The Austin Chronicle

Activism on Wheels

The Helmet Law Spawns a Movement

By Lee Simmons, May 23, 1997, News

The vicious and unre- quited death of Tom Churchill last September added fuel to the fire of a bicycle community already up in arms over the city's Bicycle Helmet Ordinance. Churchill, who was riding his bicycle home from his workplace at Magnolia Cafe on Town Lake Boulevard, was struck and killed by a driver on September 6 - he was wearing his bicycle helmet.

"That is good ammunition for our arguments," said Bobby Sledge, president of the League of Bicycling Voters. "We contend that most bicyclists' deaths with an automobile are so traumatic to the body that a helmet doesn't help that much."

Members of Critical Mass - the pro-bike group that has pissed off many an Austin commuter when its bicycling members have clogged city streets on Fridays to protest car culture - also expressed their dissatisfaction with Churchill's death. Earlier this month, Critical Mass members rode to the business of the driver who allegedly killed Churchill, partly to remember the fallen biker, but also to show their disdain for the Helmet Ordinance. "It says that in this city it's easier to go to jail if you ride your bike without a helmet than it is when you run someone over with your car," said Michael Bluejay, Critical Mass rider and columnist for the Austin Cycling News.

The ticketing of helmetless riders has become a particular concern among bicycling groups who believe police could be directing their efforts towards more important areas of crime, such as arresting drunken or negligent drivers who kill innocent people like Churchill, Bluejay said.

The League of Bicycling Voters, which formed soon after the Helmet Ordinance was passed one year ago, has worked alongside several Austin pro-bicycle groups such as Critical Mass, not only to petition the repeal of the ordinance, but also to bring cyclists' concerns to the forefront of city politics. The group has met every Monday since last July to discuss and coordinate bike issues, and has obtained 20,000 of the 35,000 signatures it needs to force a public referendum on the appeal. Advocates have showed up en masse at council meetings, often dominating the public discussions. In another show of political activism, anti-helmet law cyclists recently pitched in to help former Place 5 candidate Karen Hadden make a strong third place showing in the city council race. That so many of Austin's cyclists have taken time off from riding to engage in the political process is a testament to just how forcefully the helmet law has stuck in the craw of a usually quiet electorate.

"There is no doubt that cyclists have become a political force, and that the helmet law is what has galvanized people," said Councilmember Gus Garcia. "But that doesn't make them right."

Garcia is among the councilmembers who voted to enact the seemingly harmless ordinance requiring bicyclists to wear helmets. The issue, he said, is safety. "Doctor after doctor told us the same thing - that helmets save lives," Garcia said.

But Sledge argues that only a small percentage of riders are actually injured when not wearing a helmet. If the city really wanted to protect riders, says Sledge, it would make bike travel safer for bike users - not force riders to wear protective armor to do battle with cars.

To add to the feeling of discontent, bicyclists - including those who have always worn protective headgear - believe they have been targeted. After all, according to city bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Rick Waring, before Austin made its move, no other city in the country had an all-ages bike law - now Dallas has followed Austin's lead. (Waring said he would be in favor of a minors-only helmet law.) To many, despite councilmembers' good intentions, the law smacks of a parental attitude that belittles bike riders. Worse, according to Waring, is the "prejudice" that cyclists have had to endure on the streets of Austin. "Our society has something against cyclists - some drivers, when they spot one, immediately react with `I don't like that son of a bitch,'" Waring said. That the helmet law brought so many cyclists out of the woodwork and into the political arena - many for the first time - was no surprise, says Waring, considering the climate in which Austin bikers have had to operate. According to a 1992 study cited in the American-Statesman, 273,000 Austinites own bikes; 86,000 ride them at least once a week, and 12,000 use bicycles for their daily commute.

Hadden - whose bicycle-friendly platform of keeping Austin livable and accommodating struck a chord with cyclists - eschewed what she called "punitive" measures taken by the council, such as a camping ban directed at clearing the streets of homeless loiterers, and the helmet law, which she said would have the effect of clearing the streets of bicyclists. Because it has been so difficult for bicyclists to have their concerns heard, Hadden said, they simply have quit riding. She estimates that ridership has decreased by as much as 40%. "I see a trend away from the Helmet Law," she says, "and a trend toward some better approaches. Eric Mitchell said he acted too hastily [in supporting the law] and I was real proud he said that. I'm concerned that we're spending too many hours ticketing people basically for a victimless crime."

However, Sledge of the League of Bicycling Voters said the only trend advocates want to see is a complete repeal of the ordinance. Councilmembers Mitchell and Daryl Slusher said late last year that they would agree to a "minors only" version, and Slusher and Jackie Goodman tried unsuccessfully to lower the fines, but so far, says Sledge, there has been no other mention of a change to the text of the ordinance. "That's the only compromise that we've seen from the existing council," Sledge said, adding that a minors-only provision "would be a compromise position for us because our ideology is that you don't need a helmet ordinance at all. It isn't really a public safety problem." (Helmetless riders are charged $50 for a first offense and $100 thereafter).

Hadden noted that there is a safety problem, but that council has been misguided in focusing on reining in cyclists. "Even with helmets you're getting people hit and killed."

Although Hadden didn't make the May 31 runoff, bicycling groups are still putting the pressure on the remaining candidates - Eric Mitchell and Willie Lewis in Place 6, and Manuel Zuniga and Bill Spelman in Place 5. Just last Monday, bike activist Bluejay interviewed the four on his KOOP radio show, The Bicycle Lane, asking questions such as, "Do you own a bike, and when's the last time you rode it?"

Lewis said he has a bike, but that it's been a long time since he's ridden, because it has two flat tires. Mitchell said he hasn't brushed off his bike since he became a councilmember four years ago. When Zuniga was asked whether he supported a person's right to walk, the homebuilder answered that when he constructs subdivisions, he always makes sure there are sidewalks. Spelman, when asked the same question, expressed his support for pedestrian planning to promote walking as opposed to vehicular travel. (Lewis and Spelman have been endorsed by the League of Bicycling Voters for their pro-repeal positions.)

While the ordinance has been the hot-button issue for bicycle advocates in the last year, many wonder what the next initiative will be. Hadden says that she sees the future of bicycle improvements in the creation of bicycle boulevards, whereby neighborhood streets would be blocked off to through-traffic except for bicycles and emergency vehicles. "In terms of new things coming around, I found an amazingly positive response to the concept of bicycle boulevards," Hadden said, adding that she hopes Austin would follow the example set by some cities in which barricades are erected at the ends of streets, allowing for only bicycle access.

Lewis said he believes that bicycle issues are important to the vitality of the city as a whole, and that what changes have been made to accommodate bicyclists are insufficient. "We have a group of bike lanes now, but it's not illegal to park in bike lanes," he said. "That makes the bike lanes ineffective. It gives bicyclists a false sense of security, and gives the motorists a false impression."

Garcia said he will promote bicycling as part of an overall strategy involving mass transit and pedestrian-friendly planning as necessities for Austin to remain a sustainable city. "With our population increasing, we have to get people out of their cars - federal law requires that we protect the ozone," Garcia said.

Waring, the coordinator of the Austin Bicycle Program, says that adoption of the Bicycle Plan Part II, when it comes before City Council in October, would be a step in the right direction. Part II would include drawing more bike lanes, building trails, and installing bike racks throughout the city. While the central business area needs the most improvements, he said, each part of town will get an equal amount of attention. Waring said that the improvements, for which the bike program has received $2 million in federal funding, are an on-going process that has so far proved cumbersome. "The transportation world moves very slowly. It's ironic to me that it takes as much time as it does," he said.

The main obstacle in moving forward with the rest of the improvements lies in what Waring said was "getting the ball rolling" with City Council. For three years, Waring has networked with city departments and staff to make them aware of the need for increased funding for bicycle improvements. "You end up coordinating with other departments like the parks department, environmental and conservation services, and the utility on evaluation of projects in order to find a solution to make that project as bicycle-friendly as possible," Waring said.

The latest round of suggestions for new bike routes, which will take precedence in the Bike Plan Part II package, will come down the pike in mid-June, said Waring. Proposals will include all-important cross-town routes, and "attractor" routes that will get bikers to popular destinations.

Another program which has proven helpful, Waring said, is the city's Spot Improvement Program, which is essentially a hotline for bikers to call to report problems with roadways such as potholes, streets blocked with glass, hazardous objects, or overhanging branches that could cause bike accidents. "We've received 700 calls since that began three years ago," Waring said. (The Bike Service Line number is 505-5606.)

The best strategy for bike enthusiasts is to remain active, Waring warned, something he fears will fall to the wayside after the helmet law and council races die down. "It's my observation that people in Austin tend to be ad-hoc oriented. They get involved in things very intensely for a year and then go away," Waring said. "On the West Coast there are bicycling advocacy groups that have attracted 30 hardcore members to every weekly meeting for more than 20 years. You just don't see that here."

There's no doubt, Waring added, that the helmet law has been a catalytic event in bike activism in Austin. "They've organized, raised funds, placed ads, and launched the single most well-organized ad-hoc effort on behalf of bikers that this city has ever seen," he said.

Bluejay agreed that the helmet law has provided a silver lining. "This is a very positive time. Ironically, the Helmet Ordinance may have been the best thing that's ever happened to us."

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