wave" video of Austin created by The Butler Brothers

As the Pedal Love team sets to work writing the "Pedal Love: Cultivating Civil Streets Among Californians and Beyond" media guide over the next two months we're having a fascinating conversation about what inspires us to be more mindful about mobility. Indeed we're starting to use the hashtag #mindfulmobility to share these inspirations on social media, and we hope you'll join what we feel will become a very fruitful conversation.

Cyclist. Motorist. Both people. Both going places. But at some point we made up a story about how different we all are. It's time to restore some common courtesy to life's highway. We suggest applying something simple and universal - a wave. See if it doesn't make your day flow a little more smoothly.

Personally I love the "Wave" video above created last fall and its message of friendliness on the streets of Austen. I wish this short sweet video was part of a national information campaign to create friendlier, safer, more economically vibrant streets across the country.

Here in California we're debating Senator Liu's bill SB 192 to mandate helmet wearing (and reflective clothing at night) for all adults who ride bikes. We know that Senator Liu truly cares deeply about the safety of those riding bikes, but helmet mandates are going in the wrong direction. If you'd like to tell her so yourself why not sign the California Bicycle Coalition's petition to stop the bill? They have also compiled a very thoughtful and data-backed-up fact sheet you might find very insightful as well.

For me personally, the video above is going in the right one. As I research to share in the media guide the type of language and messaging and imagery that has radically and positively transformed organizations, neighborhoods, communities, cities and countries I'm particularly enchanted by the "About Us" page of The Butler Brothers - the creative agency that made the video. This is one of my favorite sentences they share:

"We convene a diversity of voices from inside and outside of your organization to yield empathy, insights and inspiration."

Can I get an amen? While helmets are a smart safety tool for many circumstances for biking, they are not the end all be all of safety. I personally would like for it to be much easier to find out from very legit sources what exactly they protect against and how they're tested. This is not because I'm an alarmist and think riding a bike is dangerous. I know the health benefits of riding a bike far outweigh the risks - especially if we replace those short car trips for errands by bike.  I simply want people to fully understand what a helmet can and can't do. I particularly don't want those driving to feel that all Californians need for our roads to be safe for bicycling is for those riding to wear a helmet. End of subject.

What I've read is that helmets are good protection up to 12-14 miles an hour of impact and are created mostly to protect a rider from a fall off the bike, not against a higher speed collision with a car. They do offer some protection against a collision with a car but I can't seem to find up to what speed. What information is out there can be hard to understand for the lay person.

Our most dangerous road conditions for those riding bikes, walking, and frankly driving other cars are a collision with a distracted, drunk or speeding drivers. If we want truly safer streets for those riding bikes, and everyone on our city streets, we need better education, infrastructure and enforcement. If we truly want safer streets we need a culture shift not more people wearing helmets.

I want to live in a place where my city streets look more like those in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. They are cities where people of all ages, of all walks of life, use their bikes daily and safely to get to where they need to go. Often this means they are on very safe separated facilities. The majority of them don't wear helmets. There was a time in both of these cities that it was far more dangerous to bike, but over the past thirty or so years these cities have made commitments to become more biking and walking friendly and have reaped big health and safety benefits because of it.

But of all of the reasons I could give why I don't agree with a possible helmet mandate for California however, here is the most important one - I feel we already blame the most vulnerable users of our city streets enough.

We have become a culture that has not only privileged cars and car speed on our city streets above all other forms of transit, we've become a society that tends to treat those who aren't currently behind the wheel of a car as lesser citizens. In his excellent piece Sunday on Salon.com Henry Grabar notes:

"...it has been nearly a century since drivers were regularly blamed, let alone penalized, for automobile violence. In concurrence with changes in city design, an evolving consensus made driving legally protected — and walking (and riding a bicycle) legally vulnerable."

I am very tired of reading and hearing the very first thing in the news that someone riding a bike who was in a collision with a car wasn't wearing a helmet. This is a human being who was injured, or perhaps killed. We don't hear if the car was speeding, we don't hear if the person driving the car was distracted, or ran a red light, or under the influence - no, the initial comment too too often focuses on whether or not the person riding a bike was wearing a helmet. As if the helmet is magic and could protect the rider from any harm that  the thousands of pounds of steel of a car could possibly inflict.

Today while putting my notes together for this piece I Googled the term "car vs. bike" as "news" items and found 526 results. That doesn't mean 526 crashes happened between people driving cars and people riding bikes today, but it does mean the media is very fond of that phrase. It's not a phrase that sits with us well here at Pedal Love, we feel it breeds controversy rather than comprehension and empathy. This is a key reason we're writing the Pedal Love media guide right now. We need to change our language use if we want to change hearts and minds on the need to create safer city streets for everyone.

Those of us in active living/active transportation/healthy transportation/complete streets/Vision Zero (insert your favorite title here) have long advocated to change the overused term "accident" for "collision" or even "crash" when talking about traffic incidents between those driving cars and those riding bikes because they aren't accidents 99% of the time. Human error is usually to blame. It's time we did a better job of facing up to that fact as a society. I'm not sure if I'm ready to take up Grabar's "automobile violence" as a term we'll use in the media guide, but he has an excellent point.

We are extremely capable of violence behind the wheel of a car most often without any intention of doing so, and yet the violence and the impact of that violence on someone's life (including the loss of that life) remains. Los Angeles county is reported to have the highest number of hit and runs in the nation. I find this fact frankly appalling. L.A. Weekly has been particularly passionate about drawing attention to the matter and reported that in 2009 48% of the city's crashes were hit-and-run, compared with 11% nationally.

Things can be different. We don't have to continue to be addicted to speed.

Every time we venture forth to use our public streets and sidewalks, whether we're driving, walking, riding a bike or taking transit, we have an opportunity to participate in creating safer and more peaceful roadways. Of course the most obvious choice we're able to make is to follow the traffic laws. But there are less obvious ways that can be just as powerful.

Imagine the difference we could make on our streets if each of us took it upon ourselves to be mindfully polite? If we wanted to be even more daring we could be unfailingly friendly too. We could be just like the people in the Wave video.  If we wanted to be truly radical we could peddle love in our minds, our hearts and with our actions. What if we took the concept and movement of "Random Acts of Kindness" literally to the streets?

What if we kept in mind that each and every person we encountered (whether driving, walking, riding a bike or taking transit) had just as much of a right to be there as we do, and had just as important places to go?

A few months ago I was reminded soundly of my commitment to "peddle love" and how I was falling far short of that in the moment. I was at the Greyhound station in line for the bus that would take me and my partner to San Diego. We were at the very back of the line when we were notified they had overbooked the bus and there were no seats for us.

"But I have an important presentation to make!" I told the woman sternly.

"Everyone has someplace important to be." She told me, unflappable. And she was right. I thought about it for a moment. Righteous anger was going to get us nowhere. I thought a moment and then I asked very politely how we could get our refunds so that we could make other travel arrangements right now since the next bus would get us there too late. At that she suddenly had the idea to go back through and double check the seats. Two more were found. We made it to our destination right on time.