Make bicycle​ helmets mandatory

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Should bicyclists be required
to wear helmets on campus?

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At Washington University few things are as ubiquitous as bicycles. Every day as I trudge to main campus, I see students on bicycles zip by, eager to make it to class on time and nab that perfect spot on the bike rack. But as bundled up as I am against the cold, most of these cyclists leave their heads completely exposed, not only to the elements, but also to serious injury. This becomes an even greater concern of mine when I recall the many times I have seen cyclists riding too fast through a crowd, turning too sharply and falling over or (at least once) colliding head-on. At Wash. U. bicycles are common but bicycle helmets are not, and that should change.

Considering there is no state law on this matter, bicycle laws in Missouri vary widely. According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, some municipalities require everyone operating a bicycle to wear a helmet. In Clayton and University City, only those 16 or younger are required to wear helmets, so practically all Wash. U. students may legally bike to Schnucks or the Loop without a helmet. While these laws don’t affect Wash. U. students, faculty and staff, they should err on the side of caution and wear a helmet whenever cycling.

On campus, the University should enact a firm policy of requiring bicycle helmets regardless of age, because studies have shown they greatly reduce the risk of serious head injuries. As students around the age of 20, we tend to engage in risky behaviors, thinking our youth makes us immune to serious problems such as head injuries. This is not true: Concussions, serious trauma and other consequences of bicycle crashes can happen to anyone. WUPD even has a department policy that all officers on bicycles must wear helmets.

A suitemate of mine said that if he rode a bike on campus, he would not wear a helmet because he could protect himself in a crash. Such an assertion is wrong; crashes happen very quickly, and claiming to be able to release your hands from the handlebars and cover your head in the split second before impact with the ground or another student is like saying you can drive a car without wearing a seat belt and stop yourself from being ejected in a crash—fat chance.

I know some students will consider mandated helmets an encroachment upon their individual liberty to make decisions as adults. While I respect such a view and admit helmets won’t protect pedestrians, the reality is that accidents within the Wash. U. community affect everyone. For example, a cyclist who suffers serious head trauma would require more than basic medical assistance at Student Health Services, thus driving up the cost of medical services for all students.

I personally don’t want to subsidize others’ bad decisions, and the University has a legitimate interest in protecting its members. I acknowledge requiring helmets will mean hundreds of students must deal with toting them daily, but this would be only a minor hassle. Perhaps there is a way to lock one onto your bicycle so that no one can steal it. Moreover, when riding a bike, you (hopefully) have two hands on the handlebars, so once off your bike you’ll have at least one hand free to carry the helmet.

Mandatory helmets admittedly won’t fix everything, including the root problem of overly aggressive cycling. To address this issue, I would support WUPD fining reckless cyclists. Students need to consider their safety and the safety of others when on their bikes, but bicycle helmets at least will reduce the risk of serious head injuries, particularly in single-bicycle crashes.

Neither WUPD nor Student Health Services keep specific records of bicycle-related injuries, but I would guess the number is in the dozens and that most are preventable. A mandatory bicycle helmet policy would be a simple and effective way to make our campus safer.

  • James D.

    Helmets are good to wear during a Bicycle Race, but a lot of people ride bikes just to get around, and aren’t really going that fast. A marathon runner can go 17MPH, but he or she is not required to wear a helmet. Some bicyclists ride because a bicycle is faster than running. But some people ride because it is easier than walking, and they don’t go over 15MPH.
    Another thing my Daughter pointed out to me-Women’s Hairstyles- What does a woman do with hair curlers? Is she expected to flatten her hair, which she spent hours curling? Can you imagine what would happen if a woman with a bouffant hairdo tries to put a bicycle helmet on? Her hair would be ruined!

  • Off Campus

    I’ve got a crazy idea. You know the bridge over Forest Park Parkway? The one with the big “WALK BIKES” signs on both ends? Maybe we could mandate that people actually walk their bikes on that bridge. The signs are there for a reason: to protect bikers and pedestrians.

  • superhornet

    1st let me say that on the whole you are correct helmets will prevent deaths and reduce injuries. Here is why a law is a problem.
    (1) Helmets don’t do you a lot of good when the police don’t enforce laws already on the books. Case in point the crossing at Forsyth & Skinker…while the walk sign was on and counting down no less than nine cars turn right in front of me preventing me from using the cross walk. In the mean time the traffic that had the red light coming out of the park had pulled well beyond where they should have stopped and where blocking the cross walk on the north side so that they could attempt to make right hand turns while the light was red.
    (2) Helmets are stolen, mislaid, and lost not too mention some times you just forget. So if a helmet is stolen are mislaid how do you get another one so you can ride home legally?
    (3) What kind of helmet should the law require you to have since the standards of safety vary widely? Myself I prefer a helmet that has a smooth concentric outside with no projections from the front (as a visor) are from the rear (as in aerodynamic point). I also believe the back of the head needs protection all the way to the neck and not just partial head protection like in racing helmets. Racing helmets are after all for racing and not much good for road protection.
    (4) Helmets also cause me to over heat in weather above 60° F so do I have to wear one when I am going 12 miles in 90°F heat of St Louis. Even at 70° St Louis humidity on a ride longer that 5 miles can generate a lot of cranial heat which if becomes excess my cause problems in making the correct decision in a life threatening moment.
    Safe bicycling requires that the motor vehicles sharing the road with bicyclist use appropriate maturity when operating their motor vehicles are in lieu of that, that the community have enforceable laws like the 3 foot rule, adequate numbers of clearly marked and maintained bicycle lanes and finally that law enforcement, enforce the laws by ticketing violators. For now I suspect that vehicular homicide will remain legal in St Louis and St Louis County.

  • Daniel

    The people that should really get fined are the idiot pedestrians for acting recklessly. I don’t know how many times I can recount riding along pretty slowly when a cell phone talking pedestrian decides to clearly walk straight into my path and then precedes to curse me for getting too close to her. If I wasn’t as skilled at cycling I would probably have hit them. I’m a pretty avid cyclist and do own a helmet but only wear it when I’m actually riding fast. On campus I would not consider the ability to even go fast possible due to the lack of room on the sidewalks…

    And if we want to get on the topic of controlling health risks so as to secure lower healthcare costs…maybe we should enact a zero alcohol policy on campus. I think that’s more of an issue than bicyclists getting injured on campus. Interesting how it’s so easy to enact regulations when they don’t affect you.