Mandatory bike-helmet laws

by Walter Olson on October 7, 2012

Cities are realizing that they can keep bikeshare programs from being successful [New York Times]

{ 15 comments }

1 Max Kennerly 10.07.12 at 10:33 am

Governmental policy is generally about risk/benefit balancing. If we’re going to talk about helmet vs no-helmet, a big part of that conversation needs to be the millions of dollars of health care that’s needed when someone suffers a brain injury.

All the poetic words in the world about the free feeling of the wind in your hair won’t change the cold hard fact that, when riders don’t wear helmets, they get brain injuries, and they cost the rest of us a ton of money.

2 Calvin A 10.07.12 at 11:55 am

Max,

You are assuming that those people don’t have health care coverage of their own? A fair amount of research showing that the alleged social costs are negligible as private insurance pays for the injuries. You might pay more for insurance, but that is a free market choice that you make if you choose an insurance company that covers head injuries. There is even a reputable study out of Bowdoin College finding that motorcycle helmets in particular have a tendency to increase spinal cord injuries in a roughly one-to-one correlation with the reduction in head injuries. So which is better, brain injury or paralysis. Should the government get to make that choice for you?

The other problem with your argument, which even allows that you are correct, is that the “social cost” theory then places no limits whatsoever on government control of your life. Skiing, junk food, obesity, motorcycling, bicycling, running marathons; they all increase risk of major health care costs, as do many things not listed. If you allow for a social cost restriction on activity, you no longer have a free society because it becomes “majority rules” regarding what activities are allowed and what are not.

3 Richard Nieporent 10.07.12 at 12:06 pm

“Governmental policy is generally about risk/benefit balancing.”

Max, that should be the way decisions are made. Unfortunately, the reality is that government policy is about which interest group has the most clout. Rational decision-making has very little to do with it.

Europe’s bike-sharing systems have delivered myriad benefits, notably reducing traffic and its carbon emissions.

Are you in favor of destroying the environment, Max? Shame on you! ?

“All the poetic words in the world about the free feeling of the wind in your hair won’t change the cold hard fact that, when riders don’t wear helmets, they get brain injuries, and they cost the rest of us a ton of money.”

“Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits,” says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.

So why do you choose not to believe this risk assessment?

4 ras 10.07.12 at 12:33 pm

Governmental policy is generally about risk/benefit balancing.

That may be the most naive line any commenter has ever made here.

5 Max Kennerly 10.07.12 at 12:39 pm

I make no argument one way or the other about mandatory helmet laws. I’m merely pointing out that vague claims of “mathematical modeling” are worthless without explaining the model and its assumptions. The model must include the full cost of injuries or it is worthless as a policy tool.

The core misunderstanding is in Calvin’s comment: “A fair amount of research showing that the alleged social costs are negligible as private insurance pays for the injuries.” That is fantastically wrong: just because a cost is assumed by private insurance doesn’t mean there’s no social cost, it just means the cost was distributed to other insureds with that insurance company. That also only covers the medical care; there’s the additional cost of lost productivity. A regular joe given a brain injury has just cost the economy several million dollars.

I haven’t a clue about the study out of Bowdoin College, but that’s the right way to go: actually look at the nitty-gritty and figure out what these decisions cost. The NYTimes article, instead, is just a collection of spurious claims based on unknown assumptions and modeling choices.

6 John David Galt 10.07.12 at 12:46 pm

It’s well known that NHTSA did a study, then buried it, which showed that motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets save the state money, because the main effect of helmets is to turn an instantly fatal accident into one where the victim becomes a long-term coma patient or quadriplegic (and this happens more often, weighted by cost, than the case where a costly major injury would be reduced to a minor one).

Knowing this, even a perfectly rational bike rider, if he would prefer to die than to be a vegetable, may choose not to wear the helmet. I don’t share that preference but wouldn’t begrudge the choice to anyone else.

7 aaaa 10.07.12 at 2:41 pm

Part of the problem is that head injuries during cycling are relatively rare. Head injuries preventable where helmets would help are even more rare.

Max here writes about cycling without helmet as a high risk activity with big chance of making you vegetable or dead. If I would believe it to be so dangerous, I would not do it at all – definitely not with that tiny cycling helmet.

This is the real damage, the shift in perception that puts regular cycling into the same category as high speed mountain biking or free style. Compare helmets used for mountain biking with the regular one – if the danger is really that high, then the regular one will not do the job. That is why those guys use heavier and better helmets.

Hard core mountain biking and bike trip to store do not have the same level of risks. Still, all current discussions about cycling tend to turn into topics of vegetables and dead people. Of course people do not want to use bicycle and will not encourage kids to use them.

8 Canvasback 10.07.12 at 9:35 pm

Max, I’m a regular Joe who rides a bike sans helmet. I assure you, a brain injury to me wouldn’t cost this, or any other, economy millions of dollars in lost productivity. Heck, probably not even much into the tens of thousands. I’m over 50 and haven’t had a regular job since 2008.

9 Ed 10.08.12 at 7:42 am

Being a motorcyclist, and having ridden my helmet for several yards, I find this conversation interesting.
I am, obviously, a big supporter of helmet use on any open vehicle. However, I also believe that this is not an area that requires legislation. It is an individual choice. Leave the law out of it.

If someone wants to ride a bike through city traffic sans protection, more power to them. It is their choice. On the bright side, it can lower unemployment.

10 John Burgess 10.08.12 at 8:51 am

I’m all in favor of individual choice when it comes to wearing a helmet.

But…

I don’t want to be stuck paying either higher taxes or higher insurance premiums because I’m now stuck with supporting the dependents of the free-choice-exercising cyclist, motor or otherwise.

Guarantee me that only the now-maimed cyclist is the one paying the consequences (and bills) for his actions, and I’m all for free choice here.

11 DEM 10.08.12 at 10:30 am

John, your post is typical of many I see claiming to extoll the virtues of choice but then claiming that such choice is possible only if there is no possibility of any externality, no matter how slight. Since there is no activity known to man that would pass your test, I think we can conclude that you are “all for free choice” in exactly zero circumstances. Your post also fits in quite perfectly with Max’s argument that even a fully-insured helmetless cyclist imposes costs on others through the attenuated threats of “lost productivity,” etc. In other words, even where no externality is apparent, some will go to great lenghts to find it, all in the name of subjecting us to their rule.

By the way, it seems to me that sex carries with it many possible social costs — orphans, sexually transmitted diseases, etc. I take it you would agree this is a more than sufficient basis for the direct regulation of sexual relations — say by requiring a state-sanctioned blood test by partners and limiting sex to married couples?

12 confirmed_cyclist 10.08.12 at 10:55 am

I am of two minds on this. I am an ex-racer who does by most rational measures, a lot of cycling. All of my miles are on the road, no bike paths. On my favorite weekend route I climb a 12 mile hill after a 4 mile warmup. The next 12 miles are at an average of 20 mph, so I do wear a helmet and full Lycra. I can hit 40 mph if I really try. One huge problem with a bike path and an experienced cyclist is that the average path speed is about 12. With a low speed fall, flipping over the bars is not likely, so helmet less is probably OK. As I travel at over twice path speed I can confirm that I take a huge risk on a path. I have read as much as a 10X increase on road vs. path for a fast cyclist. Several studies confirm this risk for mixing experienced cyclists with strollers, walkers, runners, and dogs on a “mixed-us” path. And I have read of the British study that cars drive closer to helmeted folks. So I agree that low speed, no helmet is probably OK. On the flip side (bad pun intended) at least a half dozen cycling friends are still alive and unimpaired because their helmets helped when they crashed. A bit of semantics, experienced cyclists “go down” as opposed to crashing. I have lost a few square feet of skin having “gone down.” After a while the nerves don’t grow back.

13 Rich 10.08.12 at 12:11 pm

Apropos of nothing, the city of Austin Texas (home of Lance Armstrong) had a mandatory helmet law for adult bicyclists, even though state law permitted adults on motorcycles to ride without one. (Bikers have clout at the statehouse. Who knew?) The municipal law for bicycles was repealed, although there is a movement to bring it back.

14 John Burgess 10.08.12 at 1:12 pm

@DEM: I’m willing to accept certain externalities imposed upon me by the behavior of others… I like free speech, for instance, even if the speaker is a hateful dolt. I will — and have — chip in to help pay court costs to ensure free speech prevails.

I’m willing to pay a limited amount of money, however, for other’s behavior that does not directly benefit me. That limit is quite low. Having to pay extra taxes or premiums because a half-dozen helmetless folks decided their way was better is beyond my limit.

15 DensityDuck 10.08.12 at 5:22 pm

Helmet laws are not about safety of riders. They’re about reducing the number of insurance claims. If you ride without a helmet and have a fall, then you’ve got an excellent claim for long-term disability. “I hit my head, now I have chronic pain and mental distraction that stops me working at all for the rest of my life.” Employers who provide bike-share programs have found the same thing.

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