Monday, July 19, 2010

Dallas Bike Helmet Law

Over the weekend, I was issued a citation for bicycling without a helmet. It is a law in the great City of Dallas, apparently. I never really knew. I thought it might be, but never really saw or heard of it being enforced. To mitigate the risk of getting a ticket myself, I always wore one while knowing full well that it could only prevent injury in minor accidents. I had to become a Lance Armstrong* if I wanted to bike around Dallas.

The policy legislates bicyclists, presumably in order to protect them from cars. In a City built strictly for the car, that is like requiring everybody to carry a gun to "be safe" and then ticketing somebody for not wearing a bulletproof vest. In practice, the law itself undermines the goals we have set forth as a City and even the current pursuits such as the bike plan, while raising inconsistencies that threaten trust and legitimacy in the representative government itself.

*I use the term "Lance Armstrong" because Dallas cycling culture is kept to only hardcore enthusiasts. Perhaps, this is our effort at safety. Keep cyclists off the road so they won't get hurt. By doing so we create a far less safe environment where more people die each year due to traffic collisions than by gunshots. Mission Accomplished, indeed.

On Bastille Day, my girlfriend and I met Brandon Castillo, organizer of the Deep Ellum market which was to occur for the first time on Saturday, the 20th. We decided to bike there. My girlfriend just got a bike in order to accompany me on the occasional joy ride and had not yet picked up a helmet. Having seen several other cyclists around town without helmets, I figured, "what the hell? I won't either so as to not draw attention to her for not having one."

From downtown to Malcolm X Blvd in Deep Ellum is probably less than a mile. It was also the weekend, where you might as well see tumbleweed blowing across the empty streets. There are often more vespas on the street than cars. We had no problems getting to the market and checking it out before returning downtown to get something to eat.

On our ride back, a bike patrol officer in a car pulled alongside and asked, "do you have ID?" He went about giving us a citation in the "just doing his job" fashion one might expect of somebody just following orders. He went on to explain that since it was our first offense, all we had to do was take the citation and a helmet to the courthouse and the charge would be waived with a minor court processing fee.

I will do this. I have no problem with DPD. They have always been fair and professional in my personal encounters and interactions with them. We'll ignore the fact that four cyclists then road past as the officer was writing the ticket, two of whom didn't have helmets either, my point of contention goes higher.

The City is currently undergoing a bike plan. If it comes off successfully, in the future we should have miles and miles of bike lanes added to Dallas City streets. The intention is to slim down, pollute less, get cars off the road to reduce congestion and the inherent money/productivity wasted in it, and well... die less. All good things.

With bike culture paddling towards the mainstream, we need choice in transportation modes to increase mobility and the infrastructure in which to avail that choice. We also need consistency of policies in support of the movement towards a safe, more sustainable city.

Then we have the little thing with a bike helmet law, which seems like a minor little thing. But, in practice it becomes a much larger barrier to cycling than imagined. All of a sudden we have to wear helmets and spandex and get toe-clips and all this stuff when all I want to do is stick a baseball card in my spokes and explore my 'hood much the way I provided myself mobility and adventure as an driver's license-less under-16 year old. I was clearly much more responsible once I turned 16, fo sho. Or far more capable of damage, one or the other.

Any City has the responsibility upon it to create and foster a sense of safety for its citizens. One component of any city, of which we all take part, is its transportation system. In the very best case scenario, we are being overly paternalistic in requiring all cyclists to wear helmets (except on private land with a public access easement like Katy Trail. Just ride to Katy Trail with your helmet and then take it off to ride on the trail...make sense?!).

In doing so however, we prevent bike ridership, which increases the ownership share and dominance the automobile exerts over the road, making it less safe. Any place with more cyclists or more pedestrians is infinitely safer than a street dominated by the car. Oh, it is also more attractive to commerce and higher real estate values, takes on less infrastructural burden, and generates greater tax revenue than properties reacting appropriately to car-only access.

Look at every city where biking has taken hold. Not a helmet to be found, because cycling is perfectly safe:

These cities score higher in livability rankings. Why? Because they're safe enough to ride without a helmet for one.

Requiring a helmet ensures cycling remaines in the realm of Lance Armstrongs and that intimidates the people we want to be riding. The ones who are thinking about it, but are deterred by maniacal 4-wheel drive vehicles and pulling on a pair of spandex.
This guy needs a helmet.

The policy at its worst hints at something deeper, however. There is no law requiring a motorcyclist to wear a helmet. Motorcyclists can go on highways. Motorcycles can move at speeds that kill. I would rather not speculate, but my hunch is that there are far bigger moneyed interests lobbying to preserve that status quo. Not helmetless riders, but the burning of gasoline on expansive roadways.

When what amounts to little more than a petty, nanny-state policy, from a broke City, one has to wonder, are we just fundraising here? Is this how we want to pay for our decades of incompetence and the slow rot of poor city building? By shaking down the citizens when real mixed-use development that needs walkability, bikability, and transit pays its bill?

When the mind wanders down these likely deadends, it is no wonder why there is so much frustration and distrust directed towards City Hall. Inconsistencies in policy and pursuit of inappropriate or failed ones point towards illegitimacy. One begins to wonder if they really represent us or are petty, purposeless, and inconsistent policies like the bike helmet law little more than the extraneous apparatus of a Rube-Goldberg City of no guiding direction beyond the momentum of what inertia is leftover from failed 20th century policies.

I'm quite certain it is the latter.