to encourage biking, cities should focus more on infrastructure and less on helmets use

{Image c/o New York Times}

Nothing generates more comments on this blog than a post related to wearing a helmet. Dave Feucht of has noted that his post on why he chooses to not wear a helmet is one of the most popular ones on his site. For something that factors so minimally into my daily biking experience, it looms large on bike-centric blogs, forums, and my Twitter feed. Not surprisingly, Elisabeth Rosenthal’s “To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets” hit a public nerve, generating hundreds of comments from passionate cyclists. This is my response to this recent NYTimes article:

Like Rosenthal, I have also experienced biking in Europe with the added pleasure of feeling the wind through my hair as I left the bike helmet behind. I have also watched my 82-year-old grandfather get on his bike and ride to the market through his quiet little town in Romania. Without a helmet, naturally. And I have taken plenty of bike rides on separated bike trails away from traffic in the United States. But when it comes to daily commuting, I dutifully strap on that helmet and protect the thing most valuable to me: my brain. It has nothing to do with my ability to ride a bike and everything to do with the lack of infrastructure and a bicycle-friendly culture present in so many large cities and small towns this side of the ocean.

Campaigns meant to promote commuter cycling in the United States that focus mainly on the looks of things (cycling as more “chic,” fun, and enticing) often miss the crux of the problem. Likewise, quotations highlighting how simple tasks such as getting in and out of a bathtub are more likely to cause injury and thus should require a helmet use faulty logic at best:

“Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits,” says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.

He adds: “Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots more injuries during those activities.”

My qualms with that comparison is two-fold. First, my bathtub does not intersect with traffic traveling at 40 mph or more. I don’t often dodge pick-up trucks driven by irreverent college students while walking through my house. This type of reasoning assumes the danger to lie with the activity and the cyclist rather than the context of the situation.

Bicycle helmets in American cities are not there to protect cyclists from themselves but rather to offer an additional barrier of protection in cities that lack the bike-friendly infrastructure and necessary driver awareness that would render helmets obsolete.

Second, the juxtaposition of “cycling is not dangerous, in fact, it’s beneficial to one’s health” implies that by focusing on the safety precautions that one could take while biking (such as wearing a helmet), one is inevitably distracted from the health benefits of the activity. Maybe. But I’m not convinced. I’m not buying the argument that  cyclists can only absorb one morsel of information and none more; that they couldn’t possibly understand both the risks AND benefits of cycling.

And of course these risks vary by location and situation. I am not advocating for mandatory helmet laws as I believe in context and choice. But I would like to see conversations about making biking in the United States more similar to the thriving scenes to be found in Copenhagen and Amsterdam acknowledge the more relevant components to a bike-friendly environment: clearly demarcated bike lanes, a widespread cultural respect for non-motorized traffic, and the financial incentive to bike rather than drive.

Putting so much emphasis on the wearing or not wearing of a helmet strikes me no different from putting a coat of paint onto a run-down home: a mere cosmetic improvement that does nothing to improve a crumbling foundation.

I appreciate what articles such as these do to generate interest in the subject of commuter cycling and that they will hopefully push for improvements in the right direction. I would love to see Velib-like bike stations all around my town, bicycles outnumbering cars or coming close to it, and people treating cycling as just another everyday mode of transportation. I just do not believe that we’ll achieve these gains in the United States if our focus is on helmet laws rather than on challenging the inaccesible city layouts and the car culture that dominates so much of the country.

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13 Responses to to encourage biking, cities should focus more on infrastructure and less on helmets use

  1. Dave says:

    As I hear a Copenhagen city planner said at a conference, it’s best to just not talk about helmets at all. They are available, and people will wear them if they feel they need them, and not if not. You are not going to make the world a safer place by trying to bully people into wearing them, and you are doing more harm than good if you try to bully people out of wearing them. Pretend they’re socks. Not everyone wears socks, and we don’t care who wears socks and who doesn’t.

    Instead, bother everyone you know how to bother who has anything to do with making it easier and more comfortable for you to ride a bike around where you live, and keep riding your bike.

    Unfortunately, the helmet has been used as bad (read: exclusive) safety policy so extensively, and everything around it has been so sensationalized by media, advocates, and everyday citizens, that the likelihood of this happening is next to zero. But at least it’s good to get people speaking up who can speak rationally about them, and not only in heated, empty emotional terms.

    The helmet is a red herring when it comes to public planning and design, and it wastes a lot of time that so many people who both do and don’t wear helmets could be using to pursue common goals.

    • simplybike says:

      Yes, thank you for this very eloquent and spot-on comment! I couldn’t agree with you more, especially about this being a siphon of time, money, and energy that could be used to make real improvements in city planning.


  2. Jen F says:

    Well said. I choose to wear a helmet because I ride in traffic and it gives me peace of mind that if someone is driving while distracted I have a better chance of surviving the crash. And likewise, I encourage my close friends and family to wear a helmet because I’d prefer they stay healthy and alive should they get hit by a car. We don’t walk or run in the street so a helmet isn’t necessary there. As for random strangers on the street, I’m not responsible for their health, so I’m not so worried.
    Though the cost of a random stranger in a coma at the hospital gets passed along to everyone, which is why motorcycle helmet laws are in place. Maybe if helmet laws apply to only cycling in traffic as an addition to the vehicle code?

    • Dave says:

      The ‘cost to society’ issue is a really tricky one, though:

      Firstly, the cost to society of many other things exponentially dwarfs the tiny cost of people with head injuries from riding bicycles for transportation, and if we start instituting punitive measures towards every little thing that might incur some cost to society, where do we stop? Is that even a good way to change things? We tax smoking, because it’s proven to have a widespread, serious health detriment, and contribute to the most major health problems we see in our country. We have strict regulations around driving automobiles for the same reason, it is one of the most major causes of death and injury. Cyclists with head injuries are hardly epidemic, with or without helmets.

      Secondly, in almost every serious case, the head injury was a result not of the cyclist’s bad behavior, but someone else’s (or sometimes bad road design, etc). Is it fair to force someone to wear a helmet so that if someone else irresponsibly injures them, the cost to society might be less? It’s one thing if I engage willfully in more risky behavior (sport, for instance), but most people riding bikes around for transportation are not looking to take risks, they’re looking to stay alive.

      Thirdly, there is an important distinction between the protection a piece of safety equipment offers, and the risk of needing it in the first place. In the case of a motorcycle, you’re traveling the same speeds as an automobile, but without any protection around you. The risk of a crash, firstly, and also serious injury in that crash is hugely greater than riding a bicycle at 10mph, which means the necessity of safety equipment in order to prevent injury is greater.

  3. I would not mind mandatory helmets as part of riding on a street as a vehicle. Frankly I don’t see why motorcycle riders are required to wear theirs, though. It’s their head in danger, not mine. Requiring seat belts is the same in my opinion. I do choose all those safety options and would ban cell phone use and all that, I’m just that kind of person.

    I agree that the topic itself is a completely separate entity (or should be) from how to increase the amount of people riding bikes. It has to be fairly convenient, fun, and safe for people to want to do it. Drivers out there know how stupidly they drive themselves- why would they hop on a bicycle and go play in traffic with all those other maniacs? I highly enjoy the local bike path for both its gardened parks and solitude, but mostly because it is away from traffic, and I can keep on zooming along right under the cross roads. I love it. I don’t mind traffic that much at all, but I love not having to stop for lights and pedestrian cross signals (which are not placed to allow easy access from a person on a bicycle!) on the rare occasion that I take to a sidewalk.

  4. Fiona says:

    I’ve recently moved to Perth, Western Australia which has a mandatory helmet law, and I believe the place fits many of your descriptors regarding inaccessible city layouts and a car culture. I’ve always been pro-helmet, and yet here I find the laws an unhelpful focus.

    I actually don’t cycle half as much as I used to since I moved here – mainly because I fear, not for my head which is safely (to an extent) hidden under my helmet, but for my precious PhD-containing laptop, which I cannot risk someone driving their 4×4 into!

    I agree with Dave’s comment that helmets are a red herring in this context – the few cyclists who are on the streets are probably more safe, but there are still too few cyclists. There will be a small percentage of people who don’t ride because of the additional effort of getting a helmet, but I believe this number is insignificant. People don’t cycle in this region for thousands of other reasons, including culture and infrastructure – yet this receives little/no attention from the local government.

  5. Ann Wyse says:

    Here’s my take on it: it’s not infrastructure. It’s not helmets. IT’S CAR DRIVERS THAT ARE THE BIGGEST PROBLEM. We need to improve driver education!

    In the last 8 years, we have been a one-car family, meaning that whoever is not driving that day, is biking. We lived 4 of those years in Germany and 4 of those years in the United States. In Germany, I was forced to re-do driver’s education because Germany would not accept my 15 year old driver’s license. Taking driver’s training in Germany I learned that even though *I thought* I drove just fine, (and, heck, I even rode my bike regularly): but I learned quickly that I was a HORRIBLE driver around bikes.

    MOST Americans are horrible drivers around bikes. And no wonder, there is very, very little training for how to drive around bikes. And very few laws to govern driving with bikes. Three major problems I see again and again and again:

    1) Appropriate distance for passing a bike? (It’s 5 feet in Germany, It’s 3 feet in Colorado. And in both places the car driver can cross the center line to pass a bike safely.)

    2) Looking over the right hand shoulders before making a right hand turn. (Especially if there’s a bike lane! Although, I think we should do it ALL THE TIME, as is the case in Germany. However, I’m unaware that this law exists anywhere in the States, unfortunately.)

    3) And we don’t look over our shoulders before opening the car door.

    Between my husband and myself, the lack of these three considerations account for all near-accidents and (unfortunately) accidents that we’ve had over the last 8 years. ‘

    In other words, all our “unsafe moments” have been a result of driver habits that could be improved with better education.

  6. Liz H. says:

    I wear a helmet for two reasons:

    1. I’m super clumsy. I have fallen on my bike (almost exclusively at very low speed when I lose my balance), and have appreciated having some cushioning on my head. Also, I’m finishing four years of grad school/professional school, and my head is valuable to me!

    2. I want to appear predictable to drivers. I think drivers have the same disdain for cyclists they have for deer crossing the highway: both are unpredictable. And some cyclists totally are unpredictable (including my husband, who just goes by “whether he can make it”, not whether the light is red. Grrr…). By wearing a helmet, and using lights in low light situations (night, obviously; also rain and very cloudy days) I hope I project myself as a safe, predictable cyclist. I obey traffic signals and signs. I use arm signals when I’m turning. I have a mirror on my bike. I think helmets help with cyclist PR in general, and help my fleeting relationship with the cars with which I share the road.

  7. John doors says:

    We have been conducting market research for our cycle sensors. In a recent street and cafe questionnaire we threw in the helmet question. Split down the middle really for a whole host of reasons.

    Perhaps of interest is a quick note on who was exhibiting at the recent Cycle Show in Birmingham. From our experience, helmet manufacturers were thin on the ground, energy drinks however were in abundance. Draw your own conclusions.

    Perhaps we can make a brand of helmets called ‘red herring’ – you heard it here first :)

  8. Brandi says:

    I participated in an academic conference in Finland a few years ago with a rather humorous professor from Germany that I am friends with. After a few days walking around Helsinki observing the natives, I noticed that, unlike the bicyclists I’ve observed in Munich (where typically only the smallest of children wear one), the cyclists in Helsinki predominantly (90%+) wore bicycle helmets. Helsinki seemed to have very little automobile traffic, and had the separate, offset paved bike paths running parallel to the sidewalk and street just like Munich does on its main roads. I brought this up with my friend, since Germans generally seem very safety-conscious, but in this case it seemed to me that the Finns were out-Germaning the Germans. His explanation: “Germans are obsessed with Sicherheit only to the extent that it does not interfere with Gemütlichkeit.” In other words, it’s a comfort thing.

  9. Mary says:

    I totally agree with this: “Bicycle helmets in American cities are not there to protect cyclists from themselves but rather to offer an additional barrier of protection in cities that lack the bike-friendly infrastructure and necessary driver awareness that would render helmets obsolete.”

    My city in Southern California has bike lanes only on a handful of major streets. Sadly, a recent idea to add bike lanes to one of the busiest streets was rejected on account that the area businesses thought it would be bad for them. This street takes you from literally on side of town to the other. It’s flat too. The bike lane goes in and out… so sometimes you are riding in your own space and 100 ft later you have a stretch of road where you are next to the car.

    I wear a helmet for two reasons. Given the lack of consistent bike lanes in my travels around town (whether I’m cycling to get a library book or for hard exercise), I feel safer. It’s also another indicator to cars that I’m there.

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