The Austin Chronicle

Cyclists Run Over Helmet Law Idea

By Daniel Mottola, September 1, 2006, News

Former Mayor Bruce Todd's proposed mandatory-bicycle-helmet ordinance, which barreled into City Hall last Thursday and culminated with a marathon of opposing speakers spanning well past midnight, has coasted to a stop for now, lacking the additional council momentum needed to be voted into law, according to multiple sources inside city hall. A technicality involving the way the helmet law item was listed on the council agenda prevented any action Thursday night, despite apparent interest (especially from Council Member Mike Martinez) in putting it to a vote. Todd and his wife, PR maven Elizabeth Christian, vow that "it ain't over" and that the ordinance will eventually receive a vote. They brought a parade of head-injury victims, grievous family members, and health professionals before council for a highly emotional presentation Thursday. Todd maintains that in a city policy environment of competing interests and scarce resources, his helmet law is the quickest, cheapest, and most immediate way to improve the safety of bicyclists. The fate of a city Urban Transportation Commission resolution recommending an 18-month cycling-safety study in lieu of the law was also left in limbo following the council meeting.

Outside City Hall Thursday, all of the permanent bike racks were full, as were three temporary city-provided racks and at least two set up by Bicycle Sport Shop. Nearly 150 people signed up to publicly disagree with Todd, and the hearing turned into one of the largest congregations of Austin's young and old bike communities in recent memory. Many of the speakers identified themselves as cyclists who ride as a mode of transportation rather than for sport. Before expressing their individual disapproval of the proposed law, virtually all of the speakers agreed that helmets were a good idea, if properly used. Instead of spending the evening spanking Todd's ordinance, however, cyclists used the opportunity to articulate to the dais their demands for safer, more bike-friendly streets. Those demands ranged from actually implementing the city's comprehensive bike plan, first drafted a decade ago, to putting in more bike infrastructure, better signage, improved education for all road users, and tougher law enforcement for motorists who injure or kill people on bikes.

Cycling instructor and transportation consultant Preston Tyree, who signed up as a neutral speaker, perhaps best framed the debate by saying, "The real issue of public safety here is not in passing an ordinance that may increase the use of helmets if it is enforced, but in doing those things that allow us to avoid cyclist crashes in the first place. ... Cyclists are citizens and, through necessity or choice, ride our public roadways. It is the city's responsibility to keep these streets safe for all users."

Asked Monday whether he'll change his focus from what's been a singular pursuit of the helmet law to encompass the other safety efforts many called for, Todd said, "There's no question we need the total approach," but he remained emphatic about the helmet law's "low cost and high benefit" and said other infrastructure-related tactics "will take a lot of time and money." Todd said he initiated an ongoing dialogue with the Austin Cycling Association (which opposed the helmet law) months ago, and he plans to serve on a city cycling-safety committee. "I've offered to raise money from the private sector for anyone who cannot buy a helmet," a promise Todd said he'll keep regardless of the helmet law's success.

Steps to Safety

In June, the 1,500-member Austin Cycling Association voted against a mandatory adult helmet ordinance for the city of Austin, instead recommending a community awareness and education outreach campaign with the goals of reducing bicyclist crashes and strongly encouraging adults to voluntarily wear helmets. The following is a list of activities the association recommends to improve bicyclist safety and to reduce the social, physical, and economic cost of bicycle crashes to individuals and society:

Adult (and child) bicyclist safety education

Widespread community campaign to encourage bicycling and voluntary adult helmet use

Low-cost and no-cost helmets for low-income adults and children

Roadway designs that accommodate bicyclists

Share the Road campaign

Enforcement of existing traffic safety laws

Bicyclist and motorist traffic-ticket diversion program

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