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California Bike Safety: Use a Helmet, Help Your Head

It’s hard to argue against wearing a helmet. Especially among young people, wearing a helmet can prevent lifelong injuries and even death. With more than 56,000 bike injuries over the last five years, bike safety is more important than ever. That’s why many places, including the state of California, have put laws in place making helmets mandatory for people under 18.

These laws are well-intended, but they haven’t always been effective. In fact, California’s old helmet laws were actually revamped in 2018 because of a lack of enforcement. New modes of transport and rising costs made the old program ineffective. Today’s laws on the subject are designed to be more forgiving, while still protecting minors. So, what has changed?

The Origin of California Helmet Laws

In the early 90s, the country as a whole was working to become a safer place for everyone. In particular, disabilities and children’s health were starting to come to the forefront of the national consciousness. Several studies done through the late 80’s and early 90s had shown that wearing helmets saved lives, and legislators were paying attention.

In California, things came to a head in 1992. A deeply contentious bill that made helmets mandatory for all motorcyclists had just passed. That paved the way to the bill aimed at bicycle riders. After the motorcycle bill, legislators and advocates knew they were unlikely to succeed with a universal bike helmet law. Instead, they focused on the most vulnerable population: children.

The law was designed to have a small fine serve as a deterrent against riding a bike without a helmet. Minors could be fined $25 for failing to wear a helmet while biking. 62.5 cents of that fine would go to supporting the enforcement of the law. Meanwhile, $18 of every fine would go to a program designed to help low-income families receive bike helmets. The goal was to make the fine slightly more expensive than a basic helmet, to encourage simply buying and using the safety device.

While this law was also contentious, it was less divisive than the motorcycle helmet law. Since it did not curtail the freedoms of adults and specifically aimed to protect children, fewer people campaigned against it. Meanwhile, the bill’s supporters were passionate. One particularly moving speech, given by state senator Art Torres, detailed the six hour brain surgery his unhelmeted son went through after a bike crash. This, combined with advocacy from children’s safety organizations and doctors, got the bill passed.

Problems with the Original Bike Helmet Bill

Initially, this bike helmet law worked well. Deaths among minors from bike injuries dropped, as did brain injuries. More kids wore helmets when they biked. However, over time things changed.

As with many laws that level fines, many law enforcement departments included other fees along with the fine. Late fees, multiple citations, and court fees all add up. The result was fines that could quickly reach as high as $200, levelled against children as young as six or seven. Especially in low-income areas, these fees led to many enforcement officers just not citing children.

The original law also did not cover many vehicles now available. Dockless motorized scoots, electric bikes, hoverboards and more have all taken off in the decades since the original law. Wearing a helmet on these types of transport is just as important as it is on a bike. Between these new technological developments and the lack of enforcement, it was clear that something needed to be done.

Helmet Laws Today

In 2018, legislators put together the bike helmet law that now covers California. The goal was to make the program’s penalties less harsh, so law enforcement would actually cite more kids. Instead of a fine that must be paid, the new law levels a “fix-it” citation. If parents can prove that their child has a helmet and has taken a free bike safety course, the fine and any associated fees go away. The new law also covers more vehicles, including the scooters that have become so prevalent.

This will help keep kids safe in the long run. When the authorities have a tool to remind kids how to be safe, more of them wear helmets. The original fine, while well-intended, didn’t actually serve its purpose. The current fix-it scheme has been showing much better results.

Some people aren’t content with the most recent bill, though. In fact, they don’t think it goes far enough. Helmets help everyone, including adults. Some bike safety advocates are calling for the law to be expanded to all people, minors and adults alike. The goal is to keep everyone safe, not just children.

When people around the state are dying, it makes sense to take precautions. Regardless of legal requirements, wearing a helmet is a smart move fore everyone. Children and adults alike should be wearing their helmet. Like the US Department of Transportation says, every bike ride should start with putting on a helmet.