More risk? Safety engineer slams proposed helmet law
With the city on the verge of passing a new law that will require bike riders ages 14 and under to wear helmets, most bike safety enthusiasts are applauding, citing research that shows helmets can reduce the incidence of head injuries by 85 percent. One longtime bike rider, however, says the proposed law is misguided, based on outdated research, and could actually lead to a greater number of the most serious injuries.
"It is ludicrous to mandate helmet usage," says J. Tyler Ballance, a Henrico County resident who frequently visits Charlottesville to bike ride. "If safety were the real concern, then the Council might be mandating pedestrian helmets, or banning cars."
While it might seem blasphemous to oppose one of the most widely accepted safety devices and one that purportedly saves the lives of children, Ballance says the supporting research is outdated, and he cites new research to back his position.
A Safety Officer in the Navy for more than two decades, Ballance is a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers. He's also an avid bicycle racer and a father who says the statistics for helmets and safety are hardly as clear as some would like to believe, especially when it comes to child riders.
"Some research has demonstrated the potential for the helmet to 'dig-in' on impact," Ballance told City Council in an email before its most recent meeting. That "dig-in," Ballance told Councilors, actually increases the risk of paralysis.
Ruth Stornetta isn't buying such claims. An ordinance supporter, as well as a UVA neuroscientist and coach of the UVA club bicycling team, Stornetta refers to the "overwhelming evidence published in peer-reviewed journals that helmets do decrease risk of brain injury when you fall."
"I've ridden in excess of 50,000 miles," says Stornetta, recalling three falls in which she hit her head. "If I hadn't been wearing a helmet, I wouldn't be here."
City resident Mac Lafferty, an engineer and cycling instructor, appeared in Council Chambers to back the ordinance by citing statistics showing that bike injuries are more prevalent than football injuries with 314,000 hospitalized– more than half with traumatic brain injuries.
There have been at least four fatalities stemming from bike-car collisions in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area in the past 20 years. Most recent was the 2010 death of UVA grad student Matt King. Last April, King was allegedly passing cars along West Main Street when he pedaled into a city wastewater truck as it turned right. King was wearing a helmet; the driver in that accident was cleared.
While helmets can't save every life, Lafferty asserts they're a step in a safer direction.
"I know of no organized biking event that does not require a helmet on every rider," Lafferty told Council. "If you don't wear a helmet, you don't ride."
So how did Ballance unbalance the debate? Recent studies in peer-reviewed journals appear to support his claims.
In January, the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention published work by Norwegian researcher Rune Elvik slamming the 1989 study that launched the widely-quoted 85 percent injury-reduction statistic, asserting that helmets increase the risk of neck injury, and offer no net protective benefit.
In March, a study in Risk Analysis suggests that helmets encourage riskier riding (and deter some people from this eco-friendly sport/commute). And in Australia last year, a woman ticketed for helmetlessness won her case when the judge, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, agreed with the defendant, saying, "I frankly don't think there is anything advantageous, and there may well be a disadvantage in situations to have a helmet."
Ballance says his anti-ordinance position should not be misinterpreted as being anti-helmet. He says there are situations when helmets make sense for children and adults such as in high-speed racing and when pedaling along busy roads.
But for the average child rider, cruising around a cul-de-sac or along a paved trail like the Rivanna Greenbelt, the notion of enforced helmet wearing makes no sense, says Ballance.
"Why would a city government," he asks, "want to impose something like a helmet law without having a solid foundation based on fact?"
The research that has motivated Ballance may not sway Charlottesville leaders, who got the ordinance idea from their own Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Committee. Councilor Kristin Szakos replied to Ballance by mentioning that helmet use has been supported by such renowned organizations as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and she noted that a childhood friend's bike-borne quadriplegia weighs heavily on her mind.
"It's not that children are terribly likely to hit their heads while riding," Szakos asserts, "but that the injuries can be so catastrophic if they do."
At the May 16 hearing, the Councilors expressed support for the ordinance as long as ticketed children can get their $25 ticket waived– or receive a free helmet. They directed City Manager Maurice Jones to explore the practicality of buying a trove of helmets and plan to take their vote on June 6.
“The goal of this," said Councilor Holly Edwards, "is to improve the safety of our children."Attached Documents: