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Maryland might allow many mopeds on trails, sidewalks, and highways, even for children

Hoping to encourage the sale and use of small motorized bicycles, Maryland's House of Delegates passed a bill allowing anyone to drive some mopeds anywhere a bicycle is allowed, including streets, trails and sidewalks. But did lawmakers understand what this bill will mean?

Photo by Earthworm on Flickr.

If it becomes law, someone could operate even a one-horsepower electric vehicle capable of driving up to 20 mph on trails or many sidewalks in the state, and children could drive one on the highway.

House Bill 205 would give Maryland one of the least restrictive electric bicycle laws in the United States. Maryland currently allows mopeds on streets, but not on trails or sidewalks. As with all motor vehicles, moped drivers must have a license and liability insurance. The bill would dispense with all of these restrictions for mopeds with an electric motor that cuts off when traveling faster than 20 mph.

Like Europe (but not most other states), Maryland would impose no minimum age, require neither a driver's license nor insurance, and allow them on trails and some sidewalks. But unlike Europe, these privileges associated with bicycles would apply for electric bikes with as much as one horsepower.

What is a moped?

Maryland law treats mopeds as a hybrid between motor vehicle and human-powered vehicles. Yet there is a continuum from very small electric motors mainly used to help people up hills, to 1.5 horsepower motors for a vehicle which a human would only propel if it runs out of power. The law must draw a line to define the vehicles that require insurance and a drivers license, from those that require neither and will be allowed to mix with pedestrians on trails and sidewalks.

Americans are still deciding where to draw that line. "I've seen folks try to set it based on size, speed, and horsepower, but there's always a new innovation that makes it unworkable," says a local bicycling advocate. "I want motorized assistance to be available to people, but I don't want people riding primarily motorized vehicles at unsafe speeds on trails." Michael Jackson, a bicycle expert with the Maryland Department of Transportation, says the same standards should apply whether the motor is powered by fuel or electricity.

The European Union draws the line at 250 watts or 1/3 horsepower, which is roughly the amount of power a cyclist can sustain for a few minutes. The power must gradually diminish with speed, and cut off completely at 15 mph. So if the motor is no stronger than a human being (albeit one who does not get tired), the vehicle can be treated as human-powered.

In the United States, the legal patchwork is more confusing, largely because the federal government regulates manufacturing while individual states regulate where and by whom they can be driven. The federal definition of electric bikes is essentially a moped with an electric motor less than 1 horsepower which cuts off at 20 mph.

States can draw the line elsewhere for trails and driver's licenses, but so far they have not. Instead, most states lump both heavy and light electric bikes together, and impose more restrictions than for bicycles but fewer than for motor vehicles. About half the states require a driver's license. Most states have a minimum age and prohibit them on trails and sidewalks.

Steve Carr of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources points out that park managers can issue rules more restrictive than state law: "We will not allow motorized vehicles on our trails, other than motorized wheelchairs."

Did lawmakers understand the bill?

The House of Delegates may not have realized what it was doing. The bill's sponsor, Allegany County Delegate Kevin Kelly, and his witnesses only told the Environmental Matters Committee (MP3, 4.2 MB) that the bill was needed to make state law conform to federal law. But Kelly didn't explain that the federal law deals with consumer protection while the state law addresses who can drive the vehicles, and where.

The bill's only co-sponsor from the Washington area is Delegate Barbara Frush (D-College Park). Reached by phone, her staff could not determine whether she realized what the bill would do.

House Bill 205 does not explicitly declare that children can drive some mopeds on the street. Nor does it say that some mopeds will be allowed on trails or sidewalks. But it allows children to drive mopeds, and for mopeds to go on trails or sidewalks, by changing the definition of a bicycle.

The universally understood definition of bicycle is a two-wheeled vehicle propelled by human power, and the law essentially uses that definition today. Under the new law, the definition of a bicycle will be a two-wheeled vehicle propelled either by human power or by an electric motor with less than one horsepower.

Whether allowing children to drive mopeds on highways was intended or not, it illustrates the problem of accomplishing legislative goals by revising the definition of a commonly understood word like "bicycle" to mean something else. The more straightforward approach would be to define the new class of vehicle and explicitly define its rights and duties.

The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has scheduled a hearing on the bill for March 18. The Committee will also consider House Bill 250, which changes the definition of bicycles to include all mopeds.


Maryland legislative roundup: Return of the bag bill

Maryland's 2014 legislative session began last month. For the state's urban areas, one of the biggest issues is whether to spend the glut of transportation funding on more highways or new transit. But there are also two bills seeking to improve bicycling safety, while legislators will again consider a statewide disposable bag fee.

Photo by Michael Hilton on Flickr.

Disposable bag fee returns

Right now, Montgomery County, Baltimore County, and Baltimore City are allowed to impose a fee on stores giving out disposable bags, though only Montgomery currently does. Two new bills from Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Takoma Park), SB 707 and HB 718, would allow the other 21 counties to charge for disposable bags as well.

This isn't the first time Maryland's attempted a statewide bag fee. Raskin has introduced the bill each year for the past four years.

Bike bills would increase passing distance, outline cyclist rights

Lawmakers have also introduced two bills to promote bike safety. Delegate Jon Cardin (D-Pikesville) submitted HB92, which would strengthen Maryland's current 3-foot passing law by increasing the distance drivers need to pass cyclists to 4 feet. There would be some exemptions, including when the road is too narrow for drivers to leave 4 feet of space.

Delegate Al Carr (D-Kensington) introduced the other bill, HB52, which clarifies that the duties of bicyclists are those defined in Maryland law. The bill would give cyclists the same rights and duties as drivers.

It would require bicyclists to watch for other vehicles in public areas, while drivers would have to watch for bicyclists along highways where bikes are allowed. By clarifying the duty of a bicyclist, this bill would protect cyclists who are riding lawfully from additional or hypothetical responsibilities.

Both bills came up in a committee hearing on January 28th and were not received well. Legislators questioned if the new legislation is necessary at this time. The Washington Post quoted Delegate James Malone (D-Baltimore and Howard counties) as saying that cyclists already "don't pay any attention to the rules of the road."

We'll keep you posted on what happens next.

This post was edited to reflect that only Montgomery County has enacted a bag fee, while Baltimore City and County are authorized to.


Maryland considering mandatory helmets for drivers

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Following a rash of pedestrian-car collisions across the state, Maryland legislators have proposed requiring all drivers to wear helmets. While driving activists are split on the issue, area pedestrians say it's about time drivers took responsibility for themselves.

A driver behaving safely. Photo by joelogon on Flickr.

Yesterday, state delegate Arundela Mills (D-MCDOT) announced that she plans to amend House Bill 339 to require all drivers to wear helmets. The original version of the bill, which has languished in committee, would require adult cyclists to wear helmets.

Delegate Mills notes that the number of cars hit by pedestrians in recent weeks has skyrocketed. In the past month alone, pedestrians walked into cars in Columbia, White Marsh, and Bowie, causing indecipherable damage to vehicles and making their drivers slightly late for work.

And Friday morning, three pedestrians walked into a car driven by Richard Phillips, 38, who was passing through a crosswalk in Germantown on his way to work. Phillips was unhurt, but according to a police report the car's recently-polished grille sustained minor smudges from one pedestrian's bag. The pedestrians all walked away from the scene and have not been charged.

In an interview, Delegate Mills credited the Washington Area Drivers Association (WADA) for the idea. "Helmets will protect drivers from collisions, making it safe to allow drivers on all roads throughout the state," she said. She quoted a study from the Maryland Department of Transportation that found that helmets are the "single best way to avoid head and face injuries."

Driving activists are unsure about the bill's merits. Rental-car agencies note that travelers from out of state rarely pack a helmet, while even members of WADA have distanced themselves from the legislation.

"Studies in Australia show that when helmets are required, driving declines by 35%," said WADA president Penny Farthing. "MDOT is quoting junk science."

In Prince George's County, officials welcomed the proposed legislation. Bai To Hitachi, director of the Department of Public Works & Transportation, noted that cars clearly do not belong on roads meant for pedestrians. "DPW&T cares about public safety and is concerned when members of the community ... knowingly commit acts of high-risk behavior as a mechanism to achieve a public action," Hitachi said.

Hitachi called for additional legislation to require helmets for drivers in parking buildings, where heavy pedestrian traffic puts them in danger. "I'd feel safer walking on the Capital Beltway than driving in the parking building at the New Carrollton Metro Station," he added.

Community leaders look forward to the institution of more helmet laws for any and every situation. "Fifteen years ago I wound up in the intensive care unit of the Georgetown University Hospital neurology department," said Montgomery County Councilmember Flora Noreen. "I don't really know what happened, but I do know that I was not wearing a helmet."

The bill remains in committee and with one week to go before the General Assembly adjourns, opponents of the bill are optimistic that the session will end without action.

In the meantime, police advised drivers in a recent press release to stay alert while crossing sidewalks; to drive cars in bright visible colors or even in reflective paint; to always use controlled intersections; and, before driving, to look left, then right, then left again to check for any pedestrians.

"Parents are the most important models of proper driver behavior for children," said the press release. "Remember, be an engaged driver. It may save damage to your car."


Prince George's considers two new TOD bills

Five months ago, public outcry persuaded Prince George's councilmember Mel Franklin to pull two controversial fast-tracked bills to exempt Metro station developments from site plan review and public meetings. On Wednesday, the council will consider two new, and better, bills.

Photo by MDGovpics on Flickr.

Both bills would streamline the development review process near Metro stations. CB-6-2013, spearheaded by Councilmember Eric Olson (District 3), would apply to proposed developments either in a Transit District Overlay Zone (TDOZ) or within ¼ mile of a Metro station.

CB-12-2013, advanced by Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) chair Franklin (District 9), would apply to proposed developments within ½ mile of a Metro station or a constructed MARC or Purple Line station. The council will consider both bills at a special evening meeting of the PZED committee this Wednesday evening, March 13, at 6 pm.

Both bills appear to have broad support among the council members, although they appear to address the same topic in meaningfully different ways. Eight of the nine council members have signed on to Olson's bill. Councilmember Mary Lehman (District 1) has not yet expressed her support for CB-6. Six of the nine council members have signed on to Franklin's bill. The three who have thus far declined to support CB-12 are Olson, Lehman, and Obie Patterson (District 8).

Unlike the case with Franklin's TOD bills during the 2012 legislative session, these two bills are coming earlier in the session and do not (yet) appear to be on a fast track. Instead, these bills seem to be proceeding at a normal pace through the typical three-step process for passing legislation in Prince George's County:

  1. the first reading (or "presentation") of a bill, where a bill is assigned to a committee for further hearings;
  2. the second reading (or "introduction"), when the amended bill comes out of committee; and
  3. the third reading, after which the committee's bill is debated, perhaps further amended by the full council, and then either put to a vote or referred back to a committee.
CB-6 and CB-12 are both at the initial stage of the process (presentation), so there still should be time for the public to provide meaningful input into the process.

CB-6: Simple and straightforward streamliningbut needs tweaks

The primary goal of CB-6 appears to be the elimination of costly, time consuming, and duplicative development review procedures that apply to certain zones currently in use around Metro stations. In some zones, such as the Mixed-Use Transportation-Oriented (MXT) Zone around the New Carrollton Metro Station, developers have to submit and obtain approval for both a conceptual site plan (CSP) and a detailed site plan (DSP) before building permits can be issued.

In theory, the CSP is supposed to be more preliminary in nature and general in substance than the DSP. For phased projects, the CSP is supposed to outline all of the various proposed stages that a developer anticipates. As a practical matter, though, the CSP and DSP are often extremely duplicative of each otherparticularly for development projects that are proposed in only one phase.

And because the CSP and DSP both call for full public adjudicatory hearings before the Prince George's County Planning Board of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), with all the attendant rights of administrative appeal and review before the District (County) Council and judicial review by the courts, it can take an incredibly long time for developments to get approved.

This, in turn, can create a disincentive for developers seeking to build around Metro stations. After all, time is moneyand wasted time is...well, you get the picture.

CB-6 would alleviate some of this burden by dispensing with the CSP process for "TOD priority projects." Eligible projects would go through only one round of DSP hearings before the Planning Board. The legislation also calls for other agencies, such as the Department of Public Works and Transportation, to expedite TOD priority projects around Metro stations.

The public would have the same full panoply of rights to advance notice and a public adjudicatory hearing that they currently have with respect to DSPs now. Items or issues that would ordinarily be discussed in a CSP (such as overall phasing plans) would be wrapped into the DSP.

CB-6's targeted streamlining approach is generally a good thing. However, the bill needs slight tweaks to ensure that adequate urban design standards are in place to require the type of compact, walkable mixed-use development that should exist in a transit zone. In particular:

  • The bill should apply only at Metro stations where a recent sector or area plan has prescribed specific, form-based building envelope and site standards, along with other architectural and open-space standards applicable to urban areas. Without these standards, the bill's directive that TOD priority projects should "use the best urban design practices" has no real teeth. Generally, any Metro station area plan that was enacted after January 2008 should incorporate these types of standards.
  • The bill should apply not only in Transit District Overlay Zones, but also in Development District Overlay Zones, Comprehensive Design Zones, and Mixed-Use Zones. Given the clunky and non-user-friendly way that the Prince George's Zoning Code has developed over the years, there are multiple types of zones that currently exist around the county's 15 Metro stations. This legislation should reach all of these different zoning types currently in use.

    (The county's form-based Urban Centers and Corridor Nodes Development Code, approved in 2010 and also known as Subtitle 27A, has its own set of expedited development review procedures and should not be covered by CB-6. Currently, however, no Metro station area is covered by Subtitle 27A.)

CB-12: Better than last year's bill, but still problematic

It's clear, from reading CB-12-2013, that Councilmember Franklin has made some attempt to respond to some of the public comments in opposition to last year's bill, CB-79-2012.

For example, similar to Olson's bill (CB-6), CB-12 would require only a Detailed Site Plan review for "expedited TOD projects" constructed within ½ mile of a Metro, MARC, or Purple Line station. (Franklin includes MARC and Purple Line stations that exist at the time the development proposal is submitted.) Additionally, contrary to last year's bill, CB-12 would incorporate a public comment process into the expedited DSP review.

The problem is that CB-12's expedited DSP review process would not facilitate meaningful and informed public participation. Additionally, elimination of an interested party's right to a public adjudicatory hearing before the Planning Board in connection with proposed development projects is likely contrary to state law.

Under CB-12, a developer proposing an expedited TOD project would file an application with the Planning Director (not the Planning Board). The Planning Director or a staff member designee would schedule a "pre-application conference" with the developer, at which time members of the public could appear, hear a presentation from the developer, and offer oral or written comments on the "preliminary project plan" filed by the developer.

The preliminary project plan would be made available to the public via M-NCPPC's website, but only seven days after the scheduled pre-application conference. If you want to see it before the conference, the only option appears to be making a trek out to the Planning Department Office in Upper Marlboro, the county seat.

Nothing about the preliminary project plan is binding on the developer or M-NCPPC. The actual Detailed Site Plan filed by the developer could differ dramatically from the preliminary project plan discussed at the pre-application conference. M-NCPPC staff would post the actual DSP application on a website and accept additional written comments, but would hold no further in-person conferences with the public. Nor would there be any opportunity provided for a formal adjudicatory hearing before the Planning Board.

Within 20-50 days, the Planning Director or a staff member designee would prepare a staff report and final recommendation and file it directly with the District Council. Within the next 25 days, the Council could elect to review the recommendation, or an interested party could file an "appeal" of the Planning Director's recommendation with the District Council. (The word "appeal" is somewhat of a misnomer in this context, since there was never a hearing before M-NCPPC to begin with.)

If an appeal or review is filed, a hearing before the District Council would be scheduled within 30 days, and a final decision would be issued within 15 days thereafter. Barring any appeal or review, the Planning Director's recommendations would become the final decision of the District Council within 25 days after they are filed with the District Council.

Prince George's Planning Board. Photo by M-NCPPC

The above procedure eliminates altogether the involvement of the Planning Board in evaluating DSPs relating to expedited TOD projects. It also eliminates the public's right to a formal adjudicatory hearing before the Planning Board relating to the DSPincluding the right to cross-examine the developer's witnesses under oath, introduce evidence of one's own, and have a decision rendered on the basis of the record developed at the hearing. Although that certainly speeds up the development review process and otherwise makes things easier for developers, it's also quite likely unlawful.

Under a 2012 amendment by the Maryland General Assembly to the Regional District Act (the state law that establishes the M-NCPPC as a bi-county commission covering Prince George's and Montgomery counties), Prince George's County is prohibited from withdrawing its previously-delegated authority to M-NCPPC to decide DSPs unless it is doing so for purposes of re-delegating that same authority to a municipality within the county. Because CB-12 seeks to withdraw the Planning Board's authority to hear and decide DSP cases in the first instance, it probably runs afoul of state law.

Show up at Wednesday's meeting if you can

Whatever your feelings about CB-6 or CB-12, the County Council needs to hear your voice. All too often in Prince George's County, legislative committee meetings are held during normal business hours, thereby depriving most working-age citizens of the opportunity to participate. The result is that those meetings are typically filled with developers, county planning professionals, and occasionally retireeshardly a representative sample of the community.

This time, however, PZED chair Mel Franklin has made good on his promise to hold an evening meeting on these bills, given the high public interest in the issue of Metro station transit-oriented development. Let's honor Councilmember Franklin's decision by turning out in great numbers this Wednesday, March 13, 6 pm, in Room 2027 of the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, MD.


O'Malley unveils transportation funding plan

Yesterday, Maryland governor Martin O'Malley released his proposal to restructure Maryland's gas taxes to raise $3.4 billion for transportation over 5 years. The plan is superficially similar to the recent Virginia transportation funding bill, but improves upon it in several ways.

The Purple Line won't happen without more money. Image from Maryland MTA.

Maryland needs new revenue this year. Without it, the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, and the Baltimore Red Line could all stop moving forward.

The key to the bill is a new 2% wholesale tax on gasoline. Wholesale taxes differ from normal gas taxes in that the gas distributor pays them rather than the consumer. The distributor then usually passes the tax along to consumers via higher prices.

The plan partially offsets this wholesale tax by reducing the normal gas tax, from 23.5¢ per gallon to 18.5¢ per gallon. But the plan would also index the new lower gas tax to inflation, so it would increase slightly each year.

Taken together, overall tax revenue from gas would go up by about 2¢ per gallon as soon as the bill takes effect. In 2014 the 2% wholesale tax will increase to 4%, increasing gas tax revenue by another 9¢

Maryland's bill versus Virginia's bill

Both bills reduce the normal gas tax but add new wholesale gas taxes. But while Virginia plans to reduce its total gas tax and subsidize highway building with revenue from other sources, Maryland's proposal sticks to the principle of transportation user fees.

Unlike Virginia's bill, Maryland's does not include new fees on hybrid car owners, increases to the sales tax, nor any taxes on land or hotel visits.

Like Virginia's bill, Maryland's specifies that if Congress allows states to raise internet sales taxes, Maryland will do so, and will allocate some of it to transportation. If Congress doesn't allow an internet sales tax by 2015 then Maryland's wholesale gas tax will increase from 4% to 6%.

One thing Maryland's proposed bill does that Virginia's does not is to index transit fares on MTA buses and trains to inflation. That will put more burden on transit riders, but will also provide MTA with a more predictable budget.

Since Maryland cannot impose rules on WMATA without agreement from DC and Virginia, WMATA fares will not be indexed to inflation.

Smart Growth advocates are generally more supportive of O'Malley's proposal than the Virginia bill. Montgomery County councilmember Hans Riemer says the bill "appears to be a very strong plan and just what Maryland needs to get big infrastructure projects going."

The bill will undoubtedly face stiff opposition from Maryland Republicans, so its passage is no sure thing. But O'Malley's proposal is co-sponsored by Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, so it is clearly a serious initiative with a real chance of becoming law.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Barry: "Have courage" and pass the Maryland bag fee

Yesterday morning, DC Councilmembers Marion Barry and Tommy Wells went to Annapolis together to brief the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus on the success of DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee, and ask them to support a similar proposal currently before the Maryland General Assembly.

Photo by the author.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act (HB1086/SB576) would mirror the District's Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act and Montgomery County's bag law, which impose a 5¢ charge on all disposable plastic and paper bags retailers give out.

As in DC and Montgomery County, the bill intends to reduce the number of disposable bags shoppers use, and thus reduce litter and water pollution. Grocery stores report giving out 70% fewer bags since the fees took effect.

Delegate Michael Summers (D-Prince George's), a lead sponsor of the bill, introduced Barry as "everybody's mayor," and caucus members and the audience responded with a standing ovation. Barry went on to explain how Councilmember Tommy Wells had convinced him of the need for the bill by taking Barry out to the banks of the Anacostia River and showing just how much plastic bags pollute the river.

Wells provided context and rationale for the bag fee, and called it the "most successful environmental initiative in DC." He described how discount grocery stores like Aldi and Save-a-Lot have never given bags away for free, as part of their commitment to keeping prices as low as possible.

Barry concluded the briefing by urging his Maryland counterparts to "have courage," noting that the "community benefits are worth far more than five cents." After the meeting, Barry committed to further supporting the effort. "We have to do more to educate them," he said.

While the Anacostia River has seen significant reductions in plastic bag pollution, more than half of the river's watershed is in Prince George's County, which does not yet have a bag fee.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act was heard by the Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The next public hearing, before the House Environmental Matters Committee, is scheduled for March 8. In addition to Summers, the bill's sponsors are Delegate Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), and Senator Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery).


Maryland helmet law would make cyclists less safe

On Tuesday morning, the Environmental Matters Committee of the Maryland House of Delegates will hold a hearing on House Bill 339, to require that every person operating a bicycle in Maryland wear a helmet. This bill is bad policy.

Photo by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious on Flickr.

Mandatory helmet laws cause fewer people to bicycle, and when fewer people bicycle, cycling becomes less safe. So much less safe, in fact, that decreased ridership increases the individual cyclist's risk of injury more than wearing a helmet decreases risk of injury.

This does not mean that bicyclists should not wear helmets. We encourage bicyclists to wear helmets. However, there are several reasons why people who are deeply committed to bicyclist safety oppose mandatory helmet laws.

Mandatory helmet laws decrease ridership.

Numerous studies of places that have enacted helmet laws have shown this to be true. The most commonly-cited studyDorothy Robinson's "No Clear Evidence from Countries that have Enforced the Wearing of Helmets"examined data from New Zealand, from Nova Scotia, Canada, and from several states in Australia. In each place, the mandatory helmet law significantly decreased ridership, from 20% to 44% with an average of 37.5%.

(One can debate whether Maryland can expect a decrease of this magnitude. There is no local data available, so this analysis uses the average of 37.5%. But even if the decrease is only 20%, the lowest Robinson observed, even half of that, the result is the same.)

Lower ridership makes bicycling less safe.

We are defining "safety" as the likelihood of a bike-auto crash. By saying that decreased ridership makes bicycling less safe, we mean that a decreased rate of bicycling within a population is correlated with increased crash rates, and vice versa.

The leading article on this topicPeter Jacobsen's "Safety in Numbers: More Walkers and Bicyclists, Safer Walking and Bicycling"reviews data on biking, walking, and injury rates in 68 California cities, 47 Danish towns, 14 European countries, and the United Kingdom.

Across the independent sets of data from these many jurisdictions, Jacobsen finds a consistent, inverse, curvilinear relationship between bicycling and injury rates, determining that "the total number of pedestrians or bicyclists struck by motorists varies with the 0.4 power of the amount of walking or bicycling respectively." Expressed simply, more people biking leads to fewer per capita crashes while fewer people biking leads to more per capita crashes.

Jacobsen also derives a formula for how this affects the individual cyclist: "Taking into account the amount of walking and bicycling, the probability that a motorist will strike an individual person walking or bicycling declines with roughly -0.6 power of the number of persons walking or bicycling." In other words, as more people bicycle, the per capita risk to each bicyclist of a crash decreases; if fewer people bicycle, the per capita risk to each bicyclist increases.

Helmets do not make cyclists as much safer as commonly thought.

For the individual, of course, the story is different. Wearing a helmet is likely safer than not wearing one. This is true for bicyclists; it is also true for people who are skydiving, rock climbing, sitting under an oak tree, or taking a bath. Individually, we make our decisions based on our own risk tolerances and values, and many of us choose to wear helmets and encourage our loved ones to do so.

But at the broader level, where we ought to analyze legislation and public policy, how much safer will a helmet make a person in a bike crash that leads to a head impact? This is a topic of debate and uncertainty, but as research methods improve we move further from some of the magical thinking that took hold due to early estimatesderived from emergency room data rather than population datathat suggested helmet effectiveness rates of 85% and above.

Generally, those estimates came from retrospective studies that looked at people with head injuries in emergency rooms and compared the numbers who lived and died, and whether they were wearing helmets when they were hit. When more recent studies have attempted to compile these data into meta-analyses with more informative sample sizes, their results do not approach the long-accepted 85% level. Some show a smaller effect; others, none at all. In fact, in population-level studies focusing on hospitalization rather than emergency room visits, helmets have no discernible, statistically significant effect on hospitalization rates. (Jacobsen 2012)

Recent studies that have focused on overall health, rather than simply crash mortality rates, have shown that the individual and public health benefits grossly outweigh the costs, by a factor of 20:1. (De Jong 2012)

The mandatory helmet law in Maryland will increase danger for Maryland cyclists.

Assuming that the helmet law will decrease cycling by the 37.5% average in Maryland, the total Maryland cycling population, post helmet law, would shrink to only 62.5% of the current cycling population. Assuming also that Jacobsen's safety-in-numbers effect holds true in Marylandas it has consistently throughout California and across Europethe number of motorists colliding with people bicycling will increase by roughly 17.1% per capita (1-0.6250.4=0.171)

For the individual, these assumptions mean that the likelihood of injury from a crash with a motor vehicle would increase by roughly 33% (0.625-0.6=1.326)regardless of whether the individual wears a helmet. The increased risk comes solely because mandatory helmet laws take people off bicycles, and fewer people on bicycles makes the remaining bicyclists less safe. Substantially.

Maryland does not keep much data on bicycling, but one piece of data that we do have is that in 2010, there were 734 reported bicycle crashes in Maryland. Looking only at this dataand assuming ridership decreases by 37.5% from the helmet law in Marylandwe might expect only 459 crashes instead of 734.

However, this expectation is wrong. Due to the decreasing "safety in numbers," we would instead expect to see 537 crashes, or 78 additional crashes directly attributable to the mandatory helmet law. So even though the total number of crashes might decrease, that is not because the law has made cyclists safer; it is because substantially fewer people are riding bikes, and those that still ride are measurably less safe, because of the law.

Discouraging cycling runs counter to other Maryland priorities.

The state of Maryland has launched, or is poised to launch, two programs dedicated to encouraging cycling. The mandatory helmet law would undermine the success and safety of both.

First, knowing the overall benefits of biking to public health and well-being, transportation, economic development, and other public priorities, the state of Maryland initiated a campaign to get more people riding bikes. Maryland's Department of Transportation introduces the campaign on their website with:

Governor O'Malley's Cycle Maryland initiative is an effort to encourage more Marylanders to get out and ride, and to make bicycling a true transportation alternative. Cycling is a great way to connect to your community, support a cleaner environment, encourage a healthier lifestyle, reduce household transportation costs and enjoy Maryland's magnificent landscape.

With the mandatory helmet law reducing ridership, Maryland will be left with more people to figure out how to move, and will have to treat more people for health problems associated with sedentary lifestyles.

Second, Maryland has contributed funds to expand the popular and successful Capital Bikeshare program to Montgomery County. Due to the nature of bikesharing, users are less likely to wear helmets, more likely to be casual rather than experienced users, and more likely to be operating in urban environments with motor vehicles. So perhaps the legislators proposing this mandatory helmet bill mean to ensure the safety of those riders, before bikesharing arrives in the state?

However, again, consider the data: Capital Bikeshare users have logged over 3.4 million trips, with an approximately 38% lower helmet usage rate than the general population. (Kraemer 2012) There have been zero fatalities and only one head injury. That is roughly one crash for every 88,000 miles ridden! Yet by driving potential cyclists away, a mandatory helmet policy would undermine the likelihood of success of the program in Montgomery County, Baltimore, and other areas statewide.

That safety record speaks for itself and shows that biking is not an inherently dangerous activity. Mandatory bicycle helmet laws falsely portray it as such, and in doing so create a false sense of danger that limits ridership and undermines the many positive impacts of mass cycling for Maryland.

"Contributory negligence" makes the law extra harmful.

And finally, some believe that this law is acceptable and benevolent and will not have these impacts because there is no fine for violation. But this law has other, even more dire consequences for violators.

Maryland, like the District and Virginia, is a "contributory negligence" jurisdiction. That means if the victim of a crash contributed in any way to her own injury, she can claim no civil recovery for her damages. In Maryland, violation of a law is negligence per se.

Thus, it is possible that a cyclist who rides the bus to work on a rainy morning but chooses to take a bikeshare bike home when the weather clears, and suffers permanent brain injury when a drunk driver veers into a bike lane and strikes her, could be denied any civil recovery as a result of not wearing a helmet.

Is this the transportation future we want in Maryland? Is this the sort of public policy we hope to encourage?


In Maryland, we can anticipate a mandatory helmet law to reduce bicycle ridership by 37.5% (along with its accompanying public health, environmental, and economic benefits), per capita crashes to increase by 17%, and the per capita risk of a crash to increase by 33% for every person riding a bike in the state of Maryland, regardless of whether he or she wears a helmet.

In a broader sense, these laws are a form of victim blamingtelling bicyclists that it is our responsibility to avoid the risk of injury by padding ourselves, rather than the state's to design a transportation network capable of moving non-motorists with a decent level of safety and efficiency.

WABA opposes a mandatory helmet law in Maryland because it is bad policy based on accepted, tested, and peer-reviewed datanot just some libertarian philosophy or desire of cyclists to "feel the wind in our hair."

Fundamentally, we do believe that the legislators proposing this mandatory helmet law hope to do what is best for bicyclist safety, but they have significantly erred in determining what will, in fact, be best. They have the power to impose new risks on each of us who rides a bike, even when we wear helmets. We hope they will consider this information seriously and decide that a mandatory helmet law is a bad policy for the state of Maryland.


De Jong, Piet. 2012. The Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws. Risk Analysis. 5 (32): 782-790.

Jacobsen, Peter L. 2003. Safety in Numbers: More Walkers and Bicyclists, Safer Walking and Bicycling. Injury Prevention 9 (3): 205-209.

Jacobsen, Peter L. and Harry Rutter. "Cycling Safety" City Cycling. Ed. John Pucher, Ed. Ralph Buehler. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012. 141-156.

Kraemer, John D., Jason S. Roffenbender, and Laura Anderko. 2012. Helmet Wearing Among Users of a Public Bicycle-Sharing Program in the District of Columbia and Comparable Riders on Personal Bicycles. American Journal of Public Health 102 (8): e23-e25.

Robinson, Dorothy L. 1996. No Clear Evidence from Countries that Have Enforced the Wearing of Helmets. British Medical Journal 332 (7543): 722-725.

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