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?
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.
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,