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Close to Home: Bike helmets aren’t the only answer

The Press Democrat editorial board was correct when they stated that while total motor vehicle deaths are dropping in the United States, cycling deaths are up. (“Requiring bike helmets for all ages will save lives,” Nov. 8). Where they went wrong is conflating that increase with the wearing of bike helmets.

Traffic fatalities involving pedestrians are also on the rise, but no one is suggesting that pedestrians should wear helmets. Pedestrian and cyclist deaths are increasing for the same reasons:

- More inattentive drivers (texting, talking on the phone, etc.).

- More vehicles that are heavier and higher (A cyclist T-boned by a sedan will fall toward the vehicle and onto its hood; struck by a tall SUV, the cyclist will fall away from and under the vehicle and is thus more likely to be run over).

- Other traffic violations (running red lights and stop signs; speeding; violating the three-foot law).

- Streets that are designed to facilitate speed of automobiles over the safety of pedestrians and cyclists (lack of crosswalks, bike lanes lacking or full of debris and potholes).

Many more Europeans than Americans cycle, and they rarely wear helmets, yet their fatality rates are much lower than ours. Why? Because European bikeways are separated from cars. The problem isn't that we don't wear helmets, it's that we're forced to share space with much faster vehicles. Head injuries aren't the cause of most cycling deaths, being struck by a fast-moving vehicle is the cause.

A pedestrian or cyclist struck by a motorist driving 20 mph has a 95% chance of surviving; struck at 40 mph, they have a 95% chance of dying.

In our Smart Cycling classes, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition teaches riders to be visible, be predictable, be vigilant and follow the rules of the road. We recommend helmets and require them on our rides. But if we're looking at legislation to increase cycling safety, a bill requiring helmets is low on the priority list.

Senate Bill 127 would have saved lives by requiring Caltrans to account for the needs of all users in the design of state roadways – like Highway 12, where David Davison was recently killed. SB 127 was passed by the Legislature but unfortunately vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom after heavy lobbying by Caltrans.

Last year's AB 2363 would have done away with the 85th percentile rule, which prevents cities and counties from lowering speed limits on dangerous roads. That bill was amended to be essentially toothless, again after heavy lobbying by Caltrans and AAA.

Locally, we can use the opportunity created by the upcoming renewal of Measure M to increase the amount of money we spend building safer bikeways.

Would David Davison, Genaro Viramontes or Valerio Estrada still be alive if they were wearing helmets? Maybe, maybe not. Would they still be alive if, instead of Lakeville Highway or Highway 12 or Todd Road, they had been able to travel on a Class 1 separated bikeway? Almost certainly.

If the editorial board truly cares about the safety of cyclists, support legislation that will really make a difference in the safety of all who our use our roads, rather than a “feel good” measure that borders on blaming the victim.

Eris Weaver is executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

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