CYCLE OF RAGE: Mayor Chooses Politics over Facts in Backing NTSB Helmet Recommendation

The mayor in his natural habitat: a taxpayer-funded SUV.
The mayor in his natural habitat: a taxpayer-funded SUV.

It’s the revenge of Marcia Kramer!

For the second time in as many months, Mayor de Blasio has willfully ignored facts to align himself with an anti-biking policy that would dramatically reduce cycling.

Asked by the pro-car WCBS2 reporter Kramer on Wednesday to react to a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation that all states should require adult cyclists to wear helmets, the mayor said, “I think the NTSB is pointing us in the right direction.”

In siding with the three-person safety board, de Blasio is again choosing demagoguery over facts. In reality, the NTSB board vote came after the agency’s staff prepared a lengthy list of recommendations for improving cyclist safety that did not include helmet laws, but rather called for better infrastructure, better police investigations, lower speed limits and asking bike manufacturers to add safety features that have remained unchanged since the reflector mandate in 1980.

The NTSB staff report, compiled by respected Dr. Ivan Cheung, intentionally stopped short of recommending helmet laws because of the “unintended consequences” of such laws — chief among them a marked decrease in cycling, especially bike share, he said.

Currently, no state has a requirement that adults wear helmets, but many states require children to do so. Cheung said such laws have proven successful in encouraging helmet use in adults because it gets people in the habit of wearing helmets — which many studies show make cyclists safer in the event of a crash.

But Cheung also told the three NTSB members — Chairman Robert Sumwalt, Vice-Chairman Bruce Landsberg and member Jennifer Homendy — that the main focus of the NTSB should be to recommend a dramatic increase in protected cycling infrastructure across the country. Indeed, he said that only four states have installed protected infrastructure on state roadways.

The vast majority of fatal crashes were in mid-block crashes that are virtually eliminated with protected bike lanes.

The board accepted all of Cheung’s recommendations, but Homendy added the proposal that the NTSB would recommend mandatory helmet laws in all 50 states. But Landsberg was initially suspect, given a recent trip he said he had taken to the Netherlands. As such, he wanted to know why the Dutch not only cycle more than Americans, and do so with very low helmet use, yet end up with so few fatalities.

Cheung made it clear that the real way to protect cyclists is to make roadways safer and to reduce speed limits on drivers rather than worrying so much about cyclist behavior.

“The Netherlands has been committed to making bicyclists part of their complete street and part of the overall transportation strategy — and they have tens of thousands of protected bike lanes and protected intersections,” he said. “Not to shame the U.S., but we are 20 or 30 years behind. As a result, bicycling as a percentage of the mode share is very very high. … Our team thinks helmets are important, but the difference between the Netherlands and the U.S. is infrastructure.”

None of that came up in Kramer’s question, which again put the mayor on his heels — choosing to capitulate rather than push back on Kramer’s underlying theme: that cyclists are responsible for the 170-percent increase in cyclist deaths this year, even though all but one of the 27 cyclists killed this year was hit by a driver.

And, to be fair, the mayor offered lip service to wanting to encourage bike riding.

“We don’t want to discourage people from riding bikes,” he said. “It’s good for the environment, climate change, fighting congestion. I hear that. I really do. But we have to have an honest conversation about the value of bike helmets and I don’t think these two ideas have to contradict each other.”

Then he veered into fantasy.

“I think we have to figure out what’s a way to get to the day where people use bike helmets regularly and we keep encouraging bike use rather than discouraging it,” he added. “I don’t have a magic formula yet, but think the NTSB is pointing us in the right direction. Have to figure out a way to do whatever we do that keeps people safe but does not discourage bike use. I think that would be a really bad outcome.”

It’s not the first time Kramer has called on the mayor to support helmet laws, in spite of because of the fact that they have been shown to reduce cycling. And studies also show that cycling becomes safer and safer as more and more people do it.

In September, Kramer got the mayor to make headlines — the wrong kind — when she ostensibly accused him of not doing enough to protect cyclists because he has not required them to wear helmets. He doubled down on it two days later in his weekly radio broadcast.

A mandatory helmet law, the mayor told Kramer, “is something we are talking about inside the administration. I think it is a really valid issue.”

It’s not. Citi Bike serves 90,000 rides per day — a number that would drop precipitously if helmets were required because tourists and casual riders very rarely have a helmet with them. The Lyft-owned company said it does encourage riders to wear helmets, but disputes the notion that helmet laws work.

“There is extensive evidence that what keeps cyclists safe are protected bike lanes, enforcement against dangerous driver behavior, and more people riding bikes — not mandatory helmet laws,” spokeswoman Julie Wood told Streetsblog.

That was a reasoned response — and one that basically matched the NTSB staff report until Homendy, a Trump appointee, got her hands on it. But advocates for cycling — which the mayor claims to be — displayed less sangfroid in the face of a Vision Zero mayor who seems eager to undermine cycling in the city.

“In New York City, we need bold leadership to elevate biking across our city, not knee-jerk and piecemeal responses to NTSB’s misguided recommendation,” said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Danny Harris. “Helmets help, but requiring their usage will negate all of the progress Mayor de Blasio has made to date for the 1.6 million New Yorkers who ride bikes and the millions more waiting for a safe and dignified invitation to do so. We urge the mayor to balance the NTSB’s recommendation with real data from Melbourne and Seattle that saw decreases in ridership from mandatory helmet laws, which led to more crashes and injuries for the average cyclist.”

Bike New York’s Jon Orcutt focused on what a helmet law could to do Citi Bike.

“The mayor’s transportation department does a good job articulating the ‘safety in numbers’ principle of building bike ridership, and his administration is in the midst of a big expansion of Citi Bike,” he said. “A bike helmet law would fly in the face of both.”

Gersh Kuntzman is editor of Streetsblog. When he gets really angry, he writes the “Cycle of Rage” column. Prior posts are archived here.