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Make bicycle helmets mandatory

Student Life: Make bicycle helmets mandatory

By Cyrus Bahrassa
FORUM EDITOR
Posted February 5, 2010 at 12:00 am
Updated February 5, 2010 at 12:25 am

At Washington University few things are as ubiquitous as bicycles. Every day as I trudge to main campus, I see students on bicycles zip by, eager to make it to class on time and nab that perfect spot on the bike rack. But as bundled up as I am against the cold, most of these cyclists leave their heads completely exposed, not only to the elements, but also to serious injury. This becomes an even greater concern of mine when I recall the many times I have seen cyclists riding too fast through a crowd, turning too sharply and falling over or (at least once) colliding head-on. At Wash. U. bicycles are common but bicycle helmets are not, and that should change.

Considering there is no state law on this matter, bicycle laws in Missouri vary widely. According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, some municipalities require everyone operating a bicycle to wear a helmet. In Clayton and University City, only those 16 or younger are required to wear helmets, so practically all Wash. U. students may legally bike to Schnucks or the Loop without a helmet. While these laws don’t affect Wash. U. students, faculty and staff, they should err on the side of caution and wear a helmet whenever cycling.

On campus, the University should enact a firm policy of requiring bicycle helmets regardless of age, because studies have shown they greatly reduce the risk of serious head injuries. As students around the age of 20, we tend to engage in risky behaviors, thinking our youth makes us immune to serious problems such as head injuries. This is not true: Concussions, serious trauma and other consequences of bicycle crashes can happen to anyone. WUPD even has a department policy that all officers on bicycles must wear helmets.

A suitemate of mine said that if he rode a bike on campus, he would not wear a helmet because he could protect himself in a crash. Such an assertion is wrong; crashes happen very quickly, and claiming to be able to release your hands from the handlebars and cover your head in the split second before impact with the ground or another student is like saying you can drive a car without wearing a seat belt and stop yourself from being ejected in a crash—fat chance.

I know some students will consider mandated helmets an encroachment upon their individual liberty to make decisions as adults. While I respect such a view and admit helmets won’t protect pedestrians, the reality is that accidents within the Wash. U. community affect everyone. For example, a cyclist who suffers serious head trauma would require more than basic medical assistance at Student Health Services, thus driving up the cost of medical services for all students.

I personally don’t want to subsidize others’ bad decisions, and the University has a legitimate interest in protecting its members. I acknowledge requiring helmets will mean hundreds of students must deal with toting them daily, but this would be only a minor hassle. Perhaps there is a way to lock one onto your bicycle so that no one can steal it. Moreover, when riding a bike, you (hopefully) have two hands on the handlebars, so once off your bike you’ll have at least one hand free to carry the helmet.

Mandatory helmets admittedly won’t fix everything, including the root problem of overly aggressive cycling. To address this issue, I would support WUPD fining reckless cyclists. Students need to consider their safety and the safety of others when on their bikes, but bicycle helmets at least will reduce the risk of serious head injuries, particularly in single-bicycle crashes.

Neither WUPD nor Student Health Services keep specific records of bicycle-related injuries, but I would guess the number is in the dozens and that most are preventable. A mandatory bicycle helmet policy would be a simple and effective way to make our campus safer.