As an avid bicyclist and an attorney who regularly works with clients who suffer traumatic brain injuries, I support Sen. Carol Liu’s vision that all cyclists wear helmets as a matter of safety.
Recently, Sen. Liu introduced SB 192, which would mandate that all cyclists wear helmets as well as wear reflective clothing at night. Not only is this legislation personal (her nephew was killed by a drunk driver while he was riding) but she’s also able to back up her vision with statistics showing the need for helmets. During her introduction of this bill, she cited a 2012 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures that said 91 percent of bicyclists killed in 2009 reportedly were not wearing helmets.
Helmets might not have saved each of the bicyclists who were killed, but had they all been wearing helmets, we can bet those numbers would have been reduced significantly. In fact, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention highlight that bicycle helmets are a successful way to reduce injuries and fatalities.
By wearing helmets and reflective clothing, cyclists not only protect themselves but also increase their visibility on the roads. For most cyclists like me, a helmet is standard protocol when heading out on a ride. After all, it makes sense. I support any legislation that helps save a life, reduces risk of injury and related healthcare costs. However, I think more needs to be considered when talking about overall bicycle safety. Requiring an adult cyclist to wear a helmet is great, but helmets alone are not going to solve safety issues with cyclists.
Since 2009, there has been a steady decline in motor vehicle deaths. Unfortunately, the opposite is true when it comes to bicyclist fatalities. According to the Department of Transportation, in 2012, more than 700 bicyclists throughout the United States were killed in crashes with a motor vehicle. Almost half of all bicycle deaths happened in California alone.
Additionally, it is estimated that more than 500,000 emergency room visits were due to bicycle-related injuries, which has resulted in billions upon billions of dollars in lifetime medical costs. As cycling increases in popularity among the general public –- whether for fitness, to commute to work or to reduce our carbon footprint — a little effort and common sense on everyone’s part could make a big impact on reducing these alarming statistics.
So what can we do to increase safety?
First, we all need to use some common sense. For cyclists? Wear a helmet and make sure it fits. I’ve seen many riders wearing helmets that are so ill-fitting that they wouldn’t make a difference in a fall. Wear reflective clothing. Use lights on your bike at night when riding. Be aware of what’s happening around you. Obey the traffic laws, and lastly, don’t wear headphones.
For drivers? Put down your cellphone. Stop texting. Watch the roads. Realize that your two-ton car traveling at high speed has the potential to be a deadly weapon. Remember the 3-foot rule. Slow down and share the road.
For the state? California has already taken some steps, including the signing of legislation in 2013 that requires drivers to give bicyclists three feet of clearance when passing. But more can be done. I have no doubt that a new law requiring cyclists to wear a helmet might help reduce injuries or death, but as our streets become more crowded with cyclists, the state needs to enforce laws already in place while considering new measures such as wider bike lanes that will more easily separate bicyclists and motorists.
There’s no way we’ll ever eradicate all bicyclist deaths in this state, but if cyclists, motorists and state leaders all work together, the roads will be safer for everyone.
Every day in my practice, I’m reminded of the devastation a bike accident can cause, whether it’s a death, a broken bone or a traumatic brain injury. I applaud the actions of Sen. Liu for doing something to increase the safety of cycling in California. Yet every time I put my helmet on to ride to work, I realize it’s going to take a lot of effort from all of us combined with a little common sense to make a real difference.
Ratinoff is an avid cyclist and a founding partner at personal injury law firm Kershaw, Cutter & Ratinoff, LLP, with offices in Sacramento and Napa Valley.