Bicyclists Collide in Helmet Law Debate

Former mayor spars with cycling activist over forcing headgear for riders

Helmets were needed as much for combat as for transportation safety Tuesday night, when supporters and opponents renewed their fight over a mandatory bicycle helmet law in a debate at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar.

The resumption of the helmet wars began June 16, when former Mayor Bruce Todd – who originally got such a law passed in 1996, only to see it repealed in 1997 after he left office – announced he would again push for headgear on adult riders. (City code still mandates helmets for minors.) "Riding a bike is a privilege, not a right, and – just as is required when riding in a car – we must pay for that privilege by being safe," Todd announced in a press release.

At Tuesday's debate, Todd verbally sparred with Patrick Goetz, a UT mathematician and founding member of the just-reunited League of Bicycling Voters, which spearheaded the fight against the original law. Todd used both the rational and emotional to make his case – arguing that "the economic impact of even one head injury is enormous, and it's a cost we can help curtail as a community if all cyclists wear helmets," and reflecting on his own near-death cycling accident last year, which would have been fatal had he not been wearing a helmet, according to his doctors.

Todd said bike-related head injuries cause extraordinarily expensive, long-term impact to taxpayers, citing estimates that the direct cost of cyclists' injuries due to not using helmets is $81 million each year nationwide. Prompted by an audience member who suggested that Todd's remarks aptly endorsed helmet use but didn't explain why a law was needed, Todd said, "Our best experience in changing normative behavior is with a law."

Conversely, Goetz reasoned that a helmet law will distract the city from real safety measures such as defensive bicycling training, safe routes and bike lanes, and motorist bicycle awareness. He also said such laws decrease transportation bicycling trips, pointing to studies showing drops of 35% in Australia and 14% in California. As a statistician, Goetz challenged Todd's argument that helmet use will automatically equal reduced head injuries, citing local, national, and international studies that show actual increases in bicycle head injuries as helmet use rose. In his final statements, after establishing that he has been a transportation cyclist for 25 years, logging 5,000 miles per year on Austin roads, Goetz asked Todd, "Where on earth do you get the idea that you're qualified to tell me how to ride a bicycle safely?"

When asked privately about the cost of no-helmet cycling head injuries in Austin, Todd was unable to produce a precise figure, instead citing his own injury's cost of nearly $300,000. As for support from the cycling community, the Texas Bicycle Coalition has chosen not to weigh in on the measure and the 1,500-member Austin Cycling Association – which, as Todd noted in his arguments, requires helmets on all its group rides and has distributed thousands of free helmets to kids – opposes the measure. Instead, the ACA favors a "community awareness and education outreach campaign" to minimize bike crashes, including strong encouragement of bicycling and voluntary helmet use, roadway designs that accommodate bicyclists, provision of low-cost and no-cost helmets to low-income adults and children, and enforcement of existing traffic safety laws, according to President Scott Korcz. "I've used my bike for transportation over thousands of miles in Austin, and my helmet has never once prevented a bike crash," he said.

Polled at the end of the evening, the capacity crowd favored Goetz's opposing arguments 59 to 38. The event was sponsored by the Dionysium, a debate program organized by Salvage Vanguard Theatre.

The proposed helmet ordinance, sponsored by Mayor Will Wynn and council members Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken, is set for what will no doubt be an action-packed council public hearing Aug. 24. For more info, see www.nohelmetlaw.org and www.echristianpr.com/news/index.html#helmet.

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