What Say You: The Bicycle Helmet Debate | NYMBlog

What Say You: The Bicycle Helmet Debate 4

What say you about bicycle helmets?

What say you about bicycle helmets?

Should you wear a bicycle helmet?

When I was a kid, mom would always ask before I hit the streets for a bike ride with friends, or on the skateboard, “Are you wearing a helmet?” It was a ritual. I never wanted to wear one.

Helmets are for nerds. Helmets were for nerds? You know I gotta look cool when I ride.

But, now-a-days, no one needs to ask me. I wear my helmet–I don’t love being a nerd machine–but I’d rather be safe than sorry(stole that one from moms around the world). This weekend on my ride with Ange we did not wear bike helmets, and it was nice to be free of the clunky head gear and ride free.

As luck would have it, we’re both still alive, our heads aren’t bleeding, and my hair looked pretty fly.

If you have been riding your bike as a means of transportation, you have probably heard of, if not even taken part in the debate of the bike helmet. After doing a bit of research on the topic, there seem to be no clear winners, but if one thing is clear: both sides feel very strongly about helmet wear.

If this is your first time hearing about this little snafu, you’re sure to be asking yourself, “What could be so bad about helmet wear?”

So, I’m appropriately naming this next section:

What could be so bad about helmet wear?

Promoting Helmet Use:

  • Fuels a fear of bicycling
  • Takes away from the conversation about the real biking safety issues
  • Is wrong because helmets are less effective then your plain-old head

I’ll start at the top. Promoting bicycle helmet use fuels a fear of bicycling. Bike advocates hate anything that will create a fear of biking in current or potential velo-converts. And it makes sense. You don’t want to harp on the negative, create an environment of fear, and discourage people from riding bikes. As Mikael Colville-Anderson from Copenhagenize.com, states in the video down there under this text, biking, and more specifically bike commuting is good in so many ways. I’m not convinced by everything he says, but there are some good points and it’s worth taking a watch and making a decision for yourself.

It’s great for your health, for the health of others–it’s good for the cities we live in, lowering congestion, and lowering our carbon output, making it great for the environment–and of course it even helps save you money. The benefits go on and on, and we’re talking about a fun and sustainable form of transportation. Talking about how many deaths there are yearly to cyclists on the road, or about the dangers, keeps people from riding their bike. And if it hasn’t soaked in yet: that’s a bad thing.

The only way to promote the use of helmets is by showing the dangers of not using a helmet, and intern, showing the dangers of bicycling. But, then think to yourself, what are the numbers? How many cyclists are injured or worse each year in a crash vs. the number of motorists. Driving is dangerous, we all hear it when we fly, “Driving is much more dangerous than flying so don’t worry sport!” I’m not worried, sport. Not sure why I’m using the term sport.

On to the next: harping on helmet use takes away from the real issues behind bicycle safety. When someone talks about riding your bike safely, they usually think about one thing, and that is protecting your noggin. The fact is, that there are many other factors to take into account. Why are you covering your head in the first place?

Boston Bike Helmet Campaign

Boston Bike Helmet Campaign

Images like this are seen in Boston to help promote the use of biking. But, can you see how this might also scare people out of using their bike? Beyond that, the conversation is only about helmets and not about safe riding. What about a campaign to teach motorists to keep a safe distance from bicyclists, maybe even slow down? What about teaching bicyclists to properly maintain their bikes? Or use the proper tools for riding at night? A campaign to make sure motorists know that they have to share the road? Keep an extra eye out at intersections and at night time?

Should we talk about adding more bike lanes? Cultivating a safe environment should be number one, preventative measures–proactive measures instead of reactive.

Promoting bike commuting in and of itself creates a safe environment. Studies show that there is safety in numbers when it comes to bicycling. So maybe all those signs should just say, “Look how much fun and awesome biking is!” featuring a picture of a happy, interracial couple, underneath a rainbow, smiling and riding bikes into the sun set–without helmets on.

Getting hit by a car is the real issue, not protecting your head while getting hit by a car.

NYC Bike Statistics - Safety in Numbers

NYC Bike Statistics – Safety in Numbers from Streetsblog

Some also say that bicycle helmet wear actually decreases safety. Some of the commonly referenced reasons for this are that it makes cyclists feel more comfortable and in doing so they act a bit more reckless. Another is that bike riders with helmets on are treated differently by drivers. And then there is even a school of thought that would argue the helmets physical presence simply accentuates the force of the crash against the head, not protecting it.

This study found that 23% more vehicles came within a dangerous distance of the biker while they wore a helmet. That’s a pretty alarming number. It’s scary to think that a helmet would make a driver act more recklessly when only the head of the cyclist is protected.

Here is a little snippet from a fairly recent article in the NYTimes, “To Encourage Biking, Cities Forget About Helmets”:

But many European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.

On the other hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule.

Did I mention that people don’t want to look like nerds? Wearing helmets isn’t exactly fashionable and that discourages not only use of them, but the use of bicycles.

So, I know that I sound like I’ve made up my mind: FREE YOUR HEAD! LET IT FREE!

In reality I have not. I wear a helmet as I’ve said previously. But, maybe I should not. In most cases a helmet will not protect you. However, in some, it most certainly will. There is not a lot of good research out there for how helmets protect your head, but, I can think of a lot of ways in which if I flipped over my handlebars a helmet would be good way to keep my head intact.

Flipping over handlebars, getting hit by cars, and smashing your noggin, can all be mostly prevented with better infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians coupled with better education. When you ride, ride safely, pay attention to traffic laws, know how to use your bike properly, and use lighting equipment at night time!

Cycling is a safe way to get around! Although, I haven’t made up my mind on whether wearing helmets is flat out wrong, I know that it’s a good idea to show people that bike commuting is safe. The potential negatives, which you can also face in a vehicle, should be completely overshadowed by the positive health benefits of riding your bike. The more the merrier, the more the safer, the more the bikier.

I’m going to try and go a week without a helmet and see how I fair. I’ll let you know how I feel, how my head feels, and we’ll have a little update.

Til the next time,

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  • http://VirtuousBicycle.com Lance Jacobs

    Great post Ezra, and a pretty good summary of the argument against helmets. Here’s how I’ve come to my personal, completely self-interested decision to wear a helmet. And it’s got nothing to do with Fear.

    I wear my seatbelt, though I’m not fearful of riding in a car. (well, depends who’s driving)

    I lock my apartment when I go out, though I don’t live in fear of crime.

    My helmet wearing did not grow out of fear that cycling is dangerous–and I’m a pretty traffic-integrated urban cyclist. My decision grew from my desire to reduce the chance that a minor mishap will lead to a major injury.

    Speak to experienced cyclists and most will have one or more stories of spills and close calls. Most cycling crashes don’t involve cars at all, but sand-rocks-leaves-cracks, or losing control in a turn or on a hill. My wife hit her helmeted-head on the asphalt in a fall resulting from a poorly executed start! (something with her toe-clip I think) Speed? She was hardly moving! Result of hitting her head? None. We finished the day’s ride and went to dinner.

    Significantly, it’s the less experienced riders who have more of these spills and falls. Yet it’s these same new-to-cycling riders who are most likely to approach the helmet decision as a question of style. (Helmets are nerdy?)

    All the stuff about accidents rates going down when there are more cyclists is true and makes sense. But when I put on my helmet, I’m not trying to reduce the risk to the thousands–I’m trying to reduce the risk to me.

    Don’t be fashion-victimized by the “helmets are bad for cycling” argument — I’m wary of advice that favors each of us taking on increased risk so as to encourage more new cyclists to get out and ride (without helmets).

    (and this one “…there is even a school of thought that would argue the helmets physical presence simply accentuates the force of the crash against the head, not protecting it.” Seriously, somebody’s reaching a bit here, don’t you think?)

    Here’s where a helmet can fit into your plan to enjoy a reliable, low risk ride; Learn solid bike handling skills, study and understand how traffic works, ride alert, assert your right to your place on the road, and when that tiny percentage of statistical risk confronts you, be prepared with a last line of defense; Wear a helmet – It’s a No Brainer!! HA!

    Lance Jacobs
    LCI #3507

    • http://nymblog.com Ezra

      Hey Lance,

      Thanks for the well thought out comment! You make some excellent points in the argument for helmet wear.

      In many ways you are correct, wearing a helmet isn’t necessarily about the world of cyclists, it’s about one person: YOU(or me?)! Riding safely, and decreasing the chance of that small statistical risk you do take on by biking.

      Having someone ask you to incur more risk by not wearing a helmet in hopes to encourage others is certainly something to be weary of. When I consider not wearing a helmet, I often think of a situation just like the ones you mentioned above, I’m riding along(or fairly stationary) my bike hits a snag and I fall forward or side-ward on to my head. No helmet. Ouch. Depending on the force, that could be serious damage, and a helmet in theory would do a lot to protect me.

      Exactly as you say, studying and understanding safe riding is an important part of your adventure into bicycling and bike commuting. All this risk talk is making me want to remind people how not risky cycling really is. Protecting and educating yourself is an extremely important part of keeping it this way, but check out the facts:


      This little study is right from the cycle helmeters themselves. Look at that–biking is right there next to golf in risk–oh my!

      When considering whether or not to wear helmets, it is important to decide if we believe that wearing helmets really does in fact discourage cycling, and what is important to us as individuals. A few examples related to some that I mentioned in my article, read this from the bicycle helmets wikipedia page:

      “Although the link is not causal, it is observed that the countries with the best cycle safety records (Denmark and the Netherlands) have among the lowest levels of helmet use.[135] Their bicycle safety record is generally attributed to public awareness and understanding of cyclists, safety in numbers, education, and cycling infrastructure. A study of cycling in major streets of Boston, Paris and Amsterdam illustrates the variation in cycling culture: Boston had far higher rates of helmet-wearing (32% of cyclists, versus 2.4% in Paris and 0.1% in Amsterdam), Amsterdam had far more cyclists (242 passing bicycles per hour, versus 74 in Paris and 55 in Boston)”

      And as we know, Amsterdam and Copenhagen are some of the safest places to ride a bike. This is from a Daily Mail Article:

      “You are far, far less likely to be killed on a bicycle on the streets of Amsterdam or Copenhagen than you are in New York or Los Angeles. The safest places to ride a bike are also places where almost no one wears a helmet at all.”

      Now, what can we make of this all? I think that drawing a direct correlation between helmet wear and bike ridership and safety in and of itself is a slight stretch. There are may other factors to take in to consideration. For example, what is bike infrastructure like, what is the cities history with bicycles?

      Top notch cycling infrastructure means safer riding and a long history with bicycling could mean that cars are much more aware of bikes and ready and willing to safely share the road space. These and other factors are important to put into the conversation.

      But! I really don’t think we can ignore the truth. Creating an environment where biking is more of a regular thing to do, making it not require safety equipment, stressing its benefits and not its negatives can all help to increase cycling, but ALSO increase safety as a view of the population as a whole. The more bikes the more safety(coupled with education).

      Alright, now that I’ve written another article, I’ll conclude. We all have to make this decision as individual riders. In the United States helmet wear is a serious issue, we are raised to consider it. In many other safe riding nations, helmet wear is not really a consideration. Maybe it is partially cultural? And maybe our culture is discouraging bicycling.

      Or maybe we are just lagging behind and through increased education and infrastructure our culture will grasp on and ride more, and maybe wear helmets too.

      But, that is up to you, and me and you and you and you.

      Thanks for the comment again Lance, you really made me think again about this whole thing and I will be continuing to mull it over(maybe I’m just indecisive?).


  • http://nymblog.com Ezra

    A quick amendment to the above comment, because I just came upon this article posted today about cycling deaths in New Jersey.

    Pedal with extreme caution in NJ

    “…deaths of bicyclists and people in large trucks took a big jump. The number of traffic fatalities reached 32,367 in 2011, a decline of 1.9 percent. But deaths of cyclists rose by 8.7 percent and deaths of those riding in large trucks went up by 20 percent”

    Later on in the article they write,

    “The Los Angeles Times reported that according to the NHTSA analysis, 70% of the bicycle-related deaths involved head injuries, but just about one-third of cyclists wear helmets.”

    Sounds like this is some news in favor of helmet wear!

    It’s really unfortunate to hear news like it, an 8.7% increase sounds like a lot, but the actual numbers are not recorded in the article. Pedestrian deaths across the nation have also increased 3%.

    This could be attributed to the number of people that are moving towards bicycling and walking as a form of transportation with infrastructure lagging behind.

    Ride and walk safe!

  • Pingback: As Cycling Deaths Rise, We Should Be Moving Forward To Safer Streets ← NYMBlog

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