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Many Chicago-area bike shops like On the Route Bicycles encourage helmet use. "We try to sell a helmet with every bicycle we sell," said Cambridge Darnley, an On the Route sales associate. "Rarely are people against the idea." 

Hardheaded about helmets

by Abe Tekippe
March 03, 2011

Related Links

Map of state bicycle helmet lawsSenate Bill 0055National Highway Traffic Safety AdministrationIllinois Department of TransportationA.B.A.T.E.Chicago Bike 2015 Plan

Pedalcyclist fatalities in Cook County

2011: 1

2010: 13

2009: 9

2008: 8

2007: 7

2006: 14

Source: Illinois Department of Transportation

As city officials and mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel look to expand Chicago’s bicycle network, one state senator is pushing for legislation that would require young cyclists across the state to wear helmets.

The bill, filed by state Sen. Ira Silverstein (D – Chicago) in January, proposes that cyclists under the age of 16 wear a helmet at all times while operating or riding on a bicycle. Modeled after a similar bill that Silverstein introduced last year, the current bill is expected to go to a vote in the Public Health Committee within the next two weeks. If approved, it would then go to the state Senate for discussion.

“I introduced this bill last year and it didn’t go anywhere,” Silverstein said. “It’s part of the job. You just have to push your agenda and your issues and fight for what’s right. Maybe someone will wake up and say, ‘This is a good idea.’ I hope they will wake up, God forbid, before there’s another fatality.”

Currently, Illinois is one of 29 states that do not require cyclists of any age to wear helmets. The other 21 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have laws that mandate helmet usage for riders as old as 17.

In 2009, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, 610 pedalcyclists — a term that encompasses all people who operate non-motorized vehicles that are propelled by pedaling — died and another 51,000 were injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

That same year, 20 cyclists were killed and another 3,123 were injured in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. Those under the age of 15 made up nearly 20 percent of both the fatalities and injuries, the statistics show.

Furthermore, over the past five years, 52 cyclists have died in Cook County alone, including one fatality this year, according to the state DOT.

“The legislation is always after the fact,” Silverstein said. “We’re trying to be a little more proactive here.”

Silverstein’s concerns are backed by years of scientific research and medical experience.

“Bicycle helmets are 85 to 88 percent effective in mitigating head and brain injuries, making the use of helmets the single most effective way to reduce head injuries and fatalities resulting from bicycle crashes,” a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in an e-mail. “Nearly 70 percent of all fatal bicycle crashes involve head injuries, but only about 20 to 25 percent of all bicyclists wear bicycle helmets.”

Dr. Rahul Khare, an emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said he has seen these statistics personified in the emergency room.

“I think from the scientific point of view, there’s no question that bicycle helmets save lives and decrease disability and injury,” Khare said. “What we see a lot of times is the helmet completely cracked and broken, and if a helmet is getting cracked and broken, you can imagine the skull would do that as well. Anyone who gets in an accident where they crack their helmet is a big advocate for [helmet usage].”

Khare added that children are particularly vulnerable to injuries for two reasons: one, their anatomy — children’s brains have more room to move around in their skulls, which can cause bleeding; and two, their riding experience — children are more likely to fall off their bikes than adults.

Still, not everyone is convinced that mandating helmet usage is the right decision.

A.B.A.T.E., a non-profit bikers’ rights organization that opposes Silverstein’s proposed helmet law, said that forcing cyclists to wear helmets isn’t the right course of action to take.

“We do not need the government raising our children or telling us what to do,” said Bob Myers, the group’s legislative coordinator. “They need to work on what they’re supposed to be there for: taking care of the budget, getting the state back in shape, paying the bills, increasing tourism and bringing back jobs.”

And while the group has lobbied against helmet legislation, Myers said its stance on helmets is often misunderstood.

“The first thing people say is, ‘Oh, they’re anti-helmet,’” Myers said. “We’re not anti-helmet; we’re anti-helmet law. We encourage the use of helmets, but that is a personal choice. To us, it’s pretty cut and dry.”

Silverstein acknowledged the group’s concerns.

“Both sides have good points,” he said. “We’ll go before the committee and see what happens.”