Cyclists split on proposed helmet law

Senate Bill 192 spurs debate over whether protecting people from what society might consider an unwise choice is more important than personal freedom.|

A California state senator whose nephew was killed by a drunken driver in 2004 while he was cycling in Santa Rosa has introduced legislation that would require cyclists of all ages to wear helmets, as well as reflective gear while riding at night.

The proposed law, which would make California the first state in the nation to impose such restrictions, is generating mixed feedback from cyclists and bike shop managers on the North Coast.

“It’s a no-brainer to wear a helmet, especially around here with so many cars,” said Monica Franey, of Santa Rosa, who stopped at the Dry Creek General Store last week while riding with a group of friends.

But on Highway 128 in Knights Valley, cyclist Larry Tomasson expressed opposition to the proposed helmet law.

“There’s too many laws infringing on individual freedom. This would be one of them,” said the Santa Rosa man, who, in addition to a helmet, wore a fluorescent yellow jacket for safety purposes.

Just as with the debate over seat belts, Senate Bill 192 ascribes to the notion that society must sometimes protect people from their own unwise choices, even if it comes at the expense of personal freedom. Although in the case of bicycle helmets, there is debate over the degree to which mandating their use makes cycling safer.

The bill’s author, Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, did not respond last week and over the weekend to numerous requests for an interview. In a news release announcing her bill, she cited a National Conference of State Legislatures report stating that 91 percent of bicyclists killed in 2009 reportedly were not wearing helmets.

The Southern California lawmaker’s nephew, Alan Liu, was killed on Easter Sunday in 2004 after a motorist with a blood-alcohol level almost four times the legal limit swerved onto the shoulder of Highway 12 near Oakmont and struck the 31-year-old Mountain View man, who was cycling at the time. He was wearing a helmet. Liu’s girlfriend, Jill Mason, suffered a severe spinal-cord injury in the crash and now uses a wheelchair.

The senator proposes to fine cyclists who are caught riding without a helmet or reflective gear at night $25, with a percentage of the money going toward safety classes and providing helmets to children whose parents struggle to afford the equipment.

“Any responsible bicycle rider should wear a helmet,” Liu said in her press statement. “This law will help protect more people and make sure all riders benefit from the head protection that a helmet provides.”

But some cycling advocates worry a helmet law would distract from other efforts to make the sport safer.

“Everywhere in the world where they’ve tried mandatory helmets the amount of cycling has dropped off and they fail to make the kinds of street changes to prevent crashes in the first place,” said Dave Snyder, head of the California Bicycle Coalition.

California law already requires cyclists under the age of 18 to wear helmets. Cyclists also must use battery-powered lights when riding at night.

Kevin Bell, a manager at the Windsor Bicycle Center, predicted the helmet law would just make customers “mad” over being told what to do. The store’s least expensive helmet retails for $40, with high-tech models made out of carbon fiber selling for as much as $250. Bell said manufacturers recommend that the helmets be replaced every five years.

The shop also sells jackets with reflective striping on them for about $100 and up. It’s unclear, however, whether the gear would meet the standards under the law proposed by Liu. The senator’s bill states that the gear could include a vest, jacket or shirt, as long as the material meets the requirements of the American National Standard for High-Visibility Safety Apparel and Headwear.

Bell said where cyclists ride in Sonoma County is as important as what they are wearing while riding. He does not recommend cycling on Highway 12, for instance.

“Riding on Highway 12 is like riding on a NASCAR course,” he said. “The general rule is you don’t want to do that.”

But some cyclists chafe at the notion that they should steer clear of certain roads, viewing that as a blame-the-victim mentality.

As a devoted motorcycle rider, Doug Boss of Sonoma said he understands opposition to helmet laws.

Taking a break from riding his BMW last week at the Dry Creek General Store, Boss reminisced fondly about the ride he took on Dec. 31, 1991, prior to California’s helmet law for motorcyclists taking effect.

“It was like the other day, but it was 20 years ago,” Boss said. When he’s on a road trip, Boss said, he usually takes his helmet off when he hits the border of a state that doesn’t require their use.

“It should be your choice,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Disease Prevention, California’s motorcycle helmet law prevented 26 deaths per 100,000 riders in 2010, while also saving an estimated $53 million in economic costs.

A Calistoga cyclist who was riding last week on Highway 128 described being in a crash years ago that left him with a broken clavicle and collar bone. The man, who declined to give his name, credited the helmet he wore at the time with preventing worse injuries.

He said he supports the proposed helmet law.

“It just makes common sense,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or ?On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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