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PD Editorial: Requiring bike helmets for all ages will save lives

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Forgive us for stating the obvious, but riding a bike while wearing a helmet is safer than riding a bike without a helmet.

That’s why California has required helmets for cyclists under 18 years old since 1994. And it’s why the National Transportation Safety Board is recommending that states require cyclists of all ages to wear helmets. That lifesaving requirement is overdue.

Motor vehicle deaths have steadily declined in the United States, despite more people driving more miles, in large part because of laws and regulations that made vehicles and roads safer. But cycling fatalities are headed in the opposite direction.

About 860 people were killed while riding bicycles in the United States last year, a one-year increase of 6.3%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Sonoma County witnessed bicycle fatalities on consecutive days this week.

Head injuries are the most common cause of death in bicycle accidents. Helmets wouldn’t prevent them all, but riders wearing helmets have a better chance of survival. Helmets also would reduce the severity of many nonfatal head injuries.

And children aren’t necessarily at the greatest risk. In a seven-year study of cycling deaths and injuries published in 2018, the California Department of Public Health found more than twice as many fatalities among riders 25-54 than among riders younger than 25.

You might think that bicycle advocates would be leading proponents of a proposal to make cycling safer. In this instance, however, they may be the biggest obstacle.

In 2015, a pedal-to-the-metal lobbying campaign by bicycling groups killed legislation in Sacramento that would have extended California’s helmet law to all riders. Some of the same organizations objected again this week when the NTSB issued its report and recommendations on bicycle safety.

It isn’t that advocacy groups think helmets put riders at greater risk.

Some contend that some prospective riders might conclude the cycling is too dangerous if helmets are mandatory. Well, cycling can be dangerous — especially if you aren’t wearing a helmet. But how many people turned in their driver’s license rather than wear a seat belt?

Another common, and not very convincing, argument is that law enforcement would take advantage of a helmet law to harass cyclists.

Instead of requiring helmets, cycling advocates say government should provide safer streets, with dedicated bike lanes and better education for motorists and cyclists alike. More bike lanes are needed, and so are medians and other infrastructure to make intersections safer. Indeed, those are among the recommendations included in the NTSB report issued on Tuesday.

We would add one more: strict enforcement of the 2013 state law requiring drivers to give a 3-foot buffer when they pass a bicycle. We doubt cyclists would consider that harassment.

The rising popularity of bicycling is something to celebrate. It takes cars off the street, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and promotes better health. Here in Sonoma County, cycling is a big contributor to tourism.

The goals should be getting more people on bikes and making sure cycling is safe for riders of all ages. That will be easier if the cycling community gets on board.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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