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To Wear or Not to Wear a Helmet

September 29, 2012

One of the easiest ways a non-cyclist can annoy a cyclist is to say, “Bicycling is so unsafe. I just hate those people who run stoplights or don’t wear a helmet.” While children are not responsible enough to decide whether or not to wear a helmet, implying that an adult is incapable of making a decision about his or her own safety is condescending. I think riding in a car without a seatbelt is incredibly unsafe, but I don’t randomly criticize strangers who aren’t part of the conversation about it. In addition, wearing a helmet is fundamentally different from blatantly ignoring traffic signals. While those behaviors often put drivers, pedestrians, and other bicyclists at risk, wearing a helmet or not is a purely personal choice.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a vigorous debate in the cycling community about whether or not to wear helmets, the flames fanned by laws both fictional and real requiring adult cyclists to wear helmets. Personally, I (almost) always wear a helmet when biking. (Mom, you didn’t see that “almost.”)  There are some legitimate arguments against helmets, so here are my personal responses. (And yes, I’ve heard all of these arguments in some form or another in blogs and/or their comment sections.)

1) Many cyclists in Europe don’t wear helmets, and they have a lower rate of bicyclist injuries and fatalities, showing that helmets are useless.
These points are both true, but they aren’t necessarily related. The main reason cyclists in Europe have lower rates of injury and fatality is because there are more of them. The more cyclists are on the road, the more drivers expect them and the fewer accidents occur. In addition, it seems to me that the average European bike commuting speed is far more leisurely than most Americans who bike for transportation. That’s why they can get away with not wearing fancy bike-specific clothes more often – cycling in dress slacks and skirts is easier the slower you bike. In contrast, I have to ride at least 10 mph on average, including lights, to get to work at a reasonable time. Despite that, most bike commuters here leave me in the dust. If I’m riding 12-18 mph and hit a pothole without a helmet, the impact is going to be much worse than if I started at a lower velocity. I know I could go slower, but I enjoy zipping along!

2) A helmet won’t help you if you’re hit by a car, or even worse, a truck or bus.
It’s true that a helmet won’t protect your ribs or spine if a vehicle rear-ends or sideswipes you. But those aren’t the only type of accidents. Getting doored by parked cars is one of the most common accidents and can cause head injuries when the cyclist is thrown from his or her bike. Also, a motorized vehicle doesn’t even need to be involved. I’ve fallen off my bike while I was utterly alone because I lost my balance on a steep trail. But no matter what type of accident it is, I want a barrier between my head and the ground.  Although some people think helmets are just “talismans,” a decent amount of research suggests otherwise. Personally, I’d rather be a little more cautious than not.

3) When a cyclist wears a helmet, drivers are less careful around him or her.
There’s both some research and anecdotal evidence for this. When a driver sees someone with a helmet, they unconsciously assume he or she is more experienced and drive less carefully. However, I think this is more of a problem with human psychology than safety equipment. The same goes for how drivers regard people wearing biking shorts (because “they look like they know what they’re doing”), and no one is saying everyone should abandon spandex. Instead, I think the best approach to solving this issue is increasing driver education and awareness. Bicycle and pedestrian awareness should be a significant part of drivers’ education for both new and continuing drivers. The more aware drivers are of cyclists and know what it’s like to be in that position, the safer cyclists are, regardless of whether they are wearing helmets or not.

4) Helmets make people believe biking is unsafe and choose not to bike. As the number of cyclists on the road is the main determining factor for safety, wearing a helmet is counterproductive from a societal point of view. (This particular viewpoint was actually the subject of a TED Talk.)
For the most part, I don’t think helmets inspire fear. Graphic descriptions of horror story accidents and terrible safety campaigns featuring gruesome imagery inspire fear. We have a lot to fix in that category in America before we should bother targeting bike helmets as fear-inducing. In addition, bike helmets have little to do with the source of fear I hear about most often – proximity to cars. Separated bike infrastructure, such as good bike lanes and cycletracks, can help people feel less scared. Overall, making cycling more accessible and safer in the most basic ways possible is going to do a lot more to assuage fear than not wearing helmets.

But on the other hand, I do believe we should give adults the freedom of choice. Rather than requiring helmets and inspiring half-assed compliance that’s worse than nothing, we should make helmets a better choice.

For example, there’s a lot further we can go to make helmets better fit into people’s personal aesthetics. While the “bike style” movement has done a lot to make cycling more fun for fashionable people, helmets are still lagging behind. It’s fine to wear dorky workout clothes if you’re exercising, but it just won’t cut it for some commuters. Fortunately, there are a few pioneering companies. Nutcase makes fun bike helmets that are unique accessories in and of themselves. BEG Bicycles, from the U.K., makes beautiful tweed helmets that mimic hats from days gone by. Unfortunately, both of them are quite expensive, but I hope that those prices drop in the same way that commuter gear is starting to get cheaper.

Speaking of expense, I think one of the biggest barriers to helmet use among certain populations is price. I was astonished a few years ago when I needed a new helmet and realized how expensive they are. These days, I see a number of people in my neighborhood on poorly fitted junker bikes who don’t wear helmets, probably in part because they can’t afford them. Given the choice between not wearing a helmet and losing a reliable, cheap form of transportation, most people in that situation would take not wearing a helmet every time. However, creating programs to provide free or discounted helmets would allow low-income people who want to wear a helmet but can’t afford it to have that opportunity. One of the best programs I think the Washington Area Bicyclist Association does is their “Got Lights?” program, which gives out free lights in low-income neighborhoods. I think similar programs could be extremely valuable for helmets.

In general, I’m a big supporter of programs that help socially and environmentally sustainable choices more accessible and appealing. If people still don’t want to take advantage of that opportunity, that’s up to them. Why would it be any different with bicycle helmets?

Do you wear a bicycle helmet? Why or why not?

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2012 12:03 pm

    Nicely done! You know that any post about helmets will trigger the same pro/con debate you summarized here, of course.

    I wrote a post that was 100% about the need for better-looking helmets, which you say here as well (http://bikestylespokane.com/2012/07/08/bike-helmets-pro-cute-anti-ugly/) and explicitly said it was NOT about the helmet debate. So the first comment was about…. the helmet debate.

    I do wear a helmet. If I don’t have it on when I start riding–this happened the other day when I left in a hurry and it was still hanging on my handlebar–I stop in about 5 feet thinking, “Something feels wrong!” It’s the same feeling I have when I drive if I try to start without buckling my seatbelt. Basically, I feel naked.

    I’ve fallen all on my own too–always either my fault or another rider’s, never a driver (so far) (http://bikestylespokane.com/2011/09/18/falling-down-it-happens-to-grown-ups/). One time I ran right into the back end of a truck.

    Granted, he stopped abruptly in the middle of an intersection, but that was caused by the driver ahead of him and I was looking down when it happened so I figure that’s my fault. I hit the cement hard enough to get bloody scraped knees and elbows that required bandages when I got to my destination. I don’t recall whether I hit my head, because if I did I was wearing my helmet and nothing happened as a result.

    My rationale:
    1) I have only one brain. Kinda like it. Hope to keep it in good working order as long as possible.
    2) See #1.

    • September 29, 2012 7:23 pm

      Thanks for the feedback! My rationale on helmet-wearing is basically the same as yours, although I spent more than 2000 words to say it. I actually fell off my bike once standing still. It was on the Climate Ride, standing on an extraordinarily steep hill, and leaning over to see if there were any cars coming around the corner. I was very glad there was no one around.

  2. September 29, 2012 9:01 pm

    Hi Shannon. I’m not an all or nothing gal. If I’m riding for transportation on bike paths or quiet back roads at my leisurely speed, dressed in normal clothes, I don’t generally wear a helmet. If I’m putting my foot down or cycling along major arterial roads with a poor cycling environment, I will wear my helmet and often a rather loud, yellow vest :-)

    It works out that about 80% of the time I don’t wear a helmet. Which shows that 80% of the time I’m pootling along like a snail. So for me, helmet use is not only an individual decision, but, is based on each individual ride. I do live in a country with mandatory helmet laws, so, I guess riding without a helmet is my only criminal activity.

    • September 30, 2012 6:20 pm

      That makes sense to me. Personally, I find a lot of our back trails pretty dodgy because of their narrowness and steepness. One of the local trails is actually where I fell! But if you live in a place with nice, flat, smooth trails and little chance of flipping over your handlebars, I can see why there would be less of a sense of danger.

  3. Sarah permalink
    September 30, 2012 6:24 am

    I wear a helmet most of the time. I feel safer and, as you said, my mother would kill me if I died because I wasn’t wearing one. If I’m on bike paths or quiet roads I tend to take the helmet off, especially in summer when it’s just too hot.
    I live in the uk and the helmet debate here is as strong as anywhere else. I don’t wear Lycra on the way to work as my commute is short but, I don’t think how you are dressed affects drivers’ behaviour. Having cycled in other European countries – even Paris by night- I am sure that the most important factor is the number of cyclists. Drivers expect to see cyclists and bicycle lanes are integrated into the transport system.
    My helmet isn’t cool, it doesn’t look good and it ruins my hair. I periodically go to the bike shop in hope of finding something better but so far, to no avail. I’ll keep campaigning for safer cycling and resolutely not jump red lights. I’m seeing more and more cyclists on my daily rides – even with the terrible British weather – so maybe one day we’ll reach that critical mass!

    • September 30, 2012 6:29 pm

      I think the spandex thing is actually more prominent in terms of influencing how people view you in the U.S., and particularly in the D.C. region. We have a fairly large bike racing community around here who travel in packs and frequently frustrate drivers. If you look kitted out in a jersey and shorts, I think you’re more likely to evoke that stereotype than if you’re in street clothes. Of course, there are ugly “bicycling gentrifying hipster” stereotypes too (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/may/29/hurt-capital-bikeshare-is-making-biking-ugly-smugl/?page=all#pagebreak), so perhaps it’s a lose-lose deal.

      But I agree that the overall number of cyclists on the road is certainly the largest influence on overall safety because of its effect on driver awareness. I think the second is infrastructure. I lived in Oxford for a year, where there were lots of cyclists, and I just didn’t feel comfortable riding because the streets were so narrow. Of course, now I’d be willing to take the lane, which I didn’t know was an option then.

  4. October 4, 2012 12:47 pm

    Frazz summed up the helmet situation nicely: http://www.gocomics.com/frazz/2012/09/14

    I always wear a helmet when riding my bike. The primary reason is that a helmet is the only convenient place to hang a rear-view mirror. It’s also a consideration that a white helmet goes a long way to improve your visibility — better than yellow or orange, oddly enough.

    The certificate stating that the helmet will provide a certain minimum of protection in the event that I receive a precisely square blow precisely on top of my head comes about twenty-fifth in priority. But I assume, perhaps rashly, that the untested parts of the padding are equally protective — in my helmet, they look about the same.

    I did thwack my Bell Biker on pavement, back when plastic bike helmets were a novelty. (I never touched wheels again!) Since the crushable foam wasn’t damaged, I figured that the main advantage was that I got bruised on smooth plastic instead of rough pavement — but the thick foam stopped my head at least an inch higher, which must have reduced the damage to the neck muscles on the opposite side. They were sore for some time; if my head had been wrenched a tad farther, they might have been torn.

    • October 8, 2012 10:17 pm

      Great point about having a good place to hang your mirror – I have mine on my handlebars, but it’s always spinning around and I need to adjust it. In terms of visibility, my helmet is blue, but I have a reflector attached to it, which I figures helps. (It used to blink as well, but the batteries have since run out.)

  5. cjmr permalink
    October 6, 2012 8:20 pm

    When I biked, I wore a helmet most of the time. My children, when they bike, scooter, or roller skate wear helmets. I have been a first aid responder at two cyclist vs. automobile accidents, and ended up in both cases helping to manage scalp/head wounds that would have been much less serious if the person HAD been wearing a helmet.

    That made a convert out of me.

    • October 8, 2012 10:18 pm

      It’s nice to hear a perspective from someone with first-hand experience. Thankfully, I’ve never had that experience but I certainly trust those who do!

  6. October 22, 2012 10:15 am

    Great write up. As a long-time cyclist and cycling-commuter I wear a helmet as a routine part of my cycling kit. The only point in your blog that I disagree with is:

    “Unfortunately, both of them are quite expensive, but I hope that those prices drop in the same way that commuter gear is starting to get cheaper.”

    I think Nutcase helmets are quite affordable, and there are many other companies that are making helmets that are in the less than $50 range, which is a small price to pay to prevent or minimize head trauma/injury in the event of an unfortunate accident.

    • October 22, 2012 7:57 pm

      The Nutcase helmets are not too badly priced, but the other company I was referring to was selling the helmet/cover combination for $130 (or more, depending on the exchange rate). My bigger concern about the price of helmets is for those cyclists for whom bicycling is one of the few forms of transportation they can afford. When you paid no more than $50-100 for your cheap used bike (or probably less for some of the bikes I’ve seen) an extra $40 is a lot.

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