The real problem with the NTSB’s mandatory bike helmet recommendation

Lloyd Alter

Lloyd Alter lloydalterNovember 15, 2019

cement truck
Screen capture The driver of this truck just killed a cyclist in Ottawa/ CBC

We covered this subject before but I got it wrong. Peter Flax of Bicycling Magazine got it right.

After a woman in Ottawa was crushed to death during a right-hook by a concrete truck a few years ago, I was outraged by the spate of articles suggesting that maybe bike helmets should be made mandatory, as if a foam hat would make any difference when a big truck with no side guards makes a right turn on a red on a street with no bike lane. I have been complaining about this kind of stupidity ever since.

I forgot about my outrage when the National Transportation Safety Board recommended mandatory helmet laws for cyclists. Instead I wrote a muddled post in which I pointed out the weirdness of picking on cyclists when, statistically, everyone should be wearing helmets. I did note that “it’s not that helmets are ineffective that’s the issue here. The problem is that they are a distraction from the real issue of infrastructure.”But in the week since I wrote that post, it has become clear that I missed the real point here. Peter Flax of Bicycling Magazine nailed it when he discussed the NTSB’s focus on helmets and “conspicuity” or hi-viz, in his post NTSB to Bike Riders: It’s on You to Stop Getting Hit by Drivers.

The collective message is that riders often are naughty and need to take greater responsibility for their own safety. Instead of seeing what cyclists really are—the victims of systemic problems that desperately need fixing—the NTSB frames riders as the agents of their own demise. This is the essence of victim blaming.

The fact is that not wearing a helmet is not a cause of death or injury in most cases. Getting hit by a vehicle is. The NTSB says that helmets reduce the likelihood of head injuries by 48 percent, but preventing vehicles from hitting people reduces them by close to 100 percent. (I don’t say 100 percent because where I live, helmets have saved people who get caught in streetcar tracks). Even the NTSB’s own Dr. Cheung, when asked what was the leading cause of bicyclist deaths, answered, “Motor vehicle crashes,” rather than not wearing a helmet.

Flax concluded:

In short, the NTSB could have focused its report on more of the things that are actually killing cyclists. Instead, the organization tasked with troubleshooting transportation disasters left us with a train wreck. Rather than use its considerable muscle and resources to increase public and congressional awareness about the cultural and systemic forces that are causing record numbers of riders to die, the agency took the laziest possible look at the issues, merely repeating stereotypes and tropes and naïve assumptions in a manner that actually makes cyclists less safe.

Peter Flax@Pflax1

Hi @LightmanDavid and @theobserver — do you have any idea how stupid and illogical this headline and the premise of the story are? This is like “More School Shootings in SoCal. But Gun-Control Advocates Don’t Want to Require Kevlar Vests.” …

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A week later, Flax points out the news coverage of the NTSB report and how ridiculous this is, how everyone is focusing on cyclists who “object to helmets” instead of cyclists demanding a safe place to ride.

New York Times

New York Times /Screen capture

The New York Times was on it, too, focusing on how helmets save lives and not mentioning the cyclist recently killed while standing still and waiting for the light to change, or the many others killed by speeding trucks and right hooks.

Flax, who is on a roll, followed up in Bicycling magazine with The Actual Reasons More Cyclists Are Dying on the Streets (and no, it’s not really about helmets), making the points that we have many times on TreeHugger (see related links below):

  • Vehicles are bigger.
  • Smartphone use is on the rise.
  • People are driving more than ever.
  • There are more cyclists on the roads.
  • Vision Zero has stalled.
Vision Zero thinking

© Vision Zero

In fact, vision zero has been going backward. Where I live in Toronto, David Rider of The Star notes that police had actually been pulled off traffic enforcement in a “modernization” program that saw tickets issued drop from 700,000 in 2010 to 200,000 in 2018. They are now shaking down the City for overtime money to create what they seriously call a “Vision Zero enforcement team.”

The officers, working overtime on top of regular hours, would focus on drivers who are speeding, distracted, aggressive or impaired. Aggressive driving includes following too closely, running red lights, speeding, street racing, driving too fast for road conditions and passing improperly.

Of course, if they were serious about Vision Zero they would be fixing the road conditions; enforcement is only a small part of true vision zero. But they are not, and I have no doubt that those enforcement teams will be yelling at pedestrians for crossing on the countdown and looking at phones.

how it works

European Transport Safety Council/Public Domain

As Peter Flax notes and I have discussed previously, the NTSB could have demanded sideguards on all trucks, compliance with EURO-Ncap style pedestrian safety standards, and making SUVs and pickups as safe as cars. I would add that if they wanted to, they could demand intelligent speed assistance (speed governors) and smart controls on phones. Instead of mandatory helmets, we could have mandatory red light cameras on every intersection. Instead, they “scold naughty cyclists.”

I don’t often revisit stories, and have never said this before, but Peter Flax wrote the story that I wish I had. Read:

NTSB to Bike Riders: It’s on You to Stop Getting Hit by Drivers
The Actual Reasons More Cyclists Are Dying on the Streets