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Wear a Helmet And Get a Cycling Utopia 15

CycleChic

[Photo] This photo of a “frivolous and reckless” Santa Monica cyclist courtesy of Bike by the Sea

Shawn Micallef recently wrote an article on the Spacing.ca Toronto blog where he argues that anyone who wants better bicycle infrastructure in Toronto should wear a helmet if they expect to be taken seriously.

Micallef claims that anyone who doesn’t wear a helmet appears to be “frivolous and reckless” and he feels that people don’t have the right to argue for safer infrastructure while “not practicing helmet wearing”.

I would gladly wear a helmet if it resulted in a utopian bike network modeled after the Netherlands or Copenhagen. But it doesn’t work like that Shawn. Focusing on the helmet issue ignores the real issues and only serves to divide non-helmeted and helmeted riders.

Shawn shot back at me on twitter by saying “A huge amount of cyclists are already alienated by anti-helmet rhetoric. There is no community to divide”.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t know anyone who chastises helmeted riders the way Shawn has chastised non-helmeted folks. I CHOOSE not to wear a helmet, and I take no issue with people who CHOOSE to wear a helmet. My “agenda” is to get more people on bikes, and that includes both helmeted and non-helmeted riders alike.

Arguing that someone who doesn’t wear a helmet doesn’t deserve safe infrastructure is analogous to saying that pedestrians who don’t wear helmets don’t deserve sidewalks. More pedestrians die from head injuries every year than cyclists in Toronto. In fact, only 1 or 2 cyclists die every year in Toronto, while 20-30 pedestrians die each year.

It’s also important to note that the countries that have the lowest cycling fatality rate are the countries where virtually nobody wears helmets. There’s a reason for that.

Micallef’s response?

“Canada was, in part, founded by people escaping European culture, so let’s not revert”.

Okay, so we don’t want European-style bicycle infrastructure, and our solution to safety lies within a plastic + foam bucket?

CycleChic2

[Photo] Another rogue and dangerous cyclist in Amsterdam courtesy of mayhem. Who on earth would ever want Toronto to revert back to this?

A significant number of motorists die every year from head injuries. Shouldn’t drivers also be required to wear helmets to increase their safety? Maybe we shouldn’t give drivers any road space until they start taking their own safety into consideration.

Let’s look at an interesting analogy by a commenter on a previous Spacing pro-helmet article:

If cars were forced to drive in the sides of lanes that were exclusively for big rigs, and motorists kept dying in car/big rig collisions. Now, if there was legislation put through for drivers safety that mandated that drivers wore helmets, what would be the reaction of the driving community? Would it be to debate whether or not helmets provided adequate safety for drivers, looking at data from different cities? Or would it be to challenge the legislation because it doesn’t address the issue that drivers are forced to drive in unsafe circumstances that lead to collisions.

The point here is that riding a bike is inherently safe. If people are dying at the hands of 1+ tonne automobiles, then let’s make changes to make it safer.

There is a plethora of measures we could take to improve safety – better bike infrastructure, police enforcement, modified legislation to protect vulnerable road users, lower speed limits on our city streets, restricted right turns on red lights, driver education, etc.

Let’s not forget that it is automobiles that are causing all of these pedestrian and cyclist deaths. If we can acknowledge this first, then we can find solutions to fix it. Throwing helmets on pedestrians doesn’t get to the root of the problem, nor does throwing helmets on cyclists.

Micallef also seems to think that if cyclists obey all the rules of the road, they will win the hearts and minds of motorists and earn respect and their place on the road – and thus earn our “utopian” bicycle infrastructure.

To be honest, I used to share a similar sentiment. But I now believe that it doesn’t matter what cyclists do – there will always be drivers who don’t want us there.

Whether you wear a helmet or not, some drivers will always pass too closely. If you make a complete stop at a stop sign, a driver behind you will be angry because you are delaying him. If you roll through the stop sign, another driver will say cyclists don’t “obey the law”.

If you jump ahead at an intersection before the light turns green to give more space, someone will accuse you of running a red. If you sit and wait for the green, they will be frustrated that they have to pass you with very little space.

I can agree with Micallef on one item – cyclists and drivers need to better accept each other’s coexistence. I ride without a helmet, but I ride cautiously, safely and respectfully.

The day I accept that cyclists have no right to the road without wearing a helmet is the day I am no longer on this earth.

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00825318884508906850 Heather

    Great post, James! You’ve said so many things I’ve wanted to say had I not been so exhausted from having this helmet discussion too many times before.
    Thank you,
    Heather

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Thanks Heather. This has been on my mind a lot, and I was having trouble expressing myself in 140 characters on Twitter ;)

    Hopefully some day people like Shawn will recognize that polarizing the helmet issue divides the people who should be on the same side. And that’s exactly what the anti-bike crew wants!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15589492356827998591 Ryan

    He would fit quite well in BC. I am planning on moving there and have been looking into different things with different cities, especially related to cycling.
    The one thing I have found (outside Vancouver more so), is most believe if you don’t wear a helmet or reflective jacket, you’re not a real cyclist.

    I am absolutely against helmet LAWS. Although I am still going to move to BC, I will end up wearing a helmet purely because I don’t want to get slapped with a $200+ fine. I will however push and encourage the province to get with the times and repeal the law.
    Here in St Catharines, most do not wear helmets. Those that do wear them, give you absolute dirty and vial looks.

    There is no doubt, at least here there is a ‘war’ going on between helmet and unhelmeted riders.
    One reason I hear people push for helmet laws is because of our publicly funded health care system. If that was the case, anyone who leaves the house should wear a helmet, padding and anything else that will prevent them from getting a cut, bruise or even a sniffle.

    Lets be honest, people who don’t cycle and drive everywhere will be a bigger burden to our health care in the long run.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04454437680686627778 James D. Schwartz

    Ryan, yeah if you live in BC you will need to strap a helmet on (if you want any piece of mind anyway).

    Although, I read somewhere that cyclists in BC only wear helmets ~60% of the time (compared to ~80% in Australia). I’ve heard that it isn’t enforced as much in BC, but you wouldn’t want to risk a ticket if you are biking there every day.

    The best you can do is send emails to your MPP once you move there and let him/her know your stance on the helmet law. I hope they reverse the law, because it could attract a whole new group of people on bikes. They already have the mindset and some decent infrastructure that keeps improving.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01289456379789026152 John Romeo Alpha

    Optimistically, I think a lot of non-cycling politicians simplistically believe that helmets are the primo necessary and sufficient condition for bike safety. Helmets must look like a cheap silver bullet to them.

    Pessimistically, I think a lot of non-cycling politicians know that mandatory helmet laws lower cycling rates and as you mention in the above comment, divide cyclists over a secondary issue which distracts us from primary concerns. Helmets ought to be a personal choice/personal responsibility issue (up to you, do your own analysis of cultural, fashion, and safety factors, make your own choice, live with it), and move on to the rest of the issues that you mention, which are also relevant to cycling rates and safety. Those are great pix of the folks living on the edge riding without helmets :) .

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15589492356827998591 Ryan

    JAMES;, if you type “bicycling Vancouver” into Google News, the first few results are all related to the cops cracking down on unhelmeted riders now.

    No matter how many emails are sent, there seems to be an overall culture of apathy to wards the helmet law in BC.
    Those who are against simply don’t wear one or drive.
    Those who are for it make sure non-helmeted cyclists are vilified.

    And if motorists want to compare helmets to seat belts (although seat belts aren’t designed to protect a motorists head), fine. Drop the seatbelt law as well. It doesn’t effect me as I haven’t been in a car for over 6 years now.

    JOHN: Most politicians probably know that wearing a helmet will do very little to protect cyclists. It simply gets a good chunk off the roads.
    Keep in mind also, implementing a helmet law is cheaper then actually providing proper, safe bike lanes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10461307624697017327 Michael Kalus

    I will end up wearing a helmet purely because I don’t want to get slapped with a $200+ fine.

    The fine is $35 and the one time I was pulled over by a cop I argued my way out of it. The reality is that most cops don’t really enforce it unless it’s bicycle month at which point they are being instructed (at least the VPD it seems) to “enforce the law” while blissfully ignoring two other bylaws: No riding on the sidewalk and not wearing headphones. Both could net you a $100 fine.

    It gets so idiotic here during this month that I have to shake my head. Last year I saw a cop pull over a cyclist (in front of a stop sign) giving him a ticket for not wearing a helmet, meanwhile car after car blew through the stop sign. I asked the cop why he wasn’t pulling the cars over. The response: “I am here to make cyclists safer, it’s bike month after all.”

    This bike helmet law must be the most idiotic way of improving cycling safety I have ever encountered, especially during the month of June.

  • Tristen

    yes, if you want an example of what-not-to-do, just turn your gaze down here to Australia and New Zealand. We’ve been “living” under mandatory helmet laws for about 30 years now.

    we’ve made the dreadful mistake of believing that the bicycle helmet is the one-shot solution to cycling safety.

    we still have little to no infrastructure, we have appallingly low cycling numbers, it’s far more dangerous due to the lack of numbers, and recently we’ve just “won” the fattest nation on the planet award.

    Shawn Micallef should be extremely careful of what he wishes for.

  • Tristen

    yes, if you want an example of what-not-to-do, just turn your gaze down here to Australia and New Zealand. We’ve been “living” under mandatory helmet laws for about 30 years now.

    we’ve made the dreadful mistake of believing that the bicycle helmet is the one-shot solution to cycling safety.

    we still have little to no infrastructure, we have appallingly low cycling numbers, it’s far more dangerous due to the lack of numbers, and recently we’ve just “won” the fattest nation on the planet award.

    Shawn Micallef should be extremely careful of what he wishes for.

  • tristen

    sorry i made a typo below: that’s 20 years now.

  • tristen

    sorry i made a typo below: that’s 20 years now.

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  • Teri from Tacoma, WA, USA

    Sadly this myth is too common within the car-driving and cycling populations alike. As a bicycle-only lady for more than 3 years, I have only recently begun to realize that the only reason I feel compelled to wear a helmet is because I feel threatened by car-drivers and it has been drilled into my brain since I was young that if you’re going to even get onto a bike you had better have your helmet on first! -As if bicycling is the most dangerous of activities. I have really enjoyed your commentary on mandatory helmet laws and the reality that they do not help, but rather hinder, growth in bicycle culture. Also sadly, most the of admonishments I have received to “wear your helmet!” have all come from other cyclists. I rarely go out without my helmet, but in the several times that I have, I encountered recreational cyclists who yelled at me to wear a helmet. As if I was threatening their very way of life by choosing to be so “frivolous and reckless”. As it stands, I do feel more comfortable wearing my helmet because I ride on some roads with heavy traffic/ no shoulder and I don’t trust the cars not to plow over me sometimes, but I do wish for infrastructure that supported a safer cycle through town. Thanks for your work and your advocacy for real-life, everyday bicycling!

  • Erik Griswold

    “Canada was, in part, founded by people escaping European culture, so let’s not revert”.

    Aha! So that’s why Elizabeth (Saxe-Coburg and Gotha ) Windsdor’s picture is on the money and the country was greatly managed by a London-based trading company (which has I will admit now morphed into a Department Store)?
    And the French part is more French than the French themselves.

    • Erik Griswold

      Which is good, since it can be argued that Bici came to Montreal because Paris had Velib.