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NTSB wants mandatory bike helmet laws. Bike advocates don’t.

The National Transportation Safety Board also recommends improvements to road design and lower speeds where bikes and cars share the road to help counter rising fatalities.

In this Aug. 13, 2019 photo, a bicyclist rides in a bike lane through Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. A government agency is recommending that all 50 states enact laws requiring bicyclists to wear helmets to stem an increase in bicycle deaths on U.S. roadways. The recommendation was among several issued by the National Transportation Safety Board after a hearing Tuesday, Nov. 5, on bicycle safety. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
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The National Transportation Safety Board this week said laws mandating helmet use, among other safety actions, would reduce traffic fatalities involving cyclists but the recommendation is getting pushback from bike advocates.

Increased use of helmets would reduce the number of serious head injuries from collisions, which are the leading cause of death among cyclists, the NTSB said, urging all 50 states, the District and Puerto Rico, to require everyone wear a helmet while riding.

But cycling advocates said they are strongly against mandatory bike-helmet laws, saying they might discourage biking.

“We are disappointed with NTSB’s decision to endorse mandatory helmet laws for all people who bike,” the League of American Bicyclists said. “The League opposes policies and programs that deliberately or inadvertently discourage or suppress cycling.”

Advocates oppose mandatory helmet use, particularly for adults, because they say it makes cycling less convenient, therefore potentially reducing biking rates. They fear the gains made in recent years to grow bike commuting and travel may be halted by laws mandating helmet use.

Helmet laws might actually make biking more dangerous, some say.

“There is a safety in numbers effect when more people bike,” said Laura Jenkins of the bike league. “Building better infrastructure is hard, but checking a box on a mandatory helmet law is easy for lawmakers.”

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Advocates say such laws also put discretionary power in the hands of law enforcement who can use it to harass or discriminate against riders. Cyclists may face costly fines for simply trying to make a trip on a bike.

There is no federal law requiring helmet use by bicyclists. But about 20 U.S. states and D.C. have mandatory helmet laws for children. Research by the Pediatric Academic Societies point to lower rates of deaths among youth cyclists in states that have such laws.

The NTSB said research shows that helmet laws would be an effective tool in increasing their use.

“A bicycle helmet is an effective way to mitigate head injury when a bicycle crash occurs. However, the underutilization of helmets continues to contribute to the incidence of deaths and serious injuries among crash-involved bicyclists,” the agency said in a report. “A comprehensive national strategy to increase helmet use among riders of all ages is needed. The strategy should focus on evidence-based approaches for state and local governments to increase helmet use among all bicyclists, such as a helmet requirement for bicyclists of all ages; helmet distribution programs; and effective educational campaigns.”

The NTSB recommendation was among several the agency issued Tuesday following its first examination of bike safety in the United States since 1972. The safety board also called for improved roadway design, more separated bike lanes and enhancing the visibility of bicyclists through technology.

Investigators found that 25 percent of all fatal collisions involving cyclists occurred while a motorist was overtaking a bicyclist on stretches of road between intersections. Although intersection crashes are more frequent, the overtaking collisions were more often fatal because vehicles tended to be traveling faster, the report said.

The NTSB said the construction of separated bike lanes would likely reduce these most serious crashes.

More than 65 percent of collisions occur at intersections where investigators said some road safety additions such as better signage, and pavement markings, could lead to fewer crashes. Among other recommendations are use of adaptive headlights and lower speeds on roads where motor vehicles and bikes share the roadway.

While the NTSB called on state and federal agencies to take steps, it also sent a message to riders to reduce their risks on the road by following traffic rules, obeying signals, and using bike lights.

“If we do not improve roadway infrastructure for bicyclists, more preventable crashes will happen and more cyclists will die in those preventable crashes, ” NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said. “If we do not enhance bicyclist conspicuity, more bicyclists will die in preventable crashes. If we do not act to mitigate head injury for more bicyclists, additional bicyclists will die.”

Nearly 860 people on bikes or similar nonmotorized vehicles were killed in 2018, an increase of 6.3 percent from 2017, according to data released last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The increase in cyclists deaths last year came even as overall traffic fatalities fell for the second-straight year in 2018, according to NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System data. Nearly 36,600 people died on U.S. roadways, including 6,283 pedestrians.

Advocacy groups praised the NTSB’s call for action on better road design and bike infrastructure as well as improvements to vehicle technologies to enhance visibility of bicyclists.

“The safety of people who bike will be best advanced through coordinated improvements to streets and cars, which kill more than 90 percent of people who die while biking, rather than laws that may be enforced in discretionary and discriminatory ways,” the bike league said. “As advocates for both bicycling and bike safety, the League recommends that people wear a helmet while riding and most importantly recommends that people ride a bike.”