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Another Potential Meaningless Victory for the Nanny State: Bike Helmets

Posted by on November 25, 2008

[This post was originally written for my employer’s blog, Show-Me Daily.]

Helmet laws are a popular mechanism by which state and local governments like to insert themselves into the lives of their citizenry, and the recent news out of Saint Louis County is no exception.

Naturally, I oppose this on ideological grounds, but I am willing to consider the case for the sake of argument. A plethora of good links can be found at Wikipedia’s section on the Bicycle Helmet Debate. The conclusion? There is no consensus, but there is also a dearth of reliable data on the efficacy of helmet-wearing. A rather pithy link points out:

  • Children are 2.6 times more likely to suffer head injury through jumping and falling than by cycling. [5]
  • Helmets for motorists are much more effective than those for cyclists and more beneficial than seat belts, interior padding or air bags. Their potential for reducing injury is 17 times greater than that of cycle helmets. [7] [3]

At this point, I am not prepared to say unequivocally that helmets do not improve safety significantly. I think we can all agree that car accidents are a much greater risk to us all, and therefore a helmets-while-driving law would entail much more improved safety, and much more voter outrage.

This proposal is a classic case of legislators lashing out at an “easy fix” that isn’t really that easy (but is unlikely to be unpopular) to a problem that doesn’t really exist. Cost/benefit analysis is out the window, because we must protect our children.

9 Responses to Another Potential Meaningless Victory for the Nanny State: Bike Helmets

  1. David Stokes

    I don’t know if it really is so meaningless. It is meaningful in that it is another reach by elected officials to tell us how to live our lives. It is my job to raise my son safely, not the governments, and just because some parents do a poor job at it does not mean it gives the government the right to tell us how to live every minor deatil of our lives. But the vast majority of people will go along with it, because the vast majority of people are entirely willing to outsource their freedom.

  2. Josh Smith

    My point is not that it’s “just bad” but that it is inconclusively good. Of all the intrusions into liberty the government could be making, this one is particularly ineffective, ie if they’re going to make some group wear helmets, it should be motorists.

  3. Mike S.

    On a similar note, expect to see a lot more of the “cost to society” argument as the country moves to a more universal, tax-funded health insurance system. As in, “we must enact helmet laws/outlaw smoking/ban fast food restaurants because of the cost to taxpayers of providing health care for people who engage in these bad behaviors.”

  4. Nick Loyal

    I’ll agree that this law may be unfounded, but as someone who himself got hit by a car on his bicycle, in front of a local area coffee shop while NOT wearing a helmet (I was fine…and then promptly went and bought a new skull-protector, thank you) I feel compelled to make a little PSA.


  5. Jack

    Many more people travel in motorized vehicles than on bikes. More lives and injuries could be prevented by requiring all occupants to wear helmets too, many more than on bikes. Safety efforts via laws should be implemented where they have the largest impact and only when public benefits exceed public costs. Safety is very important and if that is the main concern than Complete Streets should be offered instead of restrictions on freedom and choice. Otherwise image once again trumps sincerity.

  6. vroman

    I wikid “Complete Streets” bc the capitalization clearly screamed “This is a politicized buzzword!”.
    The economic consequences are probably misleading. it claims that by making streets deliberately less efficient for cars, it increases the surrounding land value by 30-100%. however, there is no talk of the downside, additional travel time for motorists who are passing through that area. there are lots of streets in stlouis that frequently jam up which could be completely ameliorated w an extra lane. the first example that springs to mind is mcknight between manchester and 40, which always moves at a crawl in the section that is one lane (atleast before, and presumably after, the hwy construction). also Elm between lockwood and 44 is another one-lane auto-jam. so *reducing* lanes can only make these kinds of problems more widespread.
    I suspect that if the inconvenience of all those extra manhours spent in traffic were dollarized, it would grossly outweigh the property value increase. so in a sense this is govt redistribution, by extracting surplus from the city in general, and handing it out to a localized group of property owners.

  7. Eric D. Dixon

    “so in a sense this is govt redistribution, by extracting surplus from the city in general, and handing it out to a localized group of property owners.”

    Much like development tax credits… but through a different mechanism.

  8. vroman

    you are correct. if we already had Complete Streets ubiquitously, and then the decision was on the table to return one of them to Normal Street, then I would be in favor of that.

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