By Sofia Barandiaran
Late last year, Assembly Bill A4894, which would require adults to wear a helmet while operating a bike, scooter, or motorized scooter, was introduced in the New Jersey legislature. This well-intentioned but misguided bill aims to make biking and scootering in New Jersey safer. However, if passed, this bill will instead make biking and scootering more dangerous by discouraging bike riding.
This seems counterintuitive–and it is true that wearing a helmet makes biking and scootering safer for the person who wears one. But helmet mandate laws decrease safety because they discourage biking. Biking is safer if more people bike: having more people riding bikes on the road increases awareness by motorists. Research shows that more people walking or biking leads to increased safety, and vice versa, largely because when drivers expect vulnerable road users, they drive more safely.
Let’s be clear – this is not an argument against wearing helmets. It’s an argument against making helmet use mandatory. While we laud the good intentions behind this bill, based on decades of evidence from around the world, NJ Bike & Walk Coalition opposes a helmet mandate for adults riding bikes and scooters in our state. No state in the United States mandates bike helmet use for adults–New Jersey must not become the first.
While helmets increase safety for the individual, helmet mandates decrease safety by discouraging biking and reducing the effect of safety in numbers.
Time and time again, where helmet mandates have been implemented biking has become more dangerous. After New Zealand imposed a helmet mandate in 1994, cycling rates fell a whopping 51%–during the same period, the rate of cyclist deaths relative to pedestrian deaths almost doubled, and cyclist injuries increased substantially. That’s right: New Zealand’s helmet law made cycling death and injury rates go up, not down. In addition to these direct impacts, the helmet mandate was also estimated to lead to approximately 53 additional premature deaths per year from lost exercise. These devastating results reflect the well-established principal of safety in numbers for vulnerable road users.
New Zealand’s helmet law made cycling death and injury rates go up, not down, and led to an additional 53 premature deaths per year from lost exercise.
In recent years, bike and scooter share programs have made active transportation accessible to millions of New Jerseyans, leading to an increase in ridership. A helmet mandate would substantially undo these gains by outlawing spontaneous use of bike and scooter shares. This will not only discourage people from cycling and scootering, taking away our safety in numbers, but also make our cities less accessible without a car, further compounding existing transportation inequities.
Helmet mandates are often compared to mandatory seatbelt laws. However, data shows that the two policies have opposite effects. Seatbelt laws make car driving safer and do not deter car use. Since all cars now come with seatbelts, no extra purchase is necessary. Crucially, having more people driving cars does not make driving safer, but having more people riding bikes does make biking safer. Helmet mandates discourage bike riding depriving riders of the safety that comes from numbers.
Helmet mandates also lead to racial injustice in transportation access. Black people and unhoused people have been targeted by police when they enforce helmet laws in other parts of the country. After Seattle adopted a helmet mandate, Black people were cited for helmet infractions at a rate nearly four times higher than white people. Unhoused people received a whopping 43% of all citations. The injustice of these figures is profound: it is precisely those communities most underserved by our transportation infrastructure–many of whom have been impacted by a history racist practices like highway expansion and many of whom rely on bikes and public transportation to get around–who will be the most adversely impacted by this law.
It is precisely those communities most underserved by our transportation infrastructure who will be the most adversely impacted by this law.
To compound that injustice, helmet manufacturers currently do not make helmets for many types of hairstyles and head shapes. There is an acute lack of helmets available for people with braids, dreadlocks, turbans, and other hairstyles common in communities of color. In addition, people with uncommon head shapes, such as those with dwarfism, are also underserved by the helmet market. Mandating helmet use for all when helmets are not created for all will lead to further inequities in the implementation of this law.
The City of Seattle ultimately repealed its helmet law, deciding that punitively citing individuals for not wearing helmets was an inequitable approach to traffic safety. New Jersey must learn from Seattle’s mistake. The safety of people walking and on bikes is a shared responsibility–placing the blame on vulnerable road users is both inequitable and ineffective.
The safety of people walking and on bikes is a shared responsibility–placing the blame on vulnerable road users is both inequitable and ineffective.
Instead of mandating the use of bike helmets by adults, New Jersey should adopt a safe systems approach that addresses the most important threat to vulnerable road users: unsafe infrastructure. Implementing safe street designs such as traffic calming and high-quality separated bike facilities is the foundation of a systems approach to bike safety. Legislators interested in genuinely making our streets safer can do so by supporting initiatives like the Vision Zero Commission, which will create a statewide systems approach to safe infrastructure with the goal of ending traffic deaths and injuries. In contrast to a helmet mandate, these initiatives address the root causes of traffic violence and ensure our streets are accessible and safe for all users.
Instead of mandating the use of bike helmets by adults, New Jersey should adopt a safe systems approach that addresses the most important threat to vulnerable road users: unsafe infrastructure.
An example of this approach is the recently passed bill S-147/A- 1116 which requires the NJDOT to implement a complete streets policy to provide safe access for all users, including bicyclists, pedestrians, transit riders, individuals with mobility impairments, and persons diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This law further requires that universal design concepts be incorporated into the design, construction, and operation of public highways and public transportation projects.
Encouraging helmet use in an equitable way that does not discourage cycling can bolster this safe systems approach. Free helmet programs, like this one in New York City, are an equitable way to increase helmet use without the negative public health impacts of helmet mandates. While helmet laws are regressive, free helmet programs are progressive: they most benefit marginalized populations such as unhoused and low-income people. A free helmet program can also be used to bolster the supply of inclusive helmet models like this one designed by a Sikh mother for children with turbans.
While helmet laws are regressive, free helmet programs are progressive: they most benefit marginalized populations such as unhoused and low-income people.
In New Jersey, the transportation sector accounts for 46% of greenhouse gas emissions and the majority of harmful air pollutants like ozone. Last year, 703 people in our state died in traffic crashes. And far too many are left behind by a transportation system that prioritizes cars. To address these pressing issues, New Jersey must adopt a progressive, justice-centered, systems approach to transportation planning. A helmet mandate is antithetical to that approach. Do we want to be a state where people are forced to wear armor every time they hop on a bicycle? Or do we want to be a state that creates strong, vibrant cities and towns where all people can travel, play, and work in safety? The choice is up to us.
 Normalizing cyclist deaths as a proportion relative to pedestrian deaths helps to account for other factors that might affect the death rate, including changes in drunk driving rates and street design. This rate was also normalized for number of people cycling.