To Wear or Not to Wear a Helmet
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?