A. Austin, Texas
Jurisdiction: City of Austin.
Effective date: May 19,1996; modified October 1997.
Ages covered: Originally all ages, then amended to ages 17 and under.
Penalty: Under original ordinance: Fine for first offense: $50; subsequent offenses, $100.
Legislative language is reprinted in Section VIII A., page 108.
Austin, Texas’ state capitol, is described as an urban/suburban community, economically, ethnically and racially diverse. Austin’s population as of January 2000 was 642,994: 54.5 percent white, 28.4 percent Hispanic, 11.5 percent black and 5.6 percent Asian and other.
Austin has an active bicycling community. One expert said: “There are very strong bicycle riding advocates here in town. Bicycles are widely used in this community, both for getting around and recreational purposes.” Several observers mentioned that bicycling champion Lance Armstrong’s presence in Austin has had a strong influence. “Lance Armstrong coming from here has done a lot to promote bicycle safety” and bicycling.
Researching Austin’s experience in moving from an all-rider to a minors-only bicycle helmet use law reveals a variety of areas where community members differ, on the process, on the enforcement, and on the effectiveness of the law.
Knowledgeable observers of and participants in the adoption and implementation of the community’s bicycle helmet use law hold a spectrum of opinions and interpretations about the law. These differing perspectives at times even involved disagreement about factual matters.
At least two safety professionals, when asked about the Austin law, replied, “it was repealed several years ago.” One of them, when pressed, clarified that the law had not been fully repealed, but it covered “only children.” Another, who stated, “we don’t have that law any more in Austin,” also said that the partial repeal was as significant as a full repeal. Others see the bicycle helmet use law as in place and working, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Impetus For Legislation:
In late 1995, the Travis County Bicycle Helmet Coalition was created to pursue a bicycle helmet use ordinance in Austin. The group was formed through the Austin SAFE KIDS coalition. The Austin/Travis County Health & Human Services Department was implementing a “Helmet Power” initiative promoting helmet use, under a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The city’s “Helmet Power” employee was a key member of the bicycle helmet coalition. Other members included a paramedic and the head of the Head Start program. The group also received support from the county’s EMS director.
Bicycle helmet supporters in the state had been trying to get a state law passed, without success, so this new coalition decided to focus on a local goal.
One of the first things that the coalition did was to set up meetings with members of the city council. In these meetings, coalition representatives “presented the city council members with a lot of statistics evidence, anecdotal reports,” said one coalition member. “We put together a packet that had information on the number of head injuries, deaths, helmet effectiveness. We tried to get as much local data as we could.”
Several other factors aided their effort. In 1995, the city of Houston had adopted a bicycle helmet use law for children under the age of 18. Austin’s mayor and a city council member both had relatives who had suffered head injuries (although not bike-related) so they understood first-hand the burden that head injuries place on the victim, the family and the community.
Bicycle helmet use law proponents cited the involvement of emergency medicine professionals, the local SAFE KIDS coalition and other local children’s groups (primarily led by doctors) as very helpful in the introduction of the proposal.
The Bicycle Helmet Environment And Existing Efforts:
In 1994, the city of Austin had launched “Helmet Power,” mentioned above, an “intensive” program to increase bicycle helmet use, staffed by a health department employee and funded by a CDC grant.
The program involved “doing education in the schools, giving away helmets,” according to a former staff member. “It was an intensive program. We gave away 6-7,000 helmets in two years.”
The bicycle helmet give-away programs were “concentrated in under-served neighborhoods.”
Brackenridge Hospital, at that time city-operated, participated through the SAFE KIDS coalition and worked in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) programs and the Texas Department of Health Safe Rider programs. They held events such as school health fairs, bicycle rodeos, and SAFE KIDS coalition events where activities included distributing bicycle helmets.
The city program was also conducting bicycle helmet surveys throughout the community to track changes in usage. According to these surveys, bicycle helmet use at the beginning of the program was 18 percent among children ages 5-14 and 68 percent among adults. (See Chart 1, “Bicycle Helmet Usage Rates in Austin.”)
When asked about the high rate of bicycle helmet use by adults (often higher than that of children) as observed in these surveys, one DHHS employee hypothesized: “We have a pretty well educated community here, I guess adults are just more aware. We have an active cycling community, a lot of recreational cyclists. I think most of those serious recreational cyclists wear helmets. People who ride with cycling clubs, teams, avid cyclists” may be more likely to wear bicycle helmets and “that may contribute.”
The Legislative Experience:
Supported by the local bicycle helmet coalition, the mayor and a council member agreed to introduce and support a bicycle helmet use ordinance. City resources were sustaining an active bicycle safety program that promoted bicycle helmet use.
Two participants in the process had different recollections of the next steps in the process under which the all-rider ordinance emerged.
According to one activist, the coalition members “used the Houston ordinance as kind of a model, and reworded it to include adults. We presented the idea to the council members, and they took and ran with it. They were all for it (an all-rider ordinance), to our surprise.”
In the ordinance’s initial passage, “there was no process of debate. We spoke with city council, and they ran with it. Everybody (supporting the ordinance) was pushing for an all-ages ordinance, not thinking we were going to get it. We were ready to go to a child-only. (The council) said, yeah, we need it for all ages.” There was a brief hearing the day it was passed and several ordinance supporters “were allowed to speak on the day it came up for council action.”
Another activist recounted that the council was presented with a proposal “based on a minors-only ordinance in Houston. The Council, without me knowing it, wrote it as a universal ordinance (changing it from a minors-only law). They slipped it in on a consent agenda, indicating there was no controversy. They had us (bicycle helmet use law supporters) talk for about 45 minutes and passed it.” This observer said that the resulting ordinance was one that some bicycle helmet proponents “didn’t intend” and that this unannounced switch was “what irritated the cycle activists the most.” Both observers agree the process of passage was relatively brief, and that opposition to the all-rider ordinance emerged after passage.
Hearings on the ordinance were held after its May 1996 passage but before the end of the 90-day “grace period” when the ordinance specifically allowed warning notices. Strong opposition to the ordinance emerged at these hearings. Additionally, “every week during public comment,” opponents would “sign up to speak before the city council why the ordinance wasn’t good,” remembered one observer.
One organization, “Citizens for Cycling Freedom,” was formed to oppose the ordinance. Observers said that opposition to the ordinance “was really getting organized” around the time when the all-rider ordinance went into effect. According to one activist, some opponents may have been “okay with a child-only helmet law, but for the most part, opponents were against any helmet law period.”
The next city council election occurred several months after the all-age law was in effect. As the election approached, opponents to the all-rider law “leaned all over the candidates” to change the law, according to one observer, who described the unfolding of the political process as “fairly typical.” Ordinance opponents “tried to get it repealed.” However, “the city council wouldn’t go that far.” The next session, “the city council went back and had it put back to a kid-only law. A lot of candidates went in thinking they would repeal it, but they only rolled it back.”
The October 1997 change to a minors-only law took effect immediately.
Constituencies And Arguments Pro And Con:
Bicycle helmet supporters cited a variety of helpful factors in convincing city council members to back the ordinance: statistical evidence, anecdotal reports, the leadership of elected officials, and the involvement of emergency medicine professionals.
Bicycle helmet use law supporters agreed that the statistics that lawmakers found the most persuasive were “local and statewide injury data” – “traumatic brain injury (TBI) statistics” – not fatality data. Area bicycle fatalities are low, “averaging about 2.4 per year, and did not seem to be a real pressure point,” according to one activist.
In the debate, this observer said, “lots of data were presented but it was not a critical item.” What he believed to be more helpful was anecdotal information, such as the crash survivor who testified before the city council meeting.
The local SAFE KIDS coalition and other children’s groups continued their support of the proposal. The executive director of the local HeadStart project had contacts on the city council and was also a bicyclist.
Involvement by emergency medicine professionals and by pediatricians was cited as being very helpful. “A lot of doctors and others were involved. The head of emergency medical service (EMS) in Austin (the Medical Director of Austin/Travis County EMS) known as ‘Dr. Ed,’ a young doctor, very aggressive doctor, was on our side,” recalled one proponent. “One of the council members’ pediatricians told him it was something that had to pass. We had a kid testify who had gone over the hood of a car with a helmet on; we had a lot of those people.”
One injury prevention expert spoke on behalf of the SAFE KIDS coalition, Brackenridge trauma services (the local public hospital at the time), and the Emergency Nurses Association.
“On the other side, we had doctors stand up and say this is not a public health problem” because “there weren’t enough bicycle injuries to represent a public health issue.”
One concern that emerged was “how to find helmets for the kids who can’t afford them.”
As described elsewhere, substantial efforts were undertaken to meet this need before and after the bill’s adoption.
The most influential arguments made by those who opposed the legislation were summarized as: “personal rights -- always big in Texas,” “we don’t need more laws to dictate how we conduct our private life,” and “helmets would reduce (bicycle) ridership.”
The main opponents of the legislation were “local bicycle activists between (the ages of) 25-35,” according to a former city employee, although another observer indicated the opposition didn’t emerge until after the passage of the ordinance: “Twenty-something transportation cyclists organized to oppose the ordinance when they discovered it passed.”
City leaders appeared to respond to the argument that the all-ages ordinance could decrease the amount of bicycling. In modifying the ordinance, the city council prefaced the language to roll back the age coverage with: “In recognition that punitive bicycle helmet laws may reduce ridership and to encourage the use of helmets through non-punitive means . . .”
Phase-In To Implementation:
The original law was adopted by the city council in May 1996, with a 90-day “grace period” allowing for warning notices rather than fines. The ordinance was modified to “minors-only” in October 1997.
Promotions specifically mentioned in connection with the implementation of the law included bicycle safety classes, bike rodeos, and appearances at health fairs reaching about 10,000 children and their parents per year.
As one person put it: “We held bike safety classes for the general public, and had the media promote those. Then we were giving away helmets in schools and at events that people in the community would organize. Currently, we do a whole lesson on helmets that is part of a comprehensive bicycle safety curriculum” that many grade school children in Austin receive.
Bicycle safety activists report that bicycle helmet give-away efforts are ongoing. One activist describes the enthusiasm for and versatility of this activity: “Real estate agents give them away. The Texas Medical Association statewide has a program, ‘Hard Hats for Little Heads,’ which is a source of bicycle helmets through the county medical associations. I can go to my medical association, say I’m doing a program for kids and I need 50 helmets, the helmets will show up. We just did a ride in Austin and raised enough money for 1,000 helmets through a local cycling club. Lots of people will put up money for helmets. It’s a good cause.”
Another observer said that “some of the officers, especially those associated with the schools,” promoted education activities, adding that some in the bicycle patrol “were active in education, especially at health fairs. The pediatricians and the real estate associations donated helmets to the police department community stations. Those helmets were available for kids who didn't have one.” However, he agreed there was “relatively little coordination with law enforcement agencies.”
A bicycle safety activist described one other step in the implementation of the law: a meeting with the Austin Police Department to encourage the enforcement of all traffic laws, including the bicycle helmet use law, for cyclists. Representatives of the health and police departments, and other departments such as public works, met “to discuss the helmet ordinance and ticketing. We wanted them to enforce the law.” Health & Human Services Department (HHS) bicycle safety employees urged increased enforcement of laws for bicyclists, but they didn’t see a change in enforcement by the police department.
Bicycle Helmet Use Law Enforcement:
The penalty language of both versions of the city’s ordinance includes this provision, which emphasizes bicycle helmet use over punitive actions:
“The purpose of this article is to encourage the use of helmets. In keeping with that purpose, the municipal courts are urged to consider deferred dispositions under Article 45.54 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure whenever the circumstances warrant deferred dispositions.”
Knowledgeable observers disagree about the impact of enforcing the all-rider version of the ordinance and about concerns raised by some regarding recent enforcement of the law. In the words of an injury prevention expert who supports greater enforcement of the existing ordinance: “When the (all ages) ordinance was first passed, law enforcement wrote a lot of tickets for ‘no helmet’ in that first period. Then once the ordinance was modified to include only children 17 and under, that number went down to fewer than two or three per year. They were writing adult tickets for no helmets while they could.”
Another activist was critical of the ordinance’s enforcement during the time period when the all-rider provisions were in effect. “I don’t know if anyone has looked at the citations given that year; but that was a bad scene. There was no upper echelon pressure to enforce the law and the courts were not consistent in the penalties they handed down.”
The injury prevention expert pointed out that once the ordinance was changed to children only, police officers said that if they stopped a child younger than 14, “they would have to write the ticket to their parents.” This complication thus kept officers from writing citations. The police department “is supposed to but does not write tickets for the offense,” in the words of this bicycle helmet use law supporter.
When asked about enforcement efforts or policies, a police department spokesperson said: “We have 42 traffic fatalities a year so our focus is on educating drivers. We’ve had only two or three accidents this year with bike fatalities, all of them caused by a vehicle. As far as issuing tickets (for non-helmet use), I don’t think that’s a big priority for our officers. If an officer sees it, if he has time, he will say ‘hey, where’s your helmet?’” He agreed that not a lot of citations for violating the ordinance are issued, “not that we don’t feel it’s important, it’s more of a time, resource issue.”
One bicycle helmet proponent said that police officers don’t understand the need for a bicycle helmet use law. They “don’t think there is a reason for a police officer to enforce a helmet law; it just gets kids angry at them.”
But rather than issue citations, this activist would rather that officers would take an un-helmeted child to the station to get a bicycle helmet, fit them with a helmet, and then send the child home with a note to the parents encouraging bicycle helmet use.
One Emergency Medical Services (EMS) professional believes that the law enforcement community has been visible in promoting bike safety in the media in connection with a few “dramatic” local bike crashes in recent years, using the crashes “to highlight need for a variety of things including a helmet.”
Complicating the enforcement of the law, some individuals have released statistics about the citations charging improper enforcement; others disagree.
One long-time bicycling activist and bicycle helmet supporter said: “In three (3) years, a total of 13 citations have been issued. Those citations were all issued to kids more than 15 years of age; 12 were Hispanic or black; 10 or 11 were at night. This ordinance was not being enforced the way we had expected it to be enforced. It was being used as a cause to pick somebody up in the barrio at night. You can’t tell me that 12-year-old kids aren’t riding without helmets on the white side of town.” According to this activist, when these concerns were raised with the police chief, “he told his officers if you won’t do it (enforce the law) right, don’t do it,” and enforcement stopped.
However, an injury prevention expert deeply involved in the law reviewed the citations issued and found that the alleged pattern of selective enforcement “was not the case. I looked at it myself and got the data from the municipal court” that showed the racial and ethnic background of those cited. “The number of tickets issued was proportional” to the city’s population, broken down by race and ethnic group. (See Charts 2 and 3, “Ethnic Breakdown of Bicyclists Receiving Citations for Riding Without Bicycle Helmet, ” see charts below).
According to this bicycle helmet supporter, people who opposed the bicycle helmet use ordinance “made some statements that were not correct,” and these statistics were presented as “one of their main arguments” in their efforts to get the bicycle helmet use law repealed.
Effectiveness Of The Law:
The Health & Human Services Department is responsible for overseeing evaluation of the bicycle helmet use law and conducts observational surveys of bicycle helmet use. The survey is structured to obtain a representative sample from the entire community. Observations are made both at schools and local cycling areas, including some made while roaming neighborhoods to "catch" cyclists.
The surveys have found a 316 percent increase in bicycle helmet use among children ages 5 to 14 (see Chart 1, “Bicycle Helmet Usage Rates in Austin,” page 36). Bicycle helmet use appears to be relatively high in the community in the years surveyed. Observed bicycle helmet use by adults often exceeded observed use by children.
One activist noted: “Helmet use in the city varied by area, age and economic level, ranging from 12 percent (for children under 15 in some underserved neighborhoods) up to as high as 80 percent among regular recreational club bicyclists. During the time the law has been in effect this 12 percent use rate (among children under 15) increased to 46 percent.”
According to the Health & Human Services Department, there has been no change in bicycle fatalities in the jurisdiction since the law took effect. Another observer says that there has been a slight decline in fatalities, but it is “statistically insignificant. They have gone down but with only 2.4 per year it is hard to claim helmet use as the cause.”
Table 1, “Admissions to Brackenridge Hospital for Bicycle-related Injuries,” provides admissions for bicycle crashes at Austin's trauma hospital. It compares inpatient admissions for all bicycle crash-related injuries to bicycle crash-related head injuries. The numbers are relatively small and may not be statistically significant, but they may indicate a decrease in the rate of head injuries among those admitted.
Inpatient admissions for bicycle crashes at Austin’s Trauma Hospital, Brackenridge, increased slightly in 2000. This increase, however, could be attributed to Austin’s growth rate and the related increase in traffic. While actual numbers of head injuries have also increased slightly, the rate of head injuries among those admitted has actually declined. This could be attributed to increased helmet use among those admitted. Brackenridge does track use of a protective device by the patient, but admits that this data could be unreliable; i.e. if the admitting nurse does not see a helmet when the patient is admitted, the report would show that the patient was unhelmeted.
A flight medic on STARFlight, the air medical component of the Austin-Travis County EMS System, said, “We see a number of severely-injured people in accidents. We have noted a definite decrease (in bicycle crash-related head injuries). A lot of people will give us the helmet, where we are able to show this is the helmet, this is the damage to the helmet, and this person is talking to you.” Whereas, the medic says, the person without a helmet is not conscious, has suffered more severe injuries, and “is not talking to you.”
The Health & Human Services Department also reports a reduction in motor vehicle/bicycle crashes since the law took effect.
The EMS professional also notes other factors to be taken into account that may affect these numbers. The community also has improved bicycle facilities in recent years: “more bike lanes, wider bike lanes, restricted roads.”
When asked if the law is effective, one bicycling activist who is critical of some aspects of the ordinance says: “I think it should still stay on the books. It gives parents a great lever. One of the biggest benefits of passing a law is giving a tool to a parent . . . it gives a parent the opening to talk about it. When you explain to a kid as young as nine or ten years old that it’s against the law, they’re much more likely to wear a helmet.”
Bicycle helmet use law proponents believe the existing law, if properly enforced, has community support. “I think community members would like to see greater enforcement,” said one.
The city of Austin undertook its evaluation of the bicycle helmet use law as part of the CDC grant for its program to promote bicycle helmets. The grant provided funds for observers to conduct helmet use surveys. One observer suggested the evaluation could be improved through adding a review of injuries and fatalities pre- and post-law and a review of tickets issued for all types of bicycle infractions pre- and post-law.
When asked about the factors involved in evaluation efforts, an injury prevention expert said undertaking an evaluation is “not difficult, just time consuming and expensive. The protocols are well known and effective.” To undertake an evaluation, this expert advises: “You have to know the community well enough to know where to look for people with bikes. You need to go about it systematically and try to get a sample population that will reflect as closely as possible the entire population. You just have to find the cyclists, find the different age groups, types of cyclists. You’re going to look for recreational cyclists at a different place than transportational cyclists, look for children in a different place than adults.” This expert continued: “We tried to make an honest effort in trying to get the best survey results we could with what we had. I enlisted the help of volunteers, members of the SAFE KIDS Coalition, coworkers, crossing guards at specific schools that we surveyed. It’s very time consuming.”
The county’s bicycle helmet program has encountered challenges in obtaining injury data. “The data we have gotten from (the local trauma center) has been very difficult to obtain.” The number of bicycle injuries resulting in hospital admissions is low, so that data would probably not be statistically significant. This expert believes emergency department data would be much more valuable, however, “as far as emergency room visits, you can’t get that (data) at all.”
When asked what could have been improved to more effectively support bicycle helmet use, one bicycle safety expert said: “Greater enforcement would make a difference.”
Another individual proposed changing the ordinance to cover children “under 16 years of age (not 18)” and changing the penalties so that acquisition of a bicycle helmet would “automatically waive the ‘criminal’ penalty and wipe it off the record. Enforcement must be aimed at getting children in helmets and not at penalizing them for not wearing helmets.”
This activist also expressed concerns about the potential burden of a bicycle helmet use law requirement on low-income families, and of the need to combine education with an ordinance. “If you educate and provide helmets, then a law can work, but a law by itself, like what happens in Austin, when there’s no way for kids to get helmets, when families can’t even afford five or six dollars a kid, and not educating them, it doesn’t work.”
Other suggestions included: