Dallas’s bike helmet law, which required everyone riding a bike in the city to wear a helmet, has long been controversial: In 2010, a cyclist sued the city in federal court, claiming that the ordinance was unconstitutional, and the Texas Transportation Code requires lights and reflectors, but not helmets, and it doesn’t allow for cities to create further restrictions. Still, the helmet law was in place for years, and the occasional federal challenge was not enough to dissuade city lawmakers from keeping it in place.

Last week, however, Dallas City Council decided that it was time to relax the ordinance. As the Dallas Morning News reports

The City Council on Wednesday partially repealed its bicycle helmet ordinance, which required all cyclists to wear one. Officials have debated for weeks whether to loosen the requirements as a way to encourage more cycling and launch a bike sharing program.

Council members disagreed once again over how far the city should go in rolling back the rules.

Some, such as Philip Kingston, pushed for total repeal. Others, such as Sandy Greyson, suggested that only children 13 years old or younger should have to wear helmets. Vonciel Jones Hill said the rules shouldn’t change at all.

And even as they reached a compromise on loosening the regulations – settling on a requirement that bikers ages 17 and younger wear helmets – officials stressed that they still want cyclists to take safety precautions.

“Kids, wear helmets,” said Mayor Mike Rawlings, who voted for the partial repeal. “Adults, wear helmets. … If there is any question, we believe in helmet-wearing.”

Dallas’s bike helmet ordinance was passed in 1996 as a way to improve cycling safety.

Dallas relaxed the rules in order to encourage casual riders to participate in the city’s forthcoming bikeshare program. Similar programs exist in Austin and San Antonio, but it’s harder to convince people to rent a bike for the day if they also have to head to the sporting goods store to purchase a helmet first. The compromise, which still requires helmets for teenagers, is a much more common one (Austin, Fort Worth, and Houston, among others, already have similar laws on the books). 

Of course, helmet-wearing is a good idea for cyclists in most situations, but laws that require them can have unintended consequences: casual cyclists can be less tempted to take up bike-riding as a hobby if the barrier to entry requires purchasing additional equipment to meet legal requirements, and while it’s certainly valid to encourage people to be as safe as possible on the streets, the effectiveness of bike helmets is not as cut-and-dry as, say, the effectiveness of seat belts. Studies have shown that helmet usage can actually increase the risks taken by cyclists and motorists, and the concerns are probably valid enough to make repealing a one-size-fits-all law worthwhile. 

Still, just because you aren’t legally required to wear a bike helmet (assuming you’re over 17 years of age) doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. Helmets may not be 100% effective, but they can prevent or minimize the damage from the most egregious head injuries. There are a lot of things that go into safe cycling besides just wearing a helmet. While there’s an argument that says that focusing laws on helmets exclusively disincentives learning not to ride on sidewalks or to never stop in the blindspot of a car at a red light, that’s no reason for individual cyclists not to wear them in most scenarios. 

For minors, meanwhile, there’s still no question that helmets are required. That’s probably the right call, but it’s also one that is unlikely to see much enforcement. As the Morning News reports: 

Looking at fiscal years 2011-2013, only 15 bike helmet citations were given out to those under 17. That accounts for less than 2 percent of the nearly 1170 citations given out in that time. (It’s not clear why the stats don’t reflect the 17 and under barrier in the new ordinance, but the overall picture is still pretty evident.)

It could mean that the helmet ordinance is an effective deterrent for younger bikers, which was the view of most council members. 

In any case, you should probably wear a helmet while biking around Dallas, even though now you don’t have to. 

(image via Flickr)