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A post about …(gulp)… helmets

So far, I have mostly avoided talking about helmet use and helmet laws on this blog. It’s just not an argument I find myself particularly passionate about. But there have been a lot of new, interesting helmet-related arguments flying around recently, so I thought it might be time to discuss it. So here goes…

Helmet use is an issue that can easily tear a group of cyclists in two if conversation gets heated enough. People on either side of the argument can be passionate and unwilling to move. It has been this way for a long time. If I have any real helmet-related goal, it is to bring these fighting factions together to fight the many, many causes they agree on. There is too much to accomplish to argue over one seemingly unending issue.

I wear a helmet when I ride. When I was a kid, I did not. When I first started riding again (after my shameful “car period”) I still did not. Then one day, a car in Kansas City buzzed me pretty close, and I thought, “Wow, I could have just been hit due to no fault of my own.” If I was going to be riding as my primary mode of transportation, I decided that it was reasonable for me to do something to protect the most vulnerable part of my body. Wearing a helmet gives me some sort of peace of mind that I like, so I keep wearing it. When I read about people getting in wrecks where their helmets crack in half (even though that is relatively rare), I do get a little more convinced that I will keep wearing one.

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These are my personal reasons for wearing a helmet. I feel better wearing one, so I do. I also suggest to people that it’s probably a good idea, and tell them my reasons. However, I can understand many of the arguments in the anti-helmet camp, too. And, as Elly Blue concludes in her article at Grist, there really is not much conclusive evidence to support either side of this debate.

In a recent TED talk (above), Mikael Colville-Andersen, editor of Copenhagenize, makes his case for why helmet promotion (and especially helmet laws) are deterrents to cycling. Some of his arguments can get a little thin (I’m not convinced General Motors is all that worried about my bicycle, though it is nice to imagine their CEO fretting all night every time I bike my groceries home instead of driving), but his point about helmet promotion shrouding bicycles in fear is spot on.

Basically, helmets are reactive safety measures designed to protect once a collision has occurred. This is, inherently, a bad way to advocate for safety. Our efforts would likely be better spent creating safe roads and a safe transportation culture. Constantly promoting the danger of massive brain injury is not a very good sales pitch for an activity, especially one that actually has so many health benefits. If we constantly present an activity as dangerous, we cannot blame people for being scared to try it out.

It is safer to ride a bike in Copenhagen than in Seattle. Yet almost nobody wears a helmet when they ride a bike in Copenhagen, and the vast majority do wear them here. However, I am no so naive as to believe that helmet use is the cause of our city’s relative dangers. If anything, the somewhat documentable helmet/danger correlation may simply be happenstance. A city where biking is a completely mainstream and common occurrence by all kinds of people will be safer for cycling than one where someone riding a bike is vastly outnumbered and pushed to the side of busy car-heavy streets. Wearing a piece of Styrofoam is not going to make up for these cultural, geographic and infrastructural differences, but working to create safe streets and convincing more people to give cycling a try will take us in that direction.

I don’t think helmet laws are good ideas, and I wish King County did not have one. If someone wants to ride a bike without a helmet, there is no reason for me to pass a law telling them they have to. Kent from Kent’s Bike Blog put it better than I could:

If you’re endangering others by doing something like driving 200 miles per hour down the public streets, then I’ll probably vote for a law saying that you shouldn’t do that. But if you are taking a bit more risk than I would, by paragliding off Tiger Mountain or eating week-old sushi for example, I think you are the best person to decide that. I like being able to choose my risks and make my choices. I’d hate for someone else to decide it’s too dangerous for me to bicycle to work.

I usually don’t like “Why can’t we all be friends” arguments, but this helmet debate is one that needs it. Sure, I wish King County did not pass a helmet law. But, repealing it is a relatively small blip on my bike cause radar. Getting it taken off the books would be painful, time consuming and likely difficult. Right now, we have much larger fish to fry.

Once we start looking seriously at starting a bike share system, though, our helmet laws are going to get in the way. American bike sharing programs have taken off this year, but they are fairly reliant on being able to hop on them unprepared. Perhaps we will be able to except bike share programs from the helmet law or something. Otherwise, I don’t really know how they will work (though perhaps someone will come up with a brilliant idea). I wish we would not have to revisit this unending argument, but it seems inevitable that it will have to come up again some day.

Until that day, I urge riders to simply enjoy each other’s company and ride together, regardless of what the other wears. Maybe in this sunshine and roses world, we won’t have to go through such a bloody battle next time we amend the law.

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14 responses to “A post about …(gulp)… helmets”

  1. Kevin

    Well said!

  2. Allison

    The numbers do support the idea that helmets probably save very few lives – collisions as possibly fatal speeds are more likely to be fatal helmet or no. But they also support the idea that there’s a whole hell of a lot of bike collisions, incidents, falls, fender failures, endos, etc that a helmet means saving you a trip to the hospital. They don’t get reported because you don’t need medical attention because of the helmet – just a trip to the drug store. Why is this fully ignored when discussing helmet use and helmet laws?

    Two years ago I was in California and two blocks from the house I was staying in was a good steep hill with relatively heavy traffic – there was a pot hole that was hidden by the car in front of me until I hit it. I went over the handle bars, slid down that steep hill, and got serious road rash on my shoulder, thigh, and shin. My head hit the curb. Because I was wearing a helmet, I have scars and didn’t get on that bike for a couple of weeks but that’s it. The incident almost certainly never threatened my life, but the protection the helmet afforded me is was significant and worth promoting.

    I find it interesting that the moment you started wearing a helmet was when you realized you could be hurt “through no fault of your own.” As if an experienced cyclist can’t have spills. You’ll probably have fewer spills per mile, but the more miles you do the more likely you are to find that pot hole, have that fender fail, slide out on that grate. You can hurt you, too.

  3. Biliruben

    Agreed. I wear a helmet 99% of time, and few things piss me off more them self- righteous peer cheerfully telling me I should wear a helmet when I forget it in a friends car.

    You fret about your brain, I’ll fret about mine ( or not).

  4. In my limited experience, more Copenhagen cyclists wear helmets than one might expect from Colville-Andersen’s website and TEDx talk, although certainly not anything like the States. It’s really in the Netherlands where helmet-wearing is rare; the only Dutch helmet-wearers I saw there were sport cyclists, who seemed to wear it as part of a uniform.

  5. Charlie

    In general I say, if you don’t want to wear a helmet to protect your brain, then you’ve likely got nothing to protect and I don’t care what you do (as long as you stay out of my way).

    BUT, when the person not wearing a helmet has an accident and major head trauma, that person becomes a drain on our insurance/medical care system. If they are lucky enough to have health insurance that pays for their care, the premiums for others are going to go up (Of course I am speaking statistically here). If they don’t have health insurance and they go to Harborview, we all pay for their now life-long care. So, it costs ME money when a dipshit hipster more worried about his hair than his brain gets side-swiped, falls off his fixie and cracks his skull.

    Wear a freaking helmet or walk.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I do not agree with this “Your head injury costs tax payers
      money” argument. The health benefits of riding a bike offset all
      those other expensive health costs (obesity, diabetes, heart
      disease, etc). So I don’t see a bike rider without a helmet as any
      more of a tax risk than a couch potato. And what about people into
      hang gliding that don’t have health insurance? Are they a public
      tax menace? It’s sort of a silly road to go down. My $.02.

    2. biliruben

      My liberty shall not be compromised due to specious arguments regarding specie.

      Every action I take could be interpreted as costing society money.

      My freedom of choice trumps dirty dollars. There are legitimate arguments that could be made for helmet use, but this isn’t one I consider worthy of a second thought.

    3. mason

      Nannystate B.S.
      Freedom means risk. As long as I’m not risking your safety, f*** off about my lack of a helmet. Save your worry about your crabon fiber yuppie spaceship and the mortgage payments on your condo. When we’re not on our bikes, we’re all competing for money, mating opportunites, housing, jobs – so drop the pretense of the humanitarian safety concern.

      Nobody’s gonna ticket you for smoking (yet) or for having that extra slice of pizza or marrying the wrong person and making a handful of dysfunctional children. Worrying about ‘everybody’s safety’ quickly turns the elective into the compulsory.

  6. Andres Salomon

    While I agree that a helmet law is unnecessary, it still pains me to see people riding without a helmet; especially people I care about. I’ve been in an accident which involved landing on my head, and had I not been wearing a helmet, it would’ve been pretty serious.

  7. I choose to wear a helmet, obey traffic laws, wear bright clothing, ensure that my bike is well lit at night. I see cyclists everyday that make the opposite choice. I am saddened by this, primarily, because I am concerned that it leads motorists and non-cyclists to believe that ALL cyclists are rebels and are unworthy of respect. Without this respect, I fear we will not be able to move toward a more cyclecentric community.

    1. mason


      Somebody’s ‘worried’ that She might be lumped in with the ‘bad’ cyclists.

      What a bunch of High School Hall Monitors.

  8. Michael Duggan

    Obeying the traffic laws will not necessarily save you from an accident, nor will being seen by drivers. (My recent helmeted wreck was caused by a driver who saw me ahead of time) Sometimes people just mess up and hit you. If you have a helmet on, it might save you some trouble, or it might cause you some trouble. It really depends on several factors, some of which are sadly out of our control.
    Tom’s right, if this highly debatable issue were off the table, we could focus on other issues. (Like whether or not it’s rude to pass another biker without waving, or proper passing etiquette for roller-skiers.)
    One thing comes to mind, however. In Washington, which apportions liability for an accident as a percentage of fault for each party, you could be hindering your case if you survive an accident wherein you were helmet-free. Your “comparative fault” might be higher for failing to take what a court could consider is a step to protect yourself. Food for thought, regardless of your preference.

  9. […] helmet law debate is one of the most divisive among people who ride bicycles. It’s an argument that has played itself out thousands of […]

  10. Dave C

    I believe in survival of the fittest. If you die from not wearing a helmet that is your right. One less human to burden the world. Don’t expect anyone to keep you alive or care for your broken head. Be responsible for yourself. Keep riding!

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