This was originally written in response to specific proposed law in Indiana which failed to pass. In case a similar bill gets introduced again, here are my thoughts on the topic.
Mandatory helmet laws are a point of controversy of cyclists. Many cycling organizations and riders advocate for voluntary helmet use, while not supporting mandatory helmet laws. Count me among them. There are many well-documented reasons to not support a mandatory helmet law, backed up by research. Wikipedia has a good overview, and Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation has much to say against mandatory helmet laws, and the British Medical Journal has come out strongly against mandatory helmet laws.
A compelling proposal for mandatory helmets would at least address the major, well-documented reasons for not having such a law.
One justification for a mandatory helmet law in Indiana was to be consistent with the minority of other states that have such laws. One could just as well argue that we should stay with the majority of states who don’t have such law.
A second justification for the mandatory helmet law was to be consistent with laws that apply to motorcycles, a vehicle that can travel much faster and is more dangerous to operate. That’s like suggesting it would be a good idea to make motor vehicle safety laws that would be consistent with safety regulations of NASCAR drivers, who wear helmets inside their cars. Risk prevention should be proportional with the risk.
Helmets.org, a pro-helmet site publishes statistics about the number of fatal bike crashes that happen to kids to who would be affected by this law, during the hours which they may traveling two and from school. (Search on this page for Indiana). In that report they report zero fatalities for Indiana. That’s not the kind of crisis that sounds like we need new laws to address.
The reality here in Indiana is that beyond the general reasons for opposing mandatory helmet laws, we have other problems that complicate the alleged benefits. Most importantly, we have a lack of education among our cyclists and among our drivers about cyclists. From what the Indiana Bicycle Coalition relayed to me fatal bicycle crash statistics in the Richmond, Indiana area, a major contributor to these was not the lack of a helmet, but unsafe, and sometimes illegal cycling. That behavior set the stage for the accident in the first place. Education can prevent accidents to happen at all, while a helmet cannot. Now on the one hand we lack bike safety education, on the other we lack enforcement of bike safety regulations.
A mandatory helmet law does nothing educate children about riding on the correct side of the road. And if our current bike laws aren’t being enforced, adding yet another just adds to the sense that the laws are aren't meant to be followed, or are there to be enforced selectively against “bad kids”.
There are more effective ways for the Indiana government to support cycling and cycling safety, including better infrastructure and adding bike safety classes to school curriculum.
As an experienced rider, a parent, and founder of Bike Richmond, I don’t support a mandatory helmet law.