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Have a helmet debate.

Byline: The Register-Guard

State Sen. Floyd Prozanski has stepped on the third rail of bicycle politics with his announcement that he plans to introduce legislation next year that would require all cyclists in Oregon - children and adults - to wear helmets when riding. It would be wise for the Eugene Democrat to take a quick step back.

There's no denying that wearing a properly fitted, industry-approved helmet significantly reduces the risk of head injury during a crash or collision. Anyone who rides a bicycle sans brain protection enters the Darwin Awards competition for a shot at being naturally selected for a bed in a long-term care facility.

Prozanski, an avid cyclist who has earned praise from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance for his work on passing bicycle safety bills, is genuinely concerned about cyclists' welfare. After well-known Eugene triathlete Jane Higdon was killed by a log truck in a 2006 bicycle accident on Territorial Highway, Prozanski successfully championed legislation that established safe distances for vehicles passing cyclists.

More recently, Prozanski saw the anguish in the Eugene cycling community following the June 2 collision that killed 27-year-old David Minor. Minor was struck by a car while making a left turn on his bicycle. He wasn't wearing a helmet.

But in any room full of passionate - and typically helmet-wearing - bicycling enthusiasts, the mention of mandatory helmet laws is likely to provoke ferocious opposition. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Oregon's largest cycling advocacy organization, opposes mandatory helmet laws because it fears that such laws will actually make cycling less safe by discouraging ridership. The BTA sent a letter asking Vancouver, Wash., lawmakers to rethink their position on a recently enacted helmet law. "We are not confident that passing a mandatory helmet law makes bicyclists, as a group, any safer. We fear this law will reduce the number of adults and children riding bikes in Vancouver."

Statistics can be found to support arguments for and against mandatory helmet laws, but opponents have some powerful ammunition. After an exhaustive review of existing research, the British Medical Association advised against making helmet use mandatory in the United Kingdom. Australia, often cited by supporters of helmet laws, reported a 40 percent drop in the number of people riding bikes in the year following enactment of a mandatory helmet law.

Collisions resulting in fatal head injuries actually occur less frequently among cyclists than with people in cars or pedestrians. Balanced against the risk of head injuries is the significant risk that forcing people to wear helmets will demonstrably reduce ridership. Apart from the health and environmental consequences, fewer bike riders actually makes travel more dangerous for cyclists.

Prozanski should listen carefully to such concerns before moving ahead with legislation requiring all riders to wear helmets. The potential to invite unintended consequences is particularly high.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Sen. Prozanski should listen before moving ahead
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 31, 2008
Words:463
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