I use a helmet every time I ride. I won’t go around the block without a helmet, and I think cyclists should wear helmets. In my family we require shoes that cover your toes and a helmet to ride a bike. Having said that, I do not like helmet laws for bicyclists.
Consider the example set by headlight laws. Iowa and Illinois law both require a white front headlight and a red rear reflector when an individual is operating a bicycle at night. I have been giving legal cycling presentations for over a decade now. Every time I give a presentation I ask if anyone knows of a case in which a cyclist was issued a ticket for not having a headlamp. To this day I have yet to hear of an instance in which a non-compliant cyclist was issued a ticket for failure to equip their bicycle with a headlight. Perhaps some might think it good that cyclists are being protected by a law requiring headlamps while law enforcement is cutting us a break by not issuing tickets.
While I have never seen an instance of a bicyclist being issued a ticket for lack of headlight, I have seen this statue used over and over by otherwise negligent motorists asserting a lack of headlight as an affirmative defense. The argument goes like this, “I didn’t see the bicyclist. I notice that they didn’t have a headlight. If they had a headlight I would have seen them. You wouldn’t drive a car without headlights would you?” The negligent motorist asserts the statutory violation as a defense in the civil case. It can be very effective regardless of the lighting or visibility situation. In this instance an unenforced law gives negligent motorists a shield to use after they hit a bicyclist.
I assert that many cyclists go without headlamps at night because of the lack of enforcement, and the problem with the law is its lack of enforcement. I would argue that enforcement is one of the most valuable educational tools at society’s disposal. In the absence of consistent, even-handed traffic enforcement we can depend on people to skirt the law rather than follow it.
Consider the differences between cycling in Milwaukee and Chicago. In Chicago there is practically no traffic enforcement as to cyclists. You can blow a light right in front of a police officer in Chicago without the slightest concern that they might stop you and issue a ticket. Accordingly, Chicago cyclists have a reputation for lawlessness. In Milwaukee, on the other hand, if you blow a light in front of a police officer, they will pull you over. I’ve been dressed down by a Milwaukee police officer for failing to stop before making a right turn on red on my bicycle. He pulled me over and screamed at me, “I’m tired of picking up dead cyclists…” Then he chewed me out and issued a warning. I never blew a stop in Milwaukee after that.
Bicyclists should expect the same from helmet laws. I expect lax enforcement. Bicyclists will continue to use helmets as they please, and otherwise negligent motorists will be given another shield to hide under after they negligently strike a bicyclist. Imagine the instance in which a cyclist is struck by a negligent motorists and the cyclist is not wearing a helmet. The cyclist suffers a head injury. The motorist points to the lack of helmet as a statutory violation and argues that the helmet would have prevented the injury. They are provided with a perfect defense by the statutory requirement to wear a helmet.
No thank you. We are just fine without a helmet law.