Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Op-Ed: The Downfalls of Helmet Use

Just so we’re clear, I do not have anything against helmets aesthetically. In fact, my hair is never more cooperative than on days when it’s spent 30+ minutes under my helmet, giving it a side-swept, slightly tousled look that us queer women usually only dream of pulling off without gobs of hair wax and product. However, my argument looks beyond these style benefits and analyzes not only the true safety aspects of helmets, but also the message that they give to users and onlookers.

            First, let’s focus on the latter. What does helmet use tell us? While many active transportation interest groups adamantly promote helmet usage among all age groups, there are some bicycling advocates who work to oppose it, such as Rob Sadowsky, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (Gambino, 2013). One of his arguments is that helmets give off the idea that bicycling is a dangerous sport from which you need protection as opposed to a simple mode of transportation, just like walking or driving. While this may seem counterintuitive to those of us who grew up with helmet laws, there is some data to support the case against them. According to City Cycling (Pucher & Buehler, 2012), a sharp drop in cycling fatalities coincided with the implementation of a mandatory helmet law for all of Australia. This may seem like a positive effect, but Pucher and Buehler also noted the possibility that overall bicycle use decreased among the Australian population at the same time as well. Therefore, it is difficult to determine if the helmet law resulted in the decrease in fatalities because of its inherent protective characteristics or if the law itself discouraged bicycle use. Many of us come away with the wrong idea when a safety procedure is implemented with a practice: that the practice itself is unsafe.

            When any of us see a racing cyclist decked out in bicycle cleats, a jersey and spandex zipping down hills, we thank the bicycle gods above that they are wearing a helmet. However, these are often not the cyclists that are replacing car trips with bike trips. These are “recreational cyclists” and they are typically at the forefront when it comes to our ideas of “bicycle safety.” When we think of the “poster child” of bicycling, many of us don’t think of a mother or father of two riding with their kids to school regularly, a construction worker who finds navigating the route to work significantly easier on a bicycle, or the CEO of a technological consulting firm whose daily commute is on a multi-use path that is separated from traffic. The picture we have is usually of those with “a need for speed” whose cycling behavior is inherently riskier. Race car drivers wear helmets for a reason, but we wouldn’t think to tell anyone driving the speed limit in a Honda Civic on SE Powell Blvd that they should be wearing one, too. Why don’t we apply the same formula to cycling?

            One thing that resonated with me was a quote from the book, Traffic, which stated, “When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like that,” (Vanderbilt, 2008). While this quote is in regard to sign use, it is important to be able to see it in a broad context. For example, when a person wears a helmet while bicycling, is there a possibility that since they may feel safer they will behave with less caution? Kids often start out with training wheels to get used to a bicycle, but we eventually take the training wheels away because they need to learn how to be safe and cautious on their own. This means riding slowly in difficult intersections, learning how to be aware of one’s surroundings, and knowing situations can change on a dime, which involves fine-tuning our ability to react. We have dual-side airbags, seat belts, and even automated vocal warning systems in many of our cars, yet car speed capacity has increased alongside many of these safety innovations, so we are stuck with our significantly high rates of traffic injuries and fatalities. If we were forced to drive an open, wooden farm wagon with patches on the tires that happened to be attached to an internal combustion engine, would we want to drive 60 miles an hour if we could? Probably not. It can be argued that the overuse of safety features makes us feel less vulnerable, or, in other words, invincible.

            To tackle the true safety aspects of helmet use, it’s vital to look at both the indirect and direct safety effects of its use. According to “Safety in numbers? A new dimension to the bicycle helmet controversy,” there has been some very definitive research showing that mandatory helmet laws result in a 22% decrease in cycling volumes, which can possibly lead to an 8% increase in cycling fatalities due to the weakened “strength in numbers” effect (Komanoff, 2001). As for direct safety features, the article also states that bicycle helmets are only 10% effective in preventing fatalities in the event of crashes. If we’re serious about safety, we should probably be wearing hardhats, not bike helmets. This modest percentage doesn’t warrant the huge push in helmet use that’s occurring in the United States, especially since it involves so much time, resources, money and energy that could be used towards improving bicycling infrastructure and incentivizing certain transportation behaviors.

            Almost all cycling fatalities involve a motor vehicle (Komanoff, 2001). Yet we tend to jump on the cyclist for not being extra cautious and we put our energy into changing the cyclist’s behavior and not the driver’s, whether it was the cyclist’s fault or not. When we observe a constant flow of cyclists in an intersection in Amsterdam, all of them dressed casually, with sandals and high heels, wearing hats instead of helmets, we don’t see it as behavior that’s dangerous, irresponsible and involves an element of fear. We see it simply for what it is: transportation.


Gambino, Lauren, “Oregon Bike Advocates Oppose Helmet Law.” The Associated Press. March 26, 2013. Print. http://www.mailtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130326/NEWS/303260330

Pucher, John; Buehler, Ralph. City Cycling. Cambridge: MIT Press (MA). 2012. Print.

Vanderbilt, Tom. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.

Komanoff, C. "Safety in Numbers? A New Dimension to the Bicycle Helmet Controversy." Injury Prevention : Journal of the International Society for Child and Adolescent Injury Prevention. 7.4 (2001). Print.


  1. It's an interesting connection that the decrease in bicycle fatalities could be related to an overall decrease in the amount of cyclists, rather than solely the required use of helmets. I must admit, I would rather not test the protective capabilities of my helmet in a crash, but I enjoy the peace of mind knowing it will do more good than harm if there is an accident.

  2. Haley this is an interesting piece.

    It caused me to look up the helmet law in Oregon and see what the rules are: 814.485 ‘protective headgear’ is a requirement for those 16 years old and younger. Those older can apparently do whatever they want.
    The ‘nanny state’ thing can be exasperating (try to tell my father to buckle up and you’ll get an earful of big government blather) but if you can look past that the numbers around helmet use and bike crashes are compelling (from the NHTSA, January 2008):
    • Bicycle helmets are 85-88% effective in mitigating head and brain injuries, making the use of helmets the single most effective way to reduce head injuries and fatalities resulting from bicycle crashes
    • 95 percent of the bicyclists killed in 2006 reportedly weren’t wearing helmets
    • Despite the fact that nearly 70% of all fatal bicycle crashes involve head injuries about only 20-25% of all bicyclist wear helmets.
    • Universal bike helmet use by children 4-15 would prevent 39,000 to 45,000 head injuries and 18,000 to 55,000 scalp and face injuries annually.
    (Actually, what’s also interesting is if you look at the NHTSA, June 2012 data showing, among other things, percent ‘pedalcyclist fatalities per million population’ and realize that there is no clear correlation between states with helmet laws and increased safety vs. those without – at least if you just go by the flat numbers).
    At any rate, the comments by Mr. Sadowsky (and by extension Pucher & Buehler) make me a little nervous, especially if the comments are directed at all bikers not just those 17 and older. Because cycling is dangerous. That is indisputable: riding next to multi-ton cars and trucks travelling only inches away is not something that should be taken lightly. The bicyclist, as with the motorcyclist, should proceed with the ‘ride defensively’ mantra ringing in their heads if for no other compelling set of reasons than this is not Amsterdam, we are not on the preverbal 'same page', any crazy person can drive a car in this county, and the cyclist will be impacted more by a crash than a vehicle.
    The idea that Sadowsky, Pucher & Buehler are, it seems, advocating for more unsafe riders rather than fewer safe riders seems foolish and irresponsible or self serving and opportunistic.

    1. I guess that's what I'm saying though, Adder. Bicycling is dangerous (in some situations) but is that strictly because of bicycling itself or is it because of the cars? Who poses the threat in those situations? Would you say that bicycling is dangerous along the Springwater Corridor? It can get a little hairy at times, but I don't think I'd call it dangerous. I understand that bicyclists can behave poorly in traffic and cause accidents (just like drivers). But a single bicyclist is posing a much smaller threat than most drivers because we are so used to driving at speeds that do not allow adequate reaction time. Yet we are so fixated on changing bicycle behavior as opposed to car or infrastructure behavior! I think it was either Amsterdam or Copenhagen that puts the driver at fault anytime there is a collision between a car and bicyclist or pedestrian because if the car is going at a speed where they can't react in time to things that happen unexpectedly, then they are not considered to be in control. I know this isn't Europe, but if we are going to make things better here for active transportation, we have to look at what other countries are doing for reference.

      Also, I appreciate the statistics but I've seen a lot of it before. I'd be curious to know how many of those fatalities were racing/recreational bicyclists as opposed to commuter cyclists. There is a huge difference between the two since commuters are bicycling for transportation, not for speed, and speed increases the risk.

      Also, bicycle helmets are extremely difficult to recycle. The BTA used to have someone that took certain parts of them to recycle but they don't anymore and they haven't been able to find anyone else. The recommended usage for helmets is 2 years so every 2 years we have to just throw out this big piece of plastic and styrofoam. So we spend all this money, time and energy on manufacturing something that will shortly end up in landfills when the same money, time and energy could be put towards traffic calming, bike boulevards, bicycle/driver education, speed limit reductions, etc. These things have also proven to be effective in reducing injuries and fatalities and also contribute to a much more pleasant transportation environment (for all kinds of users), but they are all too often overlooked.

    2. Haley -

      A few comments to your comments:

      I do think bicycling is dangerous - or has the potential to be dangerous whether biking in the street with cars, with other bikes on a contained path (Springwater Corridor Trail) or alone (on SCT)? I don't see this as being in question simply because of the number of unforeseen variables that a biker must deal with when getting on a bike. And at least right now the only thing that can be protected (device wise) is a persons head - with a helmet.
      And honestly, my focus in all this is for kids - I don't give a toss what adults (with insurance) do just so long as when they crash, or get run over I don't have to pay any part of their care.
      I disagree with the concept that advocating for helmet use gives the impression of a lack of safety and so should be dissuaded: this is non-sense. Because this is America not Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, etc. our cyclists and motor vehicle drivers are dangerously not aware of each other much less the laws and courtesies that one finds in many of the European countries between these two modes.
      (So I disagree with you that bikers are the ones being targeted for behavior modification - I don't see much evidence of that although I think education for bikers, peds and motor vehicles would be well served)
      Beyond that I feel like we are at a point where helmets are ubiquitous to the point of not being an issue. Why take a stand against it? Much less pit it against other bike policies and programs?
      On a side note, as someone who rides the SCT regularly, I have seen far more accidents with kids and adults on the SCT than on city streets - it might have something to do with bikers feeling like they do not need to be alert because there are no cars? But usually it involves, for instance, a child riding with their family who then decides to stop or drift to the left only to get steamrolled by the stronger bikers who were coming up from behind. These crashes always look worse than they probably are but the saving grace in everyone that I've seen is that the person who was hit had a helmet on.
      Because getting hit by someone going 12mph much less 20 mph hurts.

      To end this on a happy note, sort of, I've enclosed a link to a crash that apparently happened on the SCT not too long ago: (note the medical costs)


    3. I don't think I'd waste my time building an argument against helmets if I really thought that there was no reason to do so. My two main reasons are: a) Helmets contribute a great deal to waste. Even Nutcase doesn't take initiative to use recycled materials or accept helmets back to be recycled; and b) while it is not proven, there is a great deal of research linking helmet laws to decreased bicycling rates. So that is why I take a stand against it. As an active transportation advocate and bicyclist, I strive to make people see that bicycling is safe and fun. So I have to look at issues that even unintentionally decrease bicycling rates. People will always get hurt on the Springwater, on SE Clinton, on SE Grand, on N Williams, in parks, on sidewalks, in offices, in houses, in backyards, etc. Sometimes curbing these injuries means changing what we wear, and sometimes it takes changing the infrastructure.

      Also, according to the NHTSA:
      4,280 pedestrians died in traffic crashes in 2010, a 4% increase from the number reported in 2009.
      In 2010, an estimated 70,000 pedestrians were injured; 14,000 of those injured were age 14 and younger, and males accounted for 57% (8,000) of those injured.

      So we don't push helmets on people that go much slower than bikes and are a bit more separated from traffic (pedestrians), and we also don't push helmets on people who go MUCH faster than bikes (drivers/passengers) and they're surrounded by metal, gasoline and glass. Yet, neither one of these demographics has managed to keep low rates of fatalities and injuries, so why aren't we pushing helmets on all three if they're so effective?

      That part where the woman fell is not even technically on the Springwater. It's just off the Springwater. It's not far from where I live. I fell in the River View Cemetery a year and a half ago, a route that has little to no car traffic. I severely bruised my rib and had a hard time breathing for about a week, but I wouldn't have ever thought about suing the cemetery, nor does my accident make me feel like the route is unsafe. I just tend to go a little slower at that turn after it's been raining. It's hard for me to sympathize with someone who's had $4000 worth of damages to their bike since mine's probably not even worth $100.

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  4. Haley,

    Great piece; thought-provoking and well written.

    I really appreciate your comments about cars being the cause of most dangers associated w/ bike transportation. I completely agree. And yes, I would also agree that a helmet may not be necessary in a car-free situation like the Spring Water Corridor. But in a downtown situation where bikes and cars are sharing the road, it's a completely different story.

    While I hear what you're saying about placing the safety burden on the bicyclists, rather than on the drivers, not being fair, helmets nevertheless seem to me to be a necessary precaution. Obviously, the best solution is to design infrastructure and encourage driving behavior that would prevent crashes. But while our roads and drivers catch up to the times, and biking remains a marginalized form of transit, I have to think that the policy of "hope for the best, be prepared for the worst" is applicable. And if the worst were to happen, I know I would rather my head be protected inside an unfashionable helmet, than be hitting pavement.

    To me, it seems that the helmets aren't about influencing the behavior of bicyclists, but about preparedness for the behavior of drivers. Having said that, I would love to see the day where we have the relationship towards sharing the road that we see in Amsterdam, at which point, helmets may finally become unnecessary.


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