The Great & Overstated Focus on Helmet Use
On the issue of helmets and bicycling, I prefer seeing people without them. It lifts my spirits. When someone asks me from their car or the sidewalk, “where’s your helmet?” I typically reply, “where’s yours?” It is a silly question.
I’m uncomfortable with the steady mantra promoting helmet use and believe it does more harm than good. Real solutions to bicycle safety are better design & public investment to decrease conflicts in order to increase bicycle ridership more generally—with or without helmets.
Contrary to popular sentiment, helmet use isn’t the single most important personal action to take to protect yourself on your commute or trip to the grocery store. Much more important is developing confidence, skills and awareness both personally and in relation to the built environment. I fully realize that for some people and in some circumstances, that involves wearing a helmet.
Mikael Colville-Andersen, of Copenhagenize.com fame, in part lays out this perspective in the TEDxCopenhagen video below. The data he reports on isn’t contrived or fabricated, though some people claim the data he uses is overstated. I’ll let you research for yourself and be the judge. Still, at a minimum, his findings question some widely held assumptions. It’s longer than a normal video Tuesday clip, but not too long, and for anyone who has yelled from the sidewalk, “hey Gary! Where’s your helmet” it is required viewing.
Some of his main points:
- Riding a bicycle is safe, let’s not embrace the culture of fear.
- “It’s all about data” and the data has been incompletely presented.
- Where helmets have been legislated or heavily promoted, cycling levels drop.
- There is safety in numbers.
My findings, experience and subsequent views tend to align more along the lines that helmets simply needn’t be such a focus. The writer Elly Blue expressed an excellent balance on the subject in her post last year: Helmet Wars: A gripping account of the great bicycle helmet campaigns.
I agree 100% with her closing perspective:
Personally, after all this research, I remain most swayed by the point that the great helmet question is the wrong one entirely to be asking.
When bicycle safety is treated like a war of attrition, with every soldier responsible for her own body armor, we all lose. When we can freely ride on streets where we are not threatened with deadly violence at every moment, we all win.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The reason I’m writing about helmets today is due to a discussion that took place at the MyWHaT Facebook page. A small debate occurred after I posted a tweet in response to a Record Eagle brief about a bicycle-car crash on South Airport. Without much detail about the crash, or the injury, the phrase “the bicyclists wasn’t wearing a helmet” was tossed into the brief. So, I tweeted:
Reading today’s @RecordEagle in briefs abt bicyclist hit by car. Why mention she wasn’t wearing helmet? It’s irrelevant.”
I took issue that there was perhaps an inference of a social value-judgment on the person riding a bicycle by including the fact out of the context of any injury. Particular at issue was that she was near one of the most dangerously designed intersections in the region–La Frainer and South Airport. I say, why not point out the dangers of the context instead.
Riding a bicycle is one of history’s most efficient, enjoyable and safe forms of transportation (and all of the benefits that go with it) and we should strive to make it an inviting, default option irregardless of whether someone is wearing a helmet or not.