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.