On the Wednesday in May 1996 when the Dallas City Council passed a law requiring bicyclists of all ages to wear a helmet, dozens of helmet-clad kids from Kramer Elementary burst into applause, according to The Dallas Morning News report the next day.
They apparently hadn't heard of bike share.
"This mandatory helmet ordinance is going to prevent us from having a successful bike share program, which is something we need for a lot of reasons," Councilman Philip Kingston said at this morning's meeting of the council's Quality of Life Committee.
City officials weren't thinking much about bike share in 1996. Among the four dissenting votes were Councilwoman Donna Blumer, who objected to the Big Brother nature of a helmet law, and Mayor Ron Kirk, who was hesitant to criminalize kids for not wearing helmets.
The measure passed on the strength of safety concerns. Helmets protect cyclists from serious head injuries, a fact stressed during the council's debate by leading public health advocates, like the head of the trauma department at Parkland Hospital.
That fact hasn't changed. The question the council faces now is whether a rarely enforced municipal ordinance is an effective way to promote helmet usage and whether the benefits of repeal outweigh the injuries that might possibly result.
With bike share, Kingston says, the benefits are extensive. It will encourage residents to get outside, allow visitors to easily navigate the urban core and catch Dallas up with peer cities like Fort Worth and San Antonio, which have thriving bike share networks.
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Without repeal of the helmet ordinance, the city would probably have to offer bike helmet rentals like they do in Vancouver, the only other North American city with both a bike share program and a helmet ordinance. Such a program would add $750,000 to $1 million to the cost of a bike share pilot in Dallas, Kingston said, and probably wouldn't work. People don't like wearing used bike helmets -- "it's like bowling shoes for your head" -- so the likely outcome is that the ordinance would just be ignored.
Committee members were generally receptive, so long as the helmet mandate remains in place for kids 17 and under. Adam Medrano, Rick Callahan and Lee Kleinman enthusiastically supported repeal. Carolyn Davis and committee chair Dwaine Caraway were more reserved, wanting to re-examine the public health implications of repealing the bike helmet ordinance before they make a decision.
Caraway scheduled another discussion for May 12, with the coda that "there's strong consideration at this point for us to scrap the bicycle helmet ordinance."
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.