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.