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Advocating for Bicycle Helmet Safety Laws

CMS’ Public Health Committee takes on the issue of bicycle safety as the number of cyclists in the City flourishes
By Cheryl England

The City of Chicago has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the best large cities for bicycling in the United States. Thanks to a variety of efforts, Chicago saw a 150% increase in the number of Chicagoans cycling to work between 2000 and 2010, according to the City of Chicago’s 2012 Bicycle Crash Analysis. The report also notes that Chicago has more bicycle commuters per capita than New York City or Los Angeles. Maybe even more impressive, nationally .6% of workers commuted by bicycle to work compared to more than double that figure, 1.3%, in Chicago—that’s 15,000 cyclists each day.

Crashes on the Rise

But unfortunately the report also notes that bicycle crashes are on the rise from 6.7% of all crash types in 2005 to 9.8% in 2010. That translates to 9,000 crashes, or an average of 1,500 per year, that resulted in injuries. Among those crashes, 32 were fatal—and only one of the cyclists involved in a fatal crash was known to be wearing a helmet.

The national statistics aren’t much better. The report also states that national data indicates that only 25% of cyclists taken to trauma centers were wearing helmets—that means that a whopping 75% of cyclists who sustained serious injuries were not wearing a helmet. And while it has not been proven that wearing a helmet could have prevented many of the more serious injuries, there are plenty of statistics that point in that direction. For example, a report compiled by several branches of New York City government entitled “Bicyclist Fatalities and Serious Injuries in New York City 1996-2005” found that nearly all bicyclists who died (97%) were not wearing a helmet and that most fatal crashes (74%) involved some form of head injury.

A Lawless State

Although it encourages the use of helmets for bicyclists, the State of Illinois does not require them except in the case of messenger and delivery personnel. But Illinois is not alone. In fact, only 21 states and the District of Columbia have a helmet law for bicyclists below a certain age, which is generally 16. The other 29 states, including Illinois, have no bicycle helmet laws.

An avid bicyclist, otolaryngologist and chair of the Chicago Medical Society’s Publi Health Committee, Ajay Chauhan, DO, would like to see Chicago join in on the helmet law bandwagon. And the CMS Council agreed with him during the Sept. 30 meeting. The group passed a resolution that CMS work with the Chicago City Council to develop an ordinance that all bicyclists 17 years of age and younger be required to wear a helmet. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that children and young adults (ages 5-24) have the highest rates of nonfatal bicycle-related injuries, accounting for almost 52% of all bicycle-related injuries seen in emergency rooms.

The resolution also requires CMS to work with the Chicago City Council to require Divvy, the city’s bike sharing service, to increase its efforts to educate riders about the importance of wearing helmets by posting signs at every Divvy station and on the Internet. The Committee noted that Divvy already encourages the use of helmets on its website by posting links to cycling shops that offer members discounts on helmets and by including information on how to properly fit a helmet. Divvy also clearly states, “While it’s not required by law, Divvy encourages you to wear a helmet when you ride. Doing so dramatically reduces the risk of head injury in the event of a crash while bicycling.”

Yet the Committee agreed that Divvy needs to adopt an even stronger stance. The Committee, ever vigilant in its defense of good public health policies, also noted that as the City continues to add bike lanes and urge residents to be more physically active, safety, too, is critical to their health and well-being. As Dr. Chauhan succinctly states, “The recounting of a bicycle accident usually goes something like this: ‘I was cycling, when all of a sudden...’. This typifies the randomness and inability to prepare for a potential injury while cycling. For this reason, and many more, wearing a helmet provides some protection against an unexpected head injury.”

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