Tag Archives: helmet

Helmet disparagement and ethics

To quote the late, great Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, “Never treat anyone in the public sphere like an idiot. If you treat him like an idiot, he will act like an idiot.”

There is an issue with the difficulty of providing helmets when bicycles are rented from unstaffed kiosks. Bike-“sharing” (actually rental) has unleashed this problem, in the interest of increasing bicycle mode share, and has been accompanied by a flurry of pronouncements disparaging not only mandatory helmet laws, but also helmet use.

Purportedly, according to several reports which have appeared in the media, wearing a helmet actually decreases safety. The quintessential article appeared in the New York Times. You see, it works like this: helmets make bicycling appear hazardous. If we don’t convey that impression, more people will ride bicycles, and then there will be a safety in numbers effect, so, what, me worry, all will get better.

In my opinion, bicyclists’ helmet use deserves to be a matter of personal choice rather than law. That is, I would like to rely on individuals’ own intelligence and judgment, and on helmet promotion, rather than to treat people as idiots, on the one hand disparaging helmet use in the interest of some Greater Good which is supposed to accrue to society at large, or on the other, passing a law which is supposed to force helmet use, but goes unenforced nd raises an issue of presumption of negligence as in, “the driver ran a stop sign, but you weren’t wearing a helmet, and so you were breaking the law and can’t collect on the driver’s insurance.”

I personally have had 3 serious impacts between a helmet and pavement the past 37 years since I started wearing one. One incident was initiated by a drunk driver. One was a collision with a fallen branch of a tree, hanging over the curb and which got caught in my front whee; the third, an encounter with an pothole at 8 mph. Note that two of the three were single-bike crashes. No bicycle-facilities nirvana is going to prevent these. Actually, crowded conditions on separate bicycle facilities make bike-bike and single-bike crashes more likely.

Am I to believe that the health benefits of cycling would be far greater than the injuries I would have suffered if not wearing the helmet, or for that matter, whether I would still be cycling, or in full possession of my faculties, or even alive?

I’m not alone in having such stories, or in saying that I wouldn’t ride if I couldn’t wear a helmet; helmet use became almost universal in recreational bicycle clubs within a few years after effective helmets became available in the mid-1970s, and bicycle clubs thrived. Helmets cut both ways, both encouraging and discouraging bicycling. Debris, potholes, riding in close quarters with other bicyclists of widely varying skill, all lead to crashes, and I challenge anyone here to explain how increasing the number of bicyclists or building separate facilities improves that situation except perhaps if the facilities become so crowded that bicyclists are reduced nearly to walking speed.

My choice to wear a helmet has nothing to do with the Greater Good, one way or the other. I’ve made my choice and it has worked very well for me.

Helmet disparagement is, to put it simply, deception. By way of comparison, recruits into the military are not deceived about the risk they assume, but they may take it on for patriotic and/or career reasons (or back in my day, be drafted). Special benefits, compensation and medical care if injured are part of the deal. But bicycling isn’t the military. I ride on my own initiative, for transportation and recreation.

User agreements for bike share customers (typically, several screens long on the rental kiosk, but where the agreement can be signed without reading it) relieve the renter of responsibility. I’d suggest that one way to promote helmet use would be to offer insurance if the customer wears a helmet. This, unlike a mandatory helmet law, would be a positive incentive.

M. Kary on the epidemiological approach to traffic-safety research

M. Kary has released the manuscript of his paper on the unsuitability of the epidemiological approach in studying traffic safety.

Unsuitability of the Epidemiological Approach to Bicycle Transportation Injuries and Traffic Engineering Problems
Author: M Kary
Injury Prevention 2015;21:73-76, Published Online First 14 August 2014

First paragraph of the abstract:

Bicyclists and transportation professionals would do better to decline advice drawn from characteristically epidemiological studies. The faults of epidemiology are both accidental (unpreparedness for the task) and essential (unsuitability of the methods). Characteristically epidemiological methods are known to be error-prone, and when applied to bicycle transportation suffer from diversion bias, inappropriately broad-brush categorisations, a focus on undifferentiated risk rather than on danger, a bias towards unsafe behaviour, and an overly narrow perspective. To the extent that there is a role for characteristically epidemiological methods, it should be the same as anywhere
else: as a preliminary or adjunct to the scientific method, for which there is no

You may read the entire manuscript here:


Guest posting: Alan Forkosh on community bike systems

Vélib bicycles, Paris, France

Vélib bicycles, Paris, France, September, 2009

This guest posting is by permission of the author, Alan Forkosh, who writes:

Here are some observations on how the Vélib community bike system in Paris works.

My thoughts on the issue crystallized after a trip to Paris in the fall of 2009 and stemmed from 3 observations:

  • The heavy use of Vélib and the high density of Vélib stands;
  • The lack of Vélibs parked in the wild;
  • The fact that the common way of obtaining a Vélib was to swipe an authorized Navigo transit pass at the stand holding the bike.

By the way, I have some pictures of Vélibs and other bikes online.

A community bike sharing program is not about the bike: it’s about overcoming the shortcomings of the mass transportation system and making it better serve the users without increasing congestion. The problem with mass transit is that unless you are very lucky, it doesn’t quite serve your needs. The inefficiencies in waiting for trains or buses, waiting for transfers, and not going exactly where you want to go add up. In many cases, you get very frustrated just attempting the trip. A community bike system alleviates that by giving you an almost instant way to cut the delays and straighten routes to go from place to place without the intra-system delays. You go to a bike station near your origin, swipe your pass, and take the associated bike. When you reach your destination, you click the bike into a stand and are done with it. The grid is dense, so that these stations should be no more than 1000 feet from the origin and destination (I think that Vélib stations are spaced no more than 300 meters [about 1000 feet] apart).

In Paris, it is rare to see an unattended Vélib away from a bike station; the stations provide more convenient and secure parking than trying to manipulate the lock provided on the bike. Also, if you leave the bike unattended away from a station, you are responsible for it; once you secure it to its post at a station, you’re done with it. Note that Paris is only about 6 miles across and there is no extra charge for a Vélib for the first 30 minutes. So you should be able to complete almost any trip without charge. I’d be surprised if there is any measurable keeping of a Vélib over 30 minutes.

So, the intention of the program is mobility: the bike is only an instrument to promote that. The bike should be used when it makes sense to travel that way. You don’t need to plan. This idea would fail if the user were required to provide any bulky personal equipment (helmet, gloves, etc.) to use the bike.

Electric bicycle legal hodgepdge

A task force under the auspices of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) is currently reviewing parts of the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), the national model traffic law in the USA. The NCUTCD has taken on this task because the National Committee for Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO), which maintained the Uniform Vehicle Code, unfortunately ceased operations about 10 years ago.

I am the bicyclist representative on the NCUTCD task force. Electrically-assisted bicycles are one of the hot-button issues I will have to address.

Due to the novelty of electrically-assisted bicycles, the lack of guidance in the UVC and the lack of a user constituency — bicycling advocacy organizations having largely ignored or disparaged this increasing trend — electrically-assisted bicycles are not being addressed in a consistent or logical way under the law. In some places, electrically-assisted bicycles fall under laws that apply to gasoline-powered motorized bicycles; in others, not. We are seeing a tug of war between manufacturers’ self-interest and well-intentioned but poorly-thought-out restrictions imposed by legislators concerned about safety — as with Segways, but a bigger problem than with Segways, which have never been very common.

In my opinion, vehicles defined as electrically-assisted bicycles should be permitted wherever bicycles are permitted, but should not be capable of more than 20 mph under motor power. They shouldn’t be hard-limited to that speed, because higher speed is often possible downhill — for bicycles without electrical assist too — and is advantageous to the rider, and because speed limits are reasonably imposed locally based on conditions rather than globally based on vehicle type. These opinions are consistent with the product definition and regulation promulgated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The situation with state laws is more confused. I live in Massachusetts, so let’s take the Massachusetts laws as an example. They are a mess:


Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1: Definitions

The definition for “motorized scooter” in Massachusetts law includes gasoline OR electrically-powered ones, stand-up or sit-down, including those also propelled by human power. An electrically-assisted bicycle, then, is identified as a “motorized scooter”. The definition for “motorized bicycle”, on the other hand, applies only to those with a gasoline motor. The definitions overlap awkwardly.

Motorized-bicycle driving rules:

Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1b: Motorized-bicycle driving rules

These rules apply only with a gasoline motor: 25 mph max speed, 16 year minimum age, driver’s license required (obsolete — now this is the minimum age for a learner’s permit) , carte blanche to overtake on the right, somehow requiring drivers turning and crossing from the left to have X-ray vision to see through other motor vehicles, same as in Massachusetts’s rather unique bicycle laws (!!!!)  Motorized bicycles are permitted in bike lanes, but prohibited on paths: that is sensible because of the noise, pollution and typically higher speed than with bicycles. A helmet is required.

Motorized-scooter driving rules:

Link to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 90, Section1e: Motorized-scooter driving rules

Maximum speed 20 mph (regardless of power source –gasoline, electric, human). This law requires “keeping to the right side of the road” — which unreasonably, means not going left of center of the road or crossing a marked centerline to overtake, but can easily be misinterpreted as requiring overtaking on the right. There is no mention of use on paths or bike lanes, despite noise and pollution of gasoline-powered motorized scooters which makes them inappropriate on paths, where electrically-powered ones are more acceptable. A license or learner’s permit is required, as for motorized bicycles, but there is no mention of age; a learner’s permit can be obtained at 16 years of age. There is a totally unreasonable prohibition on use at night. A helmet is required.

The motorized scooter law was passed in a rushed, knee-jerk reaction to the fad of “mini-motorcycles” a couple of years ago.


Placing electrically-assisted bicycles in the same category with gasoline-powered mini-motorcycles and standup scooters doesn’t make much sense from the point of view of where their use would be appropriate. Prohibiting the use of electrically-assisted bicycles at night writes them off as useful transportation.

We need to do better than this. I hope and expect that the Uniform Vehicle code revision will come up with sensible laws to cover this increasingly popular vehicle type, and that Massachusetts will revise its law.

Also please see my post on this blog about electrically-assisted bicycle types and trends.

GoPro Helmet Hero HD camera, first impressions

I haven’t used the camera yet, but I have unpacked it.

The video quality, from what I’ve seen online, is superb.

The camera is very compact and self-contained. That’s nice.

Accessories are available to attach it in a wide variety of ways to helmets, bicycles, a car windshield etc. etc.

But: the stock waterproof case encloses the microphone. A back with slots also is supplied but it must be installed by the user.

As another helmet camera user pointed out to me, there is advantage to a camera with a separate recorder that can be carried in a handlebar bag or waist pack, so you can check on what you are recording. You can only see what you are recording with the Helmet Hero with an accessory back and if you mount the camera in front of you.

The camera has only two buttons (in keeping with its having a waterproof shell), and a small LCD display of menu options, and so stepping through menus requires reference to user instructions, or memorization.

The lens of the camera’s protective shell protrudes farther than anything else on the front of the shell and so it is vulnerable. My humble helmetcamera,com “bullet” camera achieves wide-angle coverage while protecting the lens with an inexpensive slab of plastic. (The helmetcamera.com camera has other problems, though.)

The Helmet Hero camera is sold in a plastic display case which is not designed to transport the camera. Optional mounting hardware is supplied in a host of little polyethylene bags, each stapled shut. You’re on your own to assemble a transport case. Compare this again with the helmetcamera.com camera. which is supplied in a rugged, foam-lined, hinged transport case.

Several different copies of the user instructions are supplied with the Helmet Hero, and as they are folded, they all look the same, with the word “Instructions” in English. When I opened the one I brought with me on my first expedition, it turned out to be in Spanish. Good thing I read Spanish!

Bicycle Video Equipment and Software Choices

A friend sent me an e-mail:

Hey, bike video friends,

I’m once again considering buying my own camera, and I know I’ve bugged you before with requests for advice, so I’ll try to keep this short by making it short-answer instead of essay:

Since I spent some time on my answer, I’m posting it on my blog.

Let me start with some comments on questions he hasn’t addressed.

HD or SD?

HD cameras now are available for little more than standard-definition ones, and HD has some special advantages when shooting from a bicycle, even when the final product will be at a lower resolution.


  • You don’t have much control over the camera when riding. You may want to zoom in. Shooting in HD lets you enlarge the image without losing (as much) detail.
  • HD records in progressive (non-interlaced) format, which gives cleaner results if you do almost anything to the image in post production. However, almost any camera that is not intended as a standard-definition camcorder records in progressive — including even digital still cameras which record to standard definition.
  • Vibration is a serious issue on a bicycle — if you record in HD, you can use image stabilization software in post-production and down-res, say from 1080 lines to 720 or 720 to 480, while obtaining full resolution.
  • (You can can mix clips at different resolutions in the same project, too.)

Disadvantage of HD:

  • Much more data and slower processing may require you to buy a new computer.

Computers and Software


Platform choice should be dictated mostly by available software. Generally, the PC offers more bang for the buck than the Mac, but if you are familiar with one or the other, it’s easiest to stick with what you know. You will need, in either case:

  • A powerful enough computer. (You’ll find out soon enough whether your present computer is). Generally, a 2 GHz or faster processor and 4 GB of RAM. Some high-end video packages need more. The computer hould have a big internal HD. Check software’s system requirements carefully.
  • If you use a camcorder that records to tape, it probably will need a Firewire (IEEE 1394) connection to input data into the computer. Macintoshes used to all have this kind of connection but Apple has dropped it recently.  It is available on plug-in cards for desktop computers, and PC Express cards for laptops.
  • Video software runs faster if you keep source video files on a different drive from render files. Video files are huge, and so, you need a 1 TB or larger hard drive for them. If your second drive is external, it should have an External SATA or Firewire connection. USB 2.0 is more common than either of these but it uses the CPU, and so video won’t run smoothly. USB 3.0 will probably be OK but is only just now appearing.
  • While a PC Express card is good enough to make the Firewire connection to  a camcorder, I don’t recommend connecting a hard drive to a PC Express card, because the connection inside the computer is too mechanically flaky, and a broken connection to a hard drive can corrupt it.  If you are using a laptop computer, get one with an integral Firewire, ESATA or USB 3.0 connection.
  • You need another big hard drive for backups. This can connect by USB. I recommend the Seagate FreeAgent drives if you use Windows. The Mac has the Time Machine backup utility; a similar utility, BackInTime, is available in Linux. (You could do your work in Windows and back up in Linux on a dual-boot computer.) These drives/utilities manage backup archives without compressing the data. You can read files right off the backup drive without using the backup software. Drives are cheap. The file compression in traditional backup software, or WD Smartware drives, takes forever (days), hogs you computer’s processor, and is pointless anyway, as video files already use their own compression.

Windows editing software:

  • Windows freebies: this software is sometimes useful for file conversion but is very limited, intended for the “family sitting around the computer with big smiles” market. (Do you ever wear a big smile when using Windows??? What are you smoking, then?)
  • Pinnacle Studio: Moderate price, crashes quite often (though it almost always recovers the file), powerful enough and has a fairly intuitive interface. The main limitation is that there is a maximum of three video tracks at once. Get at least the “plus” version.
  • Avid — a more powerful, multi-track version from the same company that makes Pinnacle Studio, and now with a moderate-priced version. I haven’t tried it.

Cross-platform Windows/Mac:

Mac only:

  • IMovie: free with the computer, simple and easy to use but rather limiting (clips visible only as thumbnails, no hierarchical organization of them, gets unwieldy with a video over 5 minutes long).
  • Final Cut Pro: Very powerful, used by professionals who have lived with it since the beginning — but it has an antiquated, non-intuitive user interface. For example, to enter a title, you learn where the tiny icon is that brings up a dialog box, then adjust its appearance using a number of controls in two or three different tabs of that dialog box, then click on one of those tabs — only one works — and drag the text to the video timeline. There are several “secret” steps here, and you can’t see your work in progress.


  • Video editing software is still an evolving product category in Linux. I’m wary, unless/until one of the major software houses ports a package over to Linux or there is a stampede to an open-source product.

Other software you may need:

  • File conversion software (AVS4YOU has a good package in Windows for $80).
  • Codec pack (Windows maddeningly has spotty support for many common formats without this). K-Lite is the ranking name in this field.
  • Image stabilization and frame-rate conversion: may be available in some editing packages. Gooder Video is good under Windows.

About editing at the local public access channel:

  • Typically has nice equipment, usually Macs. You can also take out cameras. May offer classes. May be disorganized and not have good control over access to files. I had a project deleted once. Bring a backup drive. (I have one Mac-formatted specially to use at the cable channel, where I gained my experience with Final Cut Pro…)


What’s the best camera you’ve even owned for recording bike video?

Well, my original one, which i sitll used, is the helmetcamera.com camera. The Helmet Hero HD camera looks very impressive — Ipve just bought one and the image quality is stunning, though the audio is poor. In any case, get a camera or recorder that uses a memory chip. The lack of moving parts makes it more reliable, and a chip downloads much faster for editing than a tape does.

What do (did) you like most about it?

The helmetcamera.com camera is rugged, and it allows the use of external stereo microphones though the second microphone is an extra item. The GoPro. again, offers stunning HD image quality.

What do (did) you like least about it?

The helmetcamera.com camera requires a rat’s nest of wires to make an analog connection to a camcorder or digital video recorder, and to a battery, leading to reliability problems with the connections.

How much did it cost?

A bit over $300.

If you’ve owned more than one camera, and the cheapest one you owned is different than the one you answered above, please answer the same questions about it:

What’s the cheapest camera you’ve even owned for recording bike video?

A tiny Vivitar digital still camera which shoots very creditable SD video and records to an SDHC chip. I use this for the rear-facing camera in some of my videos. You really want two cameras running at once, front and rear, to shoot instructional video of interactions with other road users. (Check out the Dual Chase Productions site for more about this tactic.  As the rear-facing camera will generally be used for a picture in picture, you don’t need as much video resolution.)

What do (did) you like most about it?

Cheap and expendable.

What do (did) you like least about it?

Like many cheap cameras, it scans the image rather than capturing it all at once, so vibration can cause geometric distortion. Also, be sure of when choosing a digital still camera for bike videos that it be able not to shut off automatically, so it can shoot long clips.

Digital still cameras eat batteries in movie mode. Some cameras take AA or AAA cells, yet will not run on NiMH rechargeables or lithium long-life batteries, which produce a slightly lower voltage compared with alkaline batteries. You might want to rig up external power supply with a larger battery. Most digital still cameras have an external power input socket.

How much did it cost?

$50, plus about $15 for an 8 GB SDHC memory chip.

And one last question: If you had to pick one consideration as the most important when buying a camera, what would it be? (pixel size, view angle, memory, mount accessories, etc.)

Reliability. Bicycling makes rough use of a camera and you don’t have time to check it during a shoot.

Okay, that last is sort of an essay question, but feel free to make it short. Thanks!

Also note that you need a wide-angle forward facing camera. In the classic movie/video tradition, conventional camcorders don’t offer wide-angle coverage unless you use a special add-on lens. There’s a good reason for this: a wide-angle view causes odd-looking expansion at the edges of the image when panning. Typical digital still cameras offer wider-angle coverage and typical helmet cameras, even wider coverage with a fisheye lens that curves objects at the edges but avoids the expansion.


My answers apply to shooting instructional video or travelogues with cameras on the bicycle or helmet, while riding. When shooting from a stationary position, a conventional camcorder is often more suitable.

I avoid talking while shooting video, so I can use the background sound as needed, with a voice-over. That way, I can review the shot and compose my comments. I can’t talk fluently while concentrating on the task of riding. For a different approach to shooting video while riding the bicycle — blogging-style, hand-held camera, conversational, see Lynette Chiang’s advice.

The answer got long. Sorry about that 🙂

Child passenger prohibitions — Massachusetts law, Oregon bill

Eli Damon, who lives in Massachusetts, as I do, has drawn attention to a bill introduced into the Oregon legislature to ban child passengers under 6 years old on bicycles. Eli cited an online article:

No Biking With Kids Under Six in Oregon?!

There’s a history to this kind of legislation here in Massachusetts. Eli’s message continues:

In Massachusetts it is illegal to carry passengers under one year old.
Either way, it arbitrarily paralyzes car-free/car-lite families. Eli

The below-one-year ban in Massachusetts occurred around 1990. Its wording was developed in a meeting in Washington, DC, organized by the Bicycle Federation of America (now the National Center for Bicycling and Walking). I’m not sure I have all of the details exactly right, but more or less, the BFA was the successor to the BMA (Bicycle Manufacturer’s Association), which represented the interests of a large segment of the American bicycle industry.

When domestic bicycle manufacturing fell on hard times, the BFA took more of its income from writing government reports. It still maintained a friendly relationship with industry — it championed the “more people on bicycles” — more bicycle sales — approach to bicycle planning, with the accompanying lack of concern for cyclists’ rights and responsibilities and for shortcomings of special bicycle facilities.

The League of American Wheelmen, as a cyclists’ membership organization, was more confrontational with the industry, especially around 1980 with John Forester as president. His complaints about special bicycle facilities and about the industry-backed CPSC all-reflector nighttime safety equipment requirement made the industry wary even as industry-friendly Board members took over in 1983 — leading to a substantial decline in League membership. By 1989, the leadership had shifted again and the League had substantially recovered, but it still did not have the strength, will or perspective always to uphold members’ interests. The child-seat issue is a prime example of this.

The industry’s interest in prohibiting carrying of infants on bicycles, as with the all-reflector system, was in shedding liability risk by establishing an equipment standard which could place responsibility on the consumer. Child-seat manufacturer Troxel was most concerned about the transportation of infants, because Troxel didn’t make any product suitable to transport them. Infants can’t hold up their heads, so helmets also came into the discussion. Never mind that a “baby pod” rigid papoose-like device can easily be imagined which would carry an infant far more safely than any open child seat. That is, you could crash, slamming such a pod onto the ground and sliding it along and afterwards, only have to wipe away the baby’s tears, assuming that you didn’t need serious medical attention yourself.

The League was at the table for the meeting at the BFA, and there is an informative article about it in a League magazine from 1989 or 1990 — sorry, I don’t have my copy right on hand. The League did not rise up against the ban, as is evident from the merely reportorial tone of the article.

Goofy bills — often, ride-on-the-left bills — can be introduced naively because some legislator or constituent has a bee in his or her bonnet about some safety concern. But that was not the case with the Massachusetts ban. It resulted from industry lobbying, through Safe Kids, and stemming out of the DC meeting.

The 1990 Massachusetts helmet and child-seat law did not include a liability exclusion for failure to use a helmet, though the seat belt law did include a liability exclusion: a person who causes a crash can’t dismiss a lawsuit by another, injured person who only fails to wear a seat belt. After four years of lobbying and making connections with safety advocates, cyclists did manage to get a liability exclusion into Massachusetts helmet law, but also, the maximum age requirement for helmet use went up from 12 to 17 years — political horse trading.

What is the case with the Oregon bill? I don’t know. It bears looking into. There would certainly be no consensus in the industry. The bill impacts more of the industry than the Massachusetts law, including Oregon trailer manufacturer Burley and bicycle retailers — especially Clever Cycles in Portland, which specializes in the kind of equipment whose use would be made illegal. The bill also impacts a larger percentage of the bicycling public.

The 1990 Massachusetts law was mostly an example of non-cyclist interests’ having taken the initiative, while cyclists weren’t paying enough attention. One argument for increasing the numbers of cyclists is that they then become a more powerful political force. That can sometimes, ironically, work against cyclists’ interests, if the recruits are mainly people with an unsophisticated understanding of their interests. Neglect of cyclists’ rights issues and support of poorly-conceived bicycle facilities feed on this dynamic. The lobbying for 1994 Massachusetts law and the current pushback against the Oregon bill are, on the other hand, what we would hope for: an active and well-informed cyclist constituency standing up for cyclists’ interests as best we can.

Bob Mionske on “Driver Sues Family of Deceased Cyclist”

In a Bicycling Magazine blog posting, Bicycling attorney Bob Mionske describes an appalling situation: a motorist driving over 80 mph in a 45 mph zone struck and killed a teenage bicyclist in Connecticut. The bicyclist’s family sued the driver — but then, the driver countersued the family, claiming that the bicyclist was negligent in not wearing a helmet.

Connecticut law excludes such claims. Mionske says that the Connecticut legislature, in its wisdom, excluded the claims because bicycle helmets cannot protect bicyclists in high-speed collisions with motor vehicles.

I seriously question Mionske’s explanation. The same exclusion exists in laws requiring seat belts and automotive child seats, which usually do protect their users in collisions. Also, bicycle helmets do protect bicyclists in many if not most car-bike collisions. Only a small percentage involve high-speed impacts. The bicyclist cut off by a crossing or turning vehicle, or sideswiped, may only be dumped onto the road or onto the hood of a car, and head injury may be survivable or even completely avoided if the bicyclist is wearing a helmet.

Any passive safety equipment — seatbelt, child seat, helmet — can sometimes prevent injury, but cannot prevent a crash. To allow the victim to sue the perpetrator, and to prevent the perpetrator from suing the victim, is a moral issue, not a technical one. This is even more important when a law is poorly understood and weakly enforced, as with bicycle helmet laws. Children often ride bicycles where parents can not monitor them. Distribution of helmets also is an issue, when a helmet can cost as much as a cheap bicycle. In states with contributory negligence statutes, it’s worse yet: a finding of 1% negligence on the part of the victim results in dismissal of a lawsuit against the perpetrator.

To my knowledge, I was first to raise the issue of the liability exclusion. Back in the 1980s, well-meaning safety advocates, most importantly Safe Kids USA, had begun promoting bicycle helmet laws. A law was enacted in Massachusetts, where I live, without a liability exclusion. As a member of the League of American Wheelmen State Legislative Committee, I campaigned for a better law, and it was enacted. The League’s Consumer Affairs Committee, on which I served, publicized the issue of the liability exclusion, and it was written into the laws of many states, including Connecticut.

The League remained neutral on the issue of helmet laws, as its members’ opinion on them was divided — also realizing that fighting helmet laws could look bad and might not succeed; but the League insisted that such laws include the same liability exclusion as other safety-equipment laws. To their credit, safety advocates responded positively, supporting laws with the liability exclusion and innovative penalty structures. Examples:

  • no penalty, but only a warning;
  • penalty waived if the violator purchased a helmet;
  • positive incentive, such as coupon for a free serving at an ice cream shop for a kid seen wearing a helmet.

The safety advocates also initiated helmet distribution campaigns for disadvantaged children. With time, the awareness became widespread that educational and promotional campaigns, more than laws, would be effective in increasing the rate of helmet use in the USA.

Helmets sometimes prevent injury and sometimes don’t — but that wasn’t the issue that propelled the campaign for liability exclusions. That a helmet would not have prevented injury could, quite to the contrary, point out the seriousness of a crash and make a persuasive argument that a bicyclist should recover damages!

Deer dears

OK, the title “Deer Dears” might seem a bit obscure. It refers to children walking and bicycling in urban areas.

Brooklyn, New York, December, 2008

I chose the title because I’m  recalling a Bicycling Magazine opinion piece which my friend, long time Philadelphia bicycling advocate John Dowlin, wrote some thirty years ago. The title was “Cyclists as Urban Deer”.

Dowlin’s premise was that cyclists in urban areas, like deer in rural areas, are vulnerable, and deserve special attention and caution. He went on to make the point that the presence of cyclists is a measure of the health of the urban transportation system.

I wrote a response to Dowlin’s article, and it was published too. I suggested that cyclists do better to be smart like the fox. To put it in the simplest possible way: deer stampede out of the woods; foxes look before they cross the road.

The analogy still holds, I think, and it is more compelling now given the current widespread campaign for the construction of bicycle sidepaths which reduce foxy cyclists to deer, appearing from concealment behind parked cars and crowds of pedestrians — and, which  also keep newbie cyclists in a state of arrested development, expecting everyone except themselves to look out for their safety.

Certainly, on the other hand, children aren’t ready yet to look out for themselves. We must, then, ask a few questions:

  • To what degree is it actually possible to protect children from traffic hazards?
  • Do we actually protect them from traffic hazards, or only create an illusion of safety?
  • To what extent do other hazards — that a child might get lost, or ride off the top of a flight of stairs, or become a victim of crime — commonly bullying, bicycle theft — limit the child’s travel options? (Stranger abduction is the bugaboo, I know, though it is rare.)
  • What sacrifices in safety and efficiency of travel for other road users — including cyclists and pedestrians — are we willing to make so children can travel independently?

My own opinion is that these issues can generally be resolved to a satisfactory degree for child cyclists on quiet residential streets and on paths that cross roads infrequently, but not on urban arterials or on paths built alongside them.

Now, in answer to a common rejoinder: I’m entirely sympathetic with the point made these days about children’s not walking or bicycling as much as the older generation — my generation — did. I recall my own suburban childhood, in which I walked to school, or I walked a mile to and from the nearest school bus stop. But I’m not going to be nostalgic about that, either. I was bullied at a couple of bus stops, day after day, and at only one of them did I manage to stop the bullying, when accumulated rage overcame caution and I punched the bully in the mouth.

I rode my bicycle in my quiet suburban neighborhood, starting at age 7, but my parents didn’t allow me full freedom to travel on my own, either on foot or by bicycle, until my teen years — appropriately so. I have done the same for my own son.

I’ll put out another thought about stranger abduction, while I’m at it: the grand emphasis in much design of bicycle facilities these days is on perceived safety, often in opposition to actual safety. Now, if we similarly tried to design our cities to create the perception of safety from stranger abduction, what would they look like?

To sum up: the utopian dream expressed by, for example, former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, that young children should be able to travel independently everywhere in an urban area, remains just that, a utopian dream, and let’s acknowledge that. Young children are dear to us, and they are too much like deer, too little like the fox, to set out on their own everywhere in cities.

Our hero, Lance Armstrong

Who is the cyclist wearing sunglasses, a white T-shirt and gray cargo shorts in the video? Lance Armstrong, 7 times winner of the Tour de France.

Everyone is riding brakeless fixies. First instance of blowing a red light (0.52) — video is cut abruptly while only the first couple of cyclists are in the intersection. Swerving around cars, speeding between them and startling the drivers (1:11 and elsewhere). Riding four and five across, taking up the entire road. Camera motor scooter passes a moving vehicle on the right (1:19). Riding while carrying a beer keg in one hand (1:48). Another red light run — especially brazen, while passing a waiting vehicle on the right, then turning left at high speed into moving cross traffic (1:56). Passing a through vehicle on the left, some cyclists then turning right in front of it while others including Lance merge in front of it inside the intersection, motorist blows horn (2:10). Riding around the left side of a traffic circle (2:16).

Ride draws attention from the police (2:35), and this is included in the video. Our hero appears to have special status with the police — the ride continues unabated. Trick riding in the street facing backwards on the bicycle (3:15). Foul language and a clear shot of the beer keg (4:20). More trick riding in the street (4:29), cyclist riding on handlebars. More trick riding (4:47, two cyclists leaning against each other). What appears to be vandalizing of a signal control box (5:13). Lots of shots that are cut just as a critical situation develops. Few helmets.

I’m no slave to authority, thank you. Think about how our great country got its start. But what’s the point here? The video only builds the image of cyclists as scofflaws, rowdies and daredevils, and it has the imprimatur of our nation’s most famous cyclist. As this is a heavily-edited video, I can imagine that the ride included more craziness than was shown.

A cyclist who cared about the reputation of cycling would not ride with this group, or if taken by surprise, would refuse to continue, or to be included in the video. Instead, Lance was a willing and eager participant. And he was in his mid-30s and the father of three children when this was shot — with enough life experience, I would hope, to understand the responsibility that accompanies fame, and the importance of his example to younger folks.

I read his book, It’s Not About the Bike, and so got to experience in some small way the drama of his illness and recovery. I rooted for him in the Tour de France, year after year. I saw him on the Charlie Rose show a few years ago, and he is an impressive interviewee. But now he has lost his creds with me as a spokesman for cycling. It’s like — it’s like Shoeless Joe Jackson, the baseball player who conspired to throw the World Series in the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal. A boy is reported to have uttered the immortal line “say it ain’t so, Joe” as Jackson left the courthouse after pleading guilty.

The video has over 330,000 views as of March 25, 2010. The Youtube page has lots of semi-literate comments heavy with admiration and foul language.

I suppose that times have changed.