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Helmet Hullabaloo

City of Dallas considers scrapping bicycle helmet law

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The City of Dallas added shared bike lanes downtown in 2012.  Photo by Claire St. Amant

As Dallas moves toward becoming a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly place, the city is finally considering getting rid of what may be its dumbest law: the helmet ordinance.

First enacted in 1996, the helmet law requires that all bicyclists in Dallas wear helmets. Like most states, Texas doesn't have its own bicycle helmet law. The 21 states that require bike helmets do so only for children. Dallas is only city in Texas to create a helmet law for adults. But it might not be around much longer.

At a May 12 committee meeting, Quality of Life members agreed to bring the issue to the full City Council, with a recommendation to either repeal the law for all ages or to amend the law to require helmets for minors only.

 Although the helmet law has its defenders, many more are dissatisfied with not only its intrusiveness, but also with the inaccuracies it promotes about cycling.

The shift in attitude comes in response to the fact that Dallas is considering installing a bike-share program, beginning in Fair Park. With a helmet law in place, such a program would require the bike-share company to provide helmets. 

That would make it the city's responsibility to rent helmets but as city council member Philip Kingston, who is spear-heading the helmet law repeal, told CBS/DFW, that would be like "renting bowling shoes for your head."

The first encouraging signs that the helmet law could be repealed came after a meeting in late April of the Dallas City Council's Quality of Life and Environment committee. 

Although the helmet law has its defenders, many more are dissatisfied with not only its intrusiveness, but also with the inaccuracies it promotes about cycling. Dallas resident Eliot Landrum is an avid bicyclist who has also taught safe bicycling in a class called Cycling Savvy.

"I think one of the biggest liabilities about helmets is that they promote the attitude that bicycling is more risky than it actually is," Landrum says. "It puts bicycling into the category of 'risky adventure' and discourages people from using their bike on an everyday basis to go to get coffee and grocery store. In places like Amsterdam, people don't say they're 'cyclists' — they just use their bike as transportation."

Landrum says the concept of a helmet law lets people put all their safety concerns into one, ill-fitting basket.

"People put so much faith in the perceived safety of a piece of equipment," Landrum says. "The whole country has been pushing helmets for the last 20 years as the only solution to safety.

"But I believe safety is about your behavior and the environment. A helmet is a last-minute resort. We want to prevent the crash where you don't even need the helmet by changing your behavior. We don't say that airbags are our only solution to driving a car. Instead, we work on better skills and better roads."

The exact date on which the bike helmet ordinance will go before the full council has not yet been set, though assistant city manager Joey Zapata said it would be put on the next available agenda.

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