On not wearing a bicycle helmet

It never even occurred to me that I could ride a bike without a helmet. Until I read this: To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets (in the course of shopping for a helmet).

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.

And then I thought back to this silly little incident 10 years ago, when a mother (who lived a few houses down from my first apartment after college) accosted me for not wearing a helmet on my way to the grocery store via neighborhood streets and a dedicated bike path. I felt both guilty and annoyed—enough to remember the moment to this day.

In the course of searching my blog for said maternal accosting, I stumbled upon a forgotten comment thread in a post about Dutch cyclists and PUBLIC Bikes. What caught my attention were Eric Eisenhart’s compelling explanations for “why the Dutch are not wearing helmets and people in the US do”. Most notably:

  • In Amsterdam, cycling is a normal activity. You don’t put on special gear to go for a walk, why would you put on special gear for getting on a bicycle?
  • The US has a powerful pro-helmet lobby willing to lie about the effectiveness of helmets.
  • Look at those dutch bikes. They’re upright, they have relatively few speeds, many are loaded with gear. Helmets don’t help in most collisions below 15mph and those cyclists aren’t going that fast.

All that to say, I think I might hold off on buying a helmet to go with my new bike (more on that later). Just don’t tell my mom.


Eric Eisenhart

Just so long as your fixie has a front brake… ;)


http://cyclehelmets.org/1052.html is an obviously biased source of information, but has a ton of links to various studies.

I admit, this is a subject where I have a hard time being objective. I’ve witnessed two crashes where a helmets appear—to my untrained and subjective eye—to have significantly reduced the injuries the cyclists would have otherwise suffered. Plus, I’ve spent 10 years in two rather cycling-hostile areas (NC and Louisiana) where cycling is not normal, drivers can be quite hostile, and very few dedicated bikes lanes or bike paths exist.

But now that I live in a town with extensive dedicated bike paths and bike lanes and a vibrant cycling community, I also find myself a little hard to put on my helmet for a 20-minute ride to work on dedicated bike paths.

Eric, heh, don’t you worry, I’m getting a freewheel. Enne, thanks for the link, I’ll peruse.

Jackson, I definitely think that context makes a difference. Mountain biking, racing, long distance riding on the open road—all are extreme/unpredictable circumstances where I would say wearing a helmet makes a lot of sense. It just never occurred to me (before now) that riding two and a half miles on city streets with bike lanes between home and work was any different, and thus conceivable sans helmet.

No offense, but the whole helmets aren’t cool mentality is childish. People fall off bikes, concussions happen, helmets reduce the chances, cool looking or not.

Dan, no worries. I’m not really saying helmets aren’t cool. I guess I just found it interesting to read (for the first time) that compulsory helmet-wearing, which I’ve always believed to be unarguably good for the individual, might actually turn out to be damaging to society in general. The bigger question is, how should this knowledge affect my behavior?

Ultimately it’s societies own problem if they don’t want to wear helmets. But I can bet the reason for the negative feelings by the majority is because they don’t think it’s cool. Safety isn’t paramount when it comes to fashion.


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