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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Citizen Dave: Bike helmets are only part of the safety answer
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In this week's Isthmus, Erik Ness has written a fascinating piece on the great bike helmet controversy. It's well worth reading.

I'm a bike helmet agnostic myself. After going through a helmetless period, I now wear one on a daily basis. I concluded, with help from my wife, that whatever sense of freedom I felt by not wearing a helmet wasn't worth the risk of brain injury in the unlikely event of a crash.

But I am not a helmet evangelist.

On a broad population basis, it's not clear how much helmets help, but what is clear is that there is safety in numbers. The more people out there riding, the safer it is for everyone. For example, in Portland's downtown area bike riding has increased 300% while the number of crashes has gone up only 14%. In other words, cycling is now much safer per mile ridden with a lot more bikes on the streets.

The best way to get more folks to ride is to provide them with safe facilities. A recent study in Portland found that about 7% of bike riders there are confident and fearless. They'll bike anywhere anytime. Another third of the population will never get on a bike to save their lives. But 60% of Portlanders are "interested but concerned." That is, they'd like to ride more, but they're concerned for their safety.

That's Portland, but it seems to me those numbers would hold up in most places, especially here in Madison.

So, the very best thing we can do for bike safety is to build the infrastructure that makes people feel and be safe -- and so more people will ride.

I'm pleased to say that's happening big time here in Madison and in a lot of other places. When I was mayor, we established a five year $50 million program to upgrade pedestrian and bike facilities, and we began the installation of bike boxes, bike boulevards, contra-flow lanes and green pavement markings. To his credit, Mayor Paul Soglin, a cyclist himself, has continued those efforts.

This is exactly the same strategy we've used as a society to lower the number of car crashes. We've learned how to engineer roads to make them safer. We haven't put the entire onus for safety on the driver. We've spent billions doing this, and it has worked extremely well. In 1922 there were 240 deaths per billion miles traveled by car. Today it's about ten. Why not do the same for bikes?

Infrastructure is key because it's always there 24/7. But there’s more we can do. Respect for the safety of bikers and pedestrians should be an emphasis in drivers ed programs. The bike industry should step up the marketing of lower, slower, safer city bikes just as the car industry has steadily improved the safety of their vehicles. The typical drop handle bar ten-speed is great for rural road riding, but not all that great for city commuting.

If you asked me my advice, I'd say wear a helmet. But what's really important is that we do what we know will make cycling safer for everybody.

Have a good weekend. Go do some biking!

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