Will California be the First State to Require Bicycle Helmets for Everyone?

This week, California State Senator Carol Liu introduced Senate Bill (“SB”) 192. The legislation would amend the Vehicle Code to prohibit everyone in California from riding a bicycle without a helmet and from riding without a reflective vest at night. Current law only prohibits children from riding a bicycle without a helmet.

Rather than just writing a blog or commenting on news articles, I decided to comment on the Legislature’s website. Whether you support or oppose the legislation, I encourage you to send your own comments. I have my comments on the legislation below (with a couple post-submission edits). Bear in mind that, while I thought about this before writing, I cranked it out in about 10 minutes (and spent about half that time tracking down the links).


My name is Kenneth Petruzzelli. I live in Sacramento, California, zip code 95819. I ride a bicycle for sport, recreation, and transportation. I went a helmet when I ride, although I often find it inconvenient for short trips down the street or in the neighborhood. I am also an attorney and work on environmental and land use issues and advise bicycle advocacy organizations. I oppose SB 192. Since the helmet and reflective clothing requirement are two different issues, I will address them separately.

Helmet Requirement

Mandating helmets for adults could significantly deter people from bicycling. An important concept in both pedestrian and bicycle safety is “safety in numbers,” meaning that the more people walking and bicycling, the lower the accident risk. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0001457509000876) In my days as an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, I recall noticing and identifying people on bicycles faster and more easily the more I drove in Davis (although I primarily travelled by bicycle).

While many factors are at play, numerous studies in the United Kingdom suggest that mandatory helmet laws deters so many people from bicycling that they have a negative overall public health impact. (http://www.cycling-embassy.org.uk/document/health-impact-mandatory-bicycle-helmet-laws) In Australia, mandatory helmet laws introduced in 1990 have reduced bicycling by about a third. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1410838/?tool=pubmed) Research thus far has found that mandatory helmet laws make no significant difference in safety and recommend other actions, such as improved infrastructure and stronger law enforcement, as more effective alternatives. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1410838/?tool=pubmed)

The report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, cited in your press release and the basis for the claim that 91 percent of fatal bicycle accidents involved a person riding a bicycle without a helmet, had significant shortcomings, chief of which, and acknowledged by the report’s authors, is that we have very poor information as to how many people are bicycling, what demographics are bicycling, and about their risk exposure (i.e. what proportion of their riding is on dangerous streets versus safe streets). As a result, the report tells us little about whether bicycle helmets affect the overall risk of accident fatality due to riding a bicycle. If 91 percent of people ride a bicycle without a helmet, then the statistic is consistent with ridership not due to whether a person wears a helmet. Even then, the statistics does evaluate how many of these fatalities would have been prevented had the person worn a helmet. Even where helmets are required, a decrease in the total number of fatal injuries could simply occur due to a decrease in ridership.

Furthermore, while many may agree that a “responsible” person would wear a bicycle helmet, that is not necessarily true of a “reasonable” person (in the legal sense), at least in Germany, where that nation’s highest court recently did not find contributory negligence for a person riding a bicycle for a utility trip was not wearing a helmet and suffered severe head injuries in a collision with a car. The German court reasoned that, since only 11 percent of people riding bicycles in Germany chose to wear helmets, wearing a bicycle helmet would not be required of a reasonable prudent person. (http://www.bath.ac.uk/news/2013/11/26/overtaking-cyclists/http://opus.bath.ac.uk/37890/) Germany has much higher rates of bicycling that the United States. If helmets were truly required for reasonably safe bicycle travel (and we are not talking about sport riding) then more Germans would likely wear helmets.

We need laws that will encourage more people to use bicycles for transportation. We do not need laws that will discourage people. More bicycling is important for improving public health, reducing energy consumption, and achieving AB 32 goals. The majority of trips people make are less than 3 miles. The more people choose to use bicycles for these trips, the more we can relieve traffic congestion, improve air quality, increase daily physical activity and, consequently, public health, and reduce carbon emissions. The focus on these trips is not a race or a 20-mile ride on a bike trail, but the trip to the neighborhood market, city center, office, or transit stop. For many suburbs, bicycling could be the key to making transit a viable alternative to cars. Many cities are also developing bike share programs to improve transportation and reduce congestion in their urban centers. Mandatory helmet laws could prove fatal to these programs. I urge you to eliminate the mandatory helmet requirement from SB 192.

Reflective Clothing

The reflective clothing requirement makes little sense to me. First, Vehicle Code section 21202(d) already specifies minimum requirements for reflectors and/or lighting. It would have been much more logical to integrate proposed section 21212(a)(2) into the existing reflector and lighting requirements in 21202(d).

It also vague, because it does not specify which of the three National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear levels of reflectivity would be required. According to Section 1599 of the Department of Industrial Relations Construction Safety Orders, flaggers must wear reflective clothing visible from a distance of 1,000 feet. Although Vehicle Code 21202(d) only requires lighting visible from a distance of 200-500 feet, depending on the part of the bicycle, even small, inexpensive lights have significantly greater visibility. The Planet Bike “Blinky,” a typical example of a light, inexpensive, and convenient safety bicycle safety light, provides visibility of up to 1 mile (over 5,000 feet) according to the manufacturer. (http://ecom1.planetbike.com/3035.html) The Blinky is a very small light. Most lights are much more powerful. Assuming a person riding a bicycle in darkness already has adequate lighting, it is unclear what additional benefits reflective clothing would provide. However, research in the United Kingdom has shown that a visible person riding a bicycle does not benefit from additional visibility (although wearing a jacket with the word “Police” did make a difference). (http://www.bath.ac.uk/news/2013/11/26/overtaking-cyclists/; http://opus.bath.ac.uk/37890/1/Walker_2013.pdf)

A possible and reasonable amendment to SB 192 would instead amend Vehicle Code section 21202(d) and allow a person riding a bicycle at night to use reflective clothing or lighting on his or her person (such as a light attached to a helmet or a backpack), rather than the bicycle. Another reasonable amendment would allow a person riding a bicycle at night to use a rear red light rather than a reflector.


I believe you have good intentions, but there are better ways to improve bicycle safety and bicycling. The number one deterrent to bicycling for many is safety. Safer road infrastructure, bicycle education in our schools, such as that recommended by the Safe Routes to School Program, and speed zoning laws that make it easier to establish vehicle speeds that are safe for all road users would provide far more benefit, while simultaneously improving bicycling, than a mandatory helmet law.

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