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.
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.