THEY’RE HAMMERING HANK! DOT Commissioner Goes off Message and Says He Favors Helmet Laws

DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman (left) with Council Member Ferdinando Cabrera. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
DOT Commissioner Hank Gutman (left) with Council Member Ferdinando Cabrera. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

What a waste of oxygen.

New Department of Transportation Commissioner Hank Gutman, who comes to the agency after a long career in intellectual property litigation, went way off script at Wednesday’s e-scooter-share announcement saying that if he had his way, the city and state would pass mandatory helmet requirements for e-scooter (and presumably Citi Bike) riders — a position that flies in the face of science and his own agency’s long history of pushing back on helmet mandates because they discourage cycling and therefore make cyclists less safe.

“We’re tying to be smart about [the e-scooter program],” Gutman told reporters before veering into a debate that has been going on for years. “Helmets. If we could require that everyone uses them, we would. The law does not permit that. … If it was up to me, I’d make it mandatory for everybody. … If the City Council would do that, we’d love to see it. … [Safety] is the key metric we’ll be looking at.”

Reporters were only allowed one on-topic question at the press conference, so Streetsblog burned its question with a follow-up:

Commissioner, we don’t understand where this is coming from. Citi Bike does not have a helmet requirement. As you know, studies show that a helmet requirement would reduce the likelihood that someone would take out a bike or scooter, thereby reducing the strength in numbers of riding a shared vehicle. So are you moving towards a helmet mandate?

Gutman responded that he would “not propose any legislation today,” but he doubled-down on his belief — apparently based on a common misconception that helmet mandates are good because helmets use by individuals is generally good.

“I’m expressing in the stronger terms I know that our preference is for safety,” he said. “And if it is a choice between safety and popularity, I don’t know about you, but I go for safety. A lot of people getting injured is not what we’re aiming for here. And I would guess — I haven’t done a study — that if the mode of transportation proved to be dramatically unsafe, that would make it unpopular, too. I like helmets.”

Most cyclists “like” helmets, but numerous studies show that mandating them dramatically reduces cycling, which not only reduces the safety-in-numbers affect, but also reduces the number of people who advocate for safe infrastructure for cyclists.

And it is a fact that helmet mandates would necessarily involve the police enforcement — and in New York City, that means racially biased enforcement (see jaywalking, riding on the sidewalk and marijuana possession tickets — all forms of targeted harassment of people of color).

Advocates were quick to start hammering Hank for comments seen as ill-informed.

“It seems like every few years we have to waste oxygen discussing mandatory helmet laws,” said activist Doug Gordon, best known from his @brooklyspoke Twitter account and as co-host of the “War on Cars” podcast. “While I would never question someone’s choice to wear a helmet, mandatory helmet laws have been shown to decrease cycling rates and are essentially bike-share-system killers. … Such laws are also cudgels used by the police against people of color and other marginalized people.”

And the sigh from Cory Epstein, spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives, was clear even from an email.

“Can’t believe we have to say this again but helmet mandates are not the answer,” Epstein said. “If you want safe streets, build protected bike lanes and get cars out of the picture.”

It’s not the first time that a de Blasio administration official has made alarming comments about helmet mandates. In fact, the head of the administration — Mayor de Blasio — opined on the subject back in 2019, when the National Transportation Safety Board disregarded the findings of its own staff and voted to recommend helmet mandates for cyclists.

“I think the NTSB is pointing us in the right direction,” the mayor said.

Unlike Gutman, de Blasio acknowledged that helmet laws discourage bike ridership. “I don’t have a magic formula [but] we 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.”

De Blasio’s comments earned outrage from advocates and experts. For one thing, the NTSB board recommendation came after the agency’s staff prepared a lengthy list of recommendations for improving cyclist safety that pointedly 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.

“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,” TA Executive Director Danny Harris said at the time. “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.”

Citi Bike encourages riders to wear helmets, but the Lyft-owned company has opposed helmet mandates because they don’t make riders safer.

“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,” then-spokeswoman Julie Wood told Streetsblog at the time.

Members of the NTSB panel suggested that they were disregarding their own agency’s experts out of a belief in the common sense of helmet laws — something Gutman also evoked in his comments.

Gutman’s comments are a complete break from the position held by former Commissioner (and now U.S. DOT number 2) Polly Trottenberg. Just before the NTSB recommendation, Trottenberg spoke out against helmet laws and in favor of solutions that actually keep cyclists safe: better road design and lower speed limits.

“In cities where … adults [are] required to wear cycling helmets, cycling goes down — particularly for things like Citi Bike,” Trottenberg said.

And Corinne Kisner, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (of which the NYC DOT is a member), said the NTSB recommendation “flies in the face of best practice on bicycle safety.”

Evoking Trottenberg, Gordon said DOT commissioners should not “offload responsibility for safety to individuals.”

“The job is about designing a transportation system where the cost of a mistake isn’t death or catastrophic injury,” he said. “Any discussion of helmet laws is a distraction from the fact that it falls to the Department of Transportation to create streets that encourage cycling for all ages and abilities, no safety gear required.”

And, of course, many cyclists who have been killed over the years — Robyn Hightman, Jose Alzorizz, etc — were wearing helmets at the time of their death by truckers and reckless drivers.

“A styrofoam hat is no match for a box truck or speeding Dodge Charger,” Gordon said.

No state currently has helmet laws for adults.