Sunday, January 31, 2010

Do Helmet Laws Mean Less Bicycling?

There is no disputing that bicycle helmet laws for children have prevented many injuries and fatalities (19% fewer fatalities). According to a study by the National Bureau of Economics, there is an unintended consequence to these laws--less bicycle riding by children.  The evidence strongly suggests that children ride bikes 4-5% less as a consequence of helmet laws.  Researchers are unsure why the laws result in less bike riding--it could be that the cost of helmets deters parents, the look and feel of the helmets puts off kids, or perhaps the laws create a perception that bicycle riding is more dangerous.

Since 1994, Massachusetts has required kids 12 and under to wear bike helmets (note that some places like Cambridge have ordinances requiring helmet usage for older kids--up to age 16 in Cambridge).  When enacted, the law was actually somewhat controversial, but not because people thought it would result in fewer bike trips.  The League of American Bicyclists actually opposed children-only helmet laws back then.  Critics thought children only helmet laws sent the message that helmet usage was only necessary for children and not adults.

Helmet use has clearly become the norm for enthusiasts and racers, but I still see a lot of adults tooling around their neighborhoods on bikes without any helmet on.  Sometimes they are riding with their helmeted kids, sometimes they are headed out for an errand.

Actually, a Dutch family moved to my neighborhood a few years ago and scenes like this were pretty common at first:

This picture, which is pretty shocking to American eyes, shows a pretty common scene in Holland.  Maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise that bicycle usage has declined here as a result of helmet laws, but safety must come first.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Who's That Clown on the Unicycle?

I heard about an interesting (and actually quite alarming) study out of Western Washington University in Bellingham Washington by cognitive psychologist Ira Hyman.  Professor Hyman was studying the impact that multitasking has on our ability to drive, walk and work behind a desk.  In one experiment, Professor Hyman had one of his students dress up as a clown and unicycle around a central square on campus.

What the good professor found was that about half the people walking in the square by themselves saw the clown, and the number was slightly higher for pairs.  I guess we'd call this the control group.  However, only 25% of people yapping on a cell phone said they saw the clown.

So what does this mean for you?  Well, for one thing, you can leave the clown suit in your closet and forget about wearing it on your next ride.  What you could do, though, is pick up the phone and call your State Rep or Senator to tell tell them we need legislation here in Massachusetts to protect cyclists and pedestrians from distracted drivers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Focus Driven Targets Distracted Driving

A new advocay group that is modeling itself after Mothers Against Drunk Driving is targeting texting and cell phone usage by drivers.  The group, called Focus Driven, is intended to raise awareness about distracted driving.  Ultimately, the group hopes to make the use of cell phones behind the wheel as socially unacceptable as drunk driving.

Among the information the group seeks to disseminate is the research of David Strayer, who studies cognition at the University of Utah.  According to his research, cell phone users are 4 times more likely to crash and texters are 8 times more likely to crash.

The formation of the group coincides with new data from the National Safety Council, which shows that distracted driving is responsible for 1.6 million accidents a year.  This number is 1 million higher than what was previously thought.

No doubt, distracted driving is a major safety problem--not just for cyclists but also for drivers and pedestrians.  Hopefully the legislature will address this problem in a meaningful way in 2010.  Menatime, I encourage you to support Focus Driven!