Denver doesn’t currently have a city-mandated helmet law for adults 18 and older, but similar rules are in effect in other major cities. Seattle’s compulsory helmet law, for example, has created more problems than solutions. Some cite it as the reason bike-sharing services have gone virtually extinct in the area. Others say it discourages folks from foregoing a car and hopping on the saddle. And according to reporting from the Guardian, some experts believe that putting the “responsibility for safety in the hands of the cyclists” by requiring them to wear helmets shifts responsibility from motorists and law enforcement to cyclists. “The absence of a helmet often leads to victim blaming by media and the public and this would happen even more frequently with mandatory laws,” says Bicycle Colorado’s Maureen McCanna. (The organization is opposed to such laws.)
That’s one reason why you don’t see helmet laws in bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam. “Helmets are rarely used in some of the most bike-friendly places in the world because the infrastructure is in place,” says McCanna. In the Netherlands, where upward of 25 percent of citizens opt to get around by bike, drivers know how to share the road, if they have to at all (separated bike lanes and other infrastructure abound). Conversely, in Denver, just 2.1 percent of commuters traveled by bike in 2015 (though this is higher than the U.S. average of 0.6 percent.) Which means that beyond not having the extensive bike lanes that some international cities boast, Denver drivers simply don’t interact as much with cyclists.
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This is what people in the industry call the “safety in numbers” theory. Essentially, the idea is that the more cyclists who use a certain road or stop at a certain intersection, the less bicycle–vehicle collisions occur in those spots. The inverse correlation has been found in cities across the globe—a University of Colorado Denver study even observed it in Boulder.
Unfortunately, the reality is that bike infrastructure in Denver—and the legislation to go along with it—isn’t sufficient to accommodate substantially more bike commuters. Mayor Michael Hancock’s Vision Zero Action Plan and his pledge to get 125 miles of bike lanes in place by 2023 are crucial steps toward a safer city. But driver education and more laws—like the recently passed Senate Bill 175, which holds drivers accountable in bike collisions, and the now-pending Senate Bill 62, which would make the failure to yield to anyone in a bike lane a traffic offense—need to match those changes. “Frankly, if we’re going to spend the money to keep adding bike lanes here in the Front Range area, we need to be able to educate drivers on what you do in the presence of a bike lane,” says Hottman.
For Denverites, car-vs.-bike collisions hit close to home. Last July, two cyclist deaths occurred within two weeks of each other. Both involved intersections, arguably declining road infrastructure, and relatively lenient charges to the drivers—if any at all. The family of Scott Hendrickson, who was killed on July 12, has not taken the driver to court, and the driver who struck and killed Alexis Bounds on July 24 pleaded guilty and received 200 hours of community service.
Even in the eyes of bicycle safety advocates, the helmet (essentially 10 ounces of polycarbonate, foam, and a nylon chin strap) is a second defense. According to the experts interviewed for this article, a large piece in the battle to prevent future tragedies may very well be reframing the motorist-vs.-cyclist narrative. Hottman argues that we should avoid using the word “accident,” as bicycle-vs.-vehicle incidents are collisions that can be avoided by more vigilant driving and friendlier roads for all modes of transportation. Tucker suggests humanizing these events, noting that it’s not a car that hits a bicycle, but a driver of a motor vehicle hitting a cyclist. “The way crashes are reported only helps to reinforce this dehumanizing that has developed over time,” he says.
And finally, both lawyers reiterate that whether or not a cyclist was wearing a helmet doesn’t matter. “Rather than focusing on victim blaming for wearing or not wearing a helmet, I think energy would be better served on reminding motorists that every person riding a bike is a person,” Tucker says.