San Francisco woman's death leaves groups cycling through helmet options

Nancy Ho was fatally struck by a delivery truck Wednesday when she turned her bicycle from Fremont Street onto Mission Street. She was not wearing a helmet.

Her death once again raised a contentious question in the bicycling community — should cyclists be required to wear helmets?

Like other states, California has no compulsory helmet law for adult bicyclists. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which represents 10,000 cyclists, has no official stance on helmets. Nor does the California Bicycle Coalition.

Helmets remain surprisingly controversial. Randy Swart, director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, said some cyclists believe they provide a false sense of security and that bikers behave recklessly with them on. Others just dislike being told what to do.

Yet Swart, a lifelong cyclist, said studies consistently show that helmets reduce injuries by about 65 percent. He said the false sense of security argument was also used against seatbelts, and turned out to be false.

Peter Jacobsen, a Sacramento-based public health consultant, believes helmet laws may make streets less safe for cyclists. Australia and New Zealand recently introduced compulsory helmet laws, and bike use fell by 33 percent, he said. Numerous reports have found that cycling conditions improve with more riders on streets. By reducing the number of cyclists through helmet laws, conditions actually get more dangerous.

He also said studies have shown that motorists drive closer to cyclists with helmets on, and that helmets only reduce minor injuries, not fatalities. “Bike helmets are padding; they’re not armor,” he said.

Jacobsen said some cyclists don’t wear helmets simply because they look dorky.

Bike messenger Casey Plemons said the decision should rest with users. “We are adults,” he said, “I think we can make our own decisions.”

Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, said her organization promotes helmets through its bike education classes. On the organization’s website, the coalition recommends helmets for “that extra measure of confidence.”

While she wears a helmet, Shahum said some members of the bike coalition’s executive team do not.

Dave Snyder, head of the California Bike Coalition, said his organization is voting on a bike helmet policy soon.

Shahum, Rose and Jacobsen all said that streetscape improvements — such as slowing traffic speeds and adding dedicated spaces for biking — are the most effective safety measure for cyclists.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

Biking community

  • 8,713 Weekday bicyclists in San Francisco
  • 71 Percent of SF cyclists who wear bike helmets
  • 12 Bicyclist deaths from 2002-09*
  • 531 Collisions involving bicyclists in 2009*

*Most recent data available

Source: SFMTA

What do you think about adults being required to wear bike helmets?

“It’s insane. I had to wear a helmet all the time when I was a kid. I was excited when I didn’t have to do it anymore.” — Jacob Stephens, 25

“It’s not that big of a deal. If it were mandatory, I would wear one.” — Gabby Soto, 24

“Yes, because it could prevent accidents. Kids have to do it; the adults should do it, too, to set the example.” — Raraela Robalino, 11

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