getting around

Helmet Laws Are Not What New York City Cyclists Need Right Now

People on bikes need protected lanes, not more regulations. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

On a recent morning, State Senator Simcha Felder was traveling down Coney Island Avenue, the miniature highway that slices through the center of his district, when he realized it was too easy for drivers like himself to kill people. “I was driving to work, and I almost killed a cyclist who came out of nowhere and cut me off,” he told the New York Post. “I was so shaken by the experience that I said, Enough is enough.” Felder had long been prepping a series of transportation bills, according to a spokesperson, but the incident spurred him to go public. And even though the lawmaker accurately diagnosed the underlying issue — it is not okay to almost kill someone while driving to work! — his proposed laws address nearly the opposite of the real problem. Instead of a solution that might, say, take street space away from the vehicles that kill, Felder dropped a four-bill package in the New York legislature on Monday attempting to stifle the “growing number of completely unregulated bicycles, e-bikes, electric scooters, and dirt bikes/ATVs” that he claims has turned New York City streets into “the wild, wild West.”

Felder’s plan is dubbed Vision 2.0, a play on Vision Zero, the city’s initiative to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025 (and not, as it may sound like, a scaled-back goal of two deaths per year). The idea is to take the licensing, registration, and safety requirements for the operators of the large and powerful vehicles that are responsible for virtually all traffic deaths and extend those requirements to the operators of the smaller and less powerful vehicles — 24 of whom, it should be noted, were killed by the operators of large and powerful vehicles last year. “New York has a process in place to earn the privilege and responsibility of operating a motor vehicle on our streets. It includes education, licensure, registration, and enforceable safety regulations,” says Felder’s statement. “These bills expand the system currently in place to provide education, responsibility, and accountability for everyone using New York City streets.” Three of Felder’s bills (some of which he has proposed before) would require all of New York City’s bike and scooter riders to wear a helmet and carry a license and a registration, including a plate that’s prominently displayed on their vehicle. (The fourth bill is, in fact, an okay idea. It would require the DMV to add bike and scooter awareness to the driver’s-ed exam, but it’s unclear why it was introduced now when an identical bill has already passed in the State Senate.)

At first glance, these bills seem like a decent idea: If everyone has to follow the same rules, surely streets would be safer, right? But simply regulating motorists doesn’t necessarily prevent deaths. The Department of Transportation’s analysis of crash data from 2020 — when we had the highest number of road deaths in 13 years — shows that the two top contributors to the staggeringly high figures were impaired driving and speeding. Surely all the regulations for operating a car or a truck were the same in 2020 as they were in 2019. So why the stark increase in deaths? Because it was the streets themselves — the overly wide, lockdown-emptied roads — that encouraged such deadly driving.

Adding regulations for cyclists and scooter riders is an idea that continues to surface perennially at the local, state, and even the federal level. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who only recently learned how to use his city’s own bike-share system, has previously proposed helmet laws (and licensing laws and registration laws) as part of his own unfounded claims that more bikes make streets unsafe. Despite the obvious concerns about how such laws might be enforced — which will almost certainly mean even more harassment of lower-income New Yorkers who rely on bikes for work — study after study has proven that adding more requirements deters biking and scooting and, in fact, ends up making streets less safe by nudging people into cars instead. Bike-share, in particular, with its extremely low barriers to entry (no vehicle to purchase, no gear required) has proven itself to be one of the greatest transportation success stories in U.S. history precisely because it encourages inexperienced riders to give it a go. It’s also one of the safer modes of getting around. The average cyclist death rate is 21 deaths per 100 million trips; as Citi Bike surpassed 100 million trips last summer, there have only been two deaths on the system, something that many researchers have attributed to new bike lanes that accompanied the system’s expansion.

In fact, that’s the only proven way to prevent drivers from killing people on bikes (or e-bikes, or scooters, or dirt bikes, or ATVs): traffic-calming infrastructure that creates protected paths for everyone not in a car, while forcing everyone in a car to slow down. Such infrastructure would, for example, dramatically decrease the likelihood that anyone would be killed using the almost-three-mile stretch of Coney Island Avenue within Felder’s district, which, during a one-year period from 2018 to 2019, saw a total of 578 crashes — a stunning 1.6 crashes per day. This part of Coney Island Avenue is also where one of the most horrific cyclist deaths in recent city memory occurred, when an 18-year-old driver who was eventually charged with manslaughter sped at 61 miles per hour through a red light, T-boning an SUV that careered across an intersection, killing Jose Alzorriz as he waited on his bike for the light to change. Alzorriz — who was wearing a helmet, not in motion, and the only person in the crash who didn’t have a license or registration to operate his vehicle — was the only person to die.

The legislative session ends on June 10, which makes it very unlikely that any of Felder’s bills will pass, and despite de Blasio’s approval of such laws locally, most New York City mayoral candidates have shrugged off similar suggestions as well. Meanwhile, eight bills known as the Crash Victim Rights & Safety Act, with policies that have been widely proven to reduce traffic deaths — some of which Felder has not shown support for in the past — are currently making their way through the state legislature. If Felder truly wanted to eliminate the possibility that politicians like himself might kill a cyclist on their way to the office, he would back the Crash Victim Rights & Safety Act, mandate protected bike lanes on all arterial streets in his district, and propose a law that all New York City elected officials commuting to work are required to ride the subway.