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Bike Helmets Not Warranted 34

AmsterdamBike

Photo Courtesy of Marc van Woudenberg / Amsterdamize 

The topic of helmets often comes up on The Urban Country. It’s not really a topic we like to waste a lot of time on, because there are so many more important things we can focus on to improve the conditions for bicycles in North America.

The helmet discussion is a distraction usually initiated by non-cyclist politicians and journalists whose goal it is to distract citizens from the real issues.

This time the topic was revived by Toronto Police Sergeant Tim Burrows – the Traffic Services spokesman who recently posted an article with a photo of a mannequin cyclist with his brains splattered all over the road – telling cyclists that it’s their choice to have their brains splattered – or wear a helmet.

This is a common tactic used by the police to encourage people to wear seat belts – by showing mangled bodies in an automobile collision (I know, I know, this photo came from TreeHugger, so Llyod Alter is the one I should blame). The problem with using this tactic for bike helmets is that it discourages people from doing something that would benefit everybody.

Drivers benefit from more people cycling because there is more space for them to drive. Pedestrians benefit by having cleaner air to breathe in. Taxpayers benefit by having healthier citizens, lower healthcare costs (less cardiovascular disease, strokes, cancer), and less road maintenance costs. Businesses benefit by having more productive, healthy employees.

These are some of the reasons why those in a position of power should be encouraging cycling, not discouraging people from doing it.

Unfortunately, showing a photo of someone with their brains splattered doesn’t make a non-cyclist want to make the switch to ride on two wheels – helmet or no helmet.

As a result, Burrows has helped make cycling more dangerous – because the less cyclists we have on our streets, the more dangerous it is.

I know Sgt. Burrows has good intentions, and is trying to improve safety, but sometimes people need to look at the bigger picture instead of focusing on their narrow agenda.

Maybe Sergeant Burrows should have shown the photos of the aftermath of the tragic Quebec incident where a sleepy driver mowed down 6 cyclists, killing 3 of them. Then his readers could have seen the mangled racing bikes and little bits and pieces of helmet fragments left over.

QuebecCrash

Photo courtesy of the Montreal Gazette 

The fact is, even in Canada – where we have very poor cycling infrastructure compared to the Netherlands, cycling is still a safe thing to do. The media has perpetuated a sense of danger for cyclists that is both disproportional and completely unwarranted.

Even with all the safety features that come equipped inside automobiles, you are still more likely to perish in a car than you are on a bicycle. And when it comes to head injuries, for every million hours of travel, there are 2.2 bicyclists admitted to the hospital for head injuries, and 1.6 car occupants.

Therefore, if a cyclist spent an average of 30 minutes per day riding his bike, all 365 days of the year, he would be expected to have to go to the hospital for a head injury once every 2,490  years (or once every 41 lifetimes if he rides 60 years of his life).

So the probability of getting a head injury on a bike is very small – yet people in the media will play it up that you are virtually committing suicide by not wearing a helmet.

AmsterdamizeBike2

Photo courtesy of Marc van Woudenberg / Amsterdamize 

A few months ago, Spacing.ca’s Shawn Micallef made the illogical argument that anyone who doesn’t wear a helmet appears to be “frivolous and reckless” and that they don’t deserve better infrastructure because they don’t appear to care about their own safety.

Similarly, Sgt. Burrows says he hasn’t heard one solid reason for not wearing a helmet on a bike.

I proposed to the Sergeant that there is one very valid reason some people choose not to wear a helmet. It’s the same reason that automobile drivers choose not to wear a helmet. Because the risk doesn’t warrant it. Sure, a helmet could add some protection to a pedestrian, or a driver, or a cyclist. But does that itself make it necessary? No.

If a cyclist feels more comfortable wearing a helmet, that is completely fine with me. But chastising people for not wearing a helmet and supporting mandatory helmet laws does no good for anybody.

Why do people spend so much time telling cyclists that they should wear helmets, but don’t they don’t tell pedestrians, or joggers, or drivers that they too should wear a helmet?

When you look around the world to see how others are doing it, you will see that the safest country in the world to ride a bicycle is a country where 0.1% of the population wears a helmet. Surely they must be doing something right?

BikeHelmets

Graph courtesy of cyclehelmets.org

Instead of fooling ourselves into thinking that helmets are the silver bullet of cycling safety, there are much more productive things we can do to make cycling safer and more comfortable for everyone. Many of these ideas also come from the safest cycling countries in the world:

  • Reduce the speed limit on streets that are shared with cyclists (in North America, most city streets have a posted limit of 50km/h and motorists usually drive faster than this)

  • Build infrastructure to segregate cyclists from fast-moving automobiles

  • Raise awareness about cyclists through driver education

  • Modify traffic laws to take bicyclists into consideration and enforce the laws for both motorists and cyclists

  • Restrict automobiles from turning right on red lights at certain intersections

  • Build traffic signals that accommodate cyclists (especially for safe left-hand turns at dangerous intersections)

  • Build bike boxes to help prevent cyclists from being squeezed at tight intersections

These are just a few of the things that cities in North America can do to make cycling even safer and more enjoyable for everyone.

True cycling safety comes from more cyclists, better infrastructure, education, safe riders and cautious drivers.

It doesn’t come from slapping a plastic, foam-laced helmet on your head.

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

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  • http://georgesawision.com/ george sawision

    well said I agree

  • http://www.cyclingforbeginners.com/ Cycling For Beginners

    While I usually wear a helmet (especially since my kids have to under my State’s law), I don’t think adults should be required by law to wear one — it should be a matter of personal choice.

    I’m not a huge follower of U.S. stock car racing, but it is amazing that they sometimes have crashes at 200+ miles per hour that drivers walk away from. Using the same logic as mandatory helmet laws, you could certainly argue that all car drivers should have a helmet, firesuit, 5-point harness and a roll cage in their car. Or we could lower the speed limit to 30 MPH on highways, or convert all 2 lane roads to divided highways, etc., etc. After doing any of these, we save at least a few lives, while inconveniencing millions of people.

    The point is, with many other issues society does a cost-benefit analysis to determine what precautions should be taken, while making things convenient and cost-effective also. Adults should be allowed to make their own choice about whether helmets make sense for them also.

    Best,
    Rob

  • Anonymous

    I wear a helmet, and have bounced it off the road enough times to value it. If you ride slowly in good lighting in low traffic, then be my guest, wear no helmet. But if you regularly travel over 30kmh, or in the dark or on dangerous roads not wearing a helmet increases the chance of minor and major injuries when you do come off. And you will come off.

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

    Rob, good points. There is certainly a lot of things we can do to increase safety, but we need to pick our battles based on the present level of risk. Unfortunately the argument to make helmets mandatory in the 90′s was based on the bogus assertion that helmets are 88% effective. This myth has been thoroughly debunked, but people are still throwing around that number.

    Anonymous, agreed that the type of riding that you do should dictate what gear you wear. This article refers to urban bicycling at slow speeds – not riding on dark, dangerous highways at 30km/h+.

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

    There was a good debate on Reddit on this article – 86 comments in total. Some interesting perspectives from both sides: http://www.reddit.com/r/bicycling/comments/d9w5r/bike_helmets_not_warranted/

  • http://www.workbike.wordpress.com/ Andy in Germany

    @ Anonymous: Helmets are not designed for any impact over 12 mph and certainly are not designed to absorb the energy of a car hitting you.

    If wearing a helmet makes you feel safe enough to ride, that’s fine, but they do have limitations.

    @Cycling for Beginners: agreed on all points.

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

    I’ve always been dead set against helmet LAWS.
    If people choose to wear them good for them. I prefer and will continue to ride without a helmet.

    Also with winter just around the corner, it’s kind of hard to wear a tuque and a helmet.

    As for the most common reason as to why we should have helmet laws; our publicly funded medical system. I say why should I pay for people who are inactive? Why should I pay for those who smoke?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07536661018563937509 Xtreme English

    very thoughtful post. you don’t need a bike helmet until you do. then what? i agree that showing photos of mangled bikes and “brains” spread all over the pavement does NOT do much to encourage anyone to either ride a bike or wear a helmet.

    i like the photos of the bikers in amsterdam looking happy and comfortable and SAFE on their bicycles.

    where i live, the main street/road is a race track for moving vans, garbage trucks, and construction vehicles. you couldn’t pay me to ride my bike there.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17659061902462311046 Judi

    hallelujah!!! what ive been saying for YEARS. thanks so much, i will link on for sure!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17522769166560283166 Gabe

    A NYC DOT study found that 95% of bicylcist deaths were when the rider wasn’t wearing a helmet. 76% of these deaths were from head trauma.

    People can rationalize whatever they want, but that 76% number is all I ever needed to see to convince me to wear a helmet every time.

    Study can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/24d874j

    or by googling “DOT NYC bike study”

  • http://ecohustler.co.uk/ Anonymous

    I thought you guys might find this post interesting from a London cycle activist:

    Why bikes shouldn’t have to follow the rules of the road

    http://ecohustler.co.uk/2009/09/16/why-bikes-shouldn%e2%80%99t-have-to-follow-the-rules-of-the-road/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07321036757365862624 Lloyd Alter

    You have linked to my post of two years ago on helmets. I must confess that I have completely come around to your point of view, and particularly like your recommendations in this post. I fell for the helmet hype and was wrong.

  • Anonymous

    Prevention is more cost effective than protection. If everybody followed the laws and rules of the road there would be less crashes. Being alert and not distracted while in motion would reduce crashes. Helmets, seatbelts, airbags and roll cages do not reduce crashes, they protect you when a crash happens.

  • http://www.carfreeamerican.com/ Carfree American

    Honestly, I go back and forth on this topic. I do believe children should wear a helmet because they do not have the education adults do regarding safety, and if I had kids i would wear a helmet so they would not use me as an excuse saying, “Dad does not wear a helmet why should I” and then the kids hurt by falling..jumping off a curb, not looking both ways, etc. A friend of mine use to not wear a helmet, until one day she was headed to work. I dont think a helmet would have prevented all the injuries, but maybe lessoned some of the head trauma. I always wear one, I wish I did not feel like I need to, I trust myself, just not other drivers, in ten years of living carfree/ carlite, I have only had four times I went down, because of slick/wet/ or oily pavement…glad I had the helment on. But thats me, I dont care what other adults do, but kids, that is a different story, the first picture you have of a parent and kid bicycling makes me wanna say, “get that kid a helmet”, but then again, I did not have a helmet as a kid…see, back and forth :) peace to all, Carfree American
    http://carfreeamerican.blogspot.com/2011/02/vanessas-story-no-helmet.html

  • http://www.lemab.ca/ lagatta à montréal

    Carfree American, that kid is a Dutch kid, cycling in Amsterdam. That picture illustrates an important safety practice; a parent teaching kid how to bike safely and guiding him subtley. There are bicycle lanes on all busy streets there, and strict liability laws – you hit a cyclist, even if said cyclist is drunk and stoned out of his or her mind, you will pay BIG.

    I wouldn’t cycle if I had to wear such a thing. Today was chilly and damp, and I had on an angora béret which protected me from catching a cold. I don’t cycle fast, and wear normal city clothing. What I do have is proper lighting – it always amuses me when I pass helmeted lycra lout types cycling without lights or even reflectors after dark!

    I live in Montréal, where great cycling progress has been made – a BIXI scheme would have been unthinkable with mandatory foam-hat laws, for one thing. But we still have a long way to go to achieve Dutch or Danish modal share and commensurate safety levels.

  • ilovemyraincoat

    “helmeted lycra lout types”

    Yeah, screw them! Not that I’m judging, of course.

  • Alexian Conquest

    Be careful where you go with that logic. The study also found that something like 95% of cyclists who died were men; therefore, since I’m a woman, I should be safe from these threats, right?

  • Alexian Conquest

    Be careful where you go with that logic. The study also found that something like 95% of cyclists who died were men; therefore, since I’m a woman, I should be safe from these threats, right?

  • Seth_maax

    My dad died while he was cycling. A car which was driving higher than the speed limit crashed into him. His head smashed into the windshield, resulting into just enough head/brain injuries to kill him. He would still be alive if he had an helmet (or if the car was slower, or if there was bike infrastructures, etc)… But bike helmets were not so popular at that time…
    His loss turned my family’s life to hell for some years.
    Just to let you know…
    So wear a f***king helmet!! Accident don’t happened only to the others.

  • Seth_maax

    My dad died while he was cycling. A car which was driving higher than the speed limit crashed into him. His head smashed into the windshield, resulting into just enough head/brain injuries to kill him. He would still be alive if he had an helmet (or if the car was slower, or if there was bike infrastructures, etc)… But bike helmets were not so popular at that time…
    His loss turned my family’s life to hell for some years.
    Just to let you know…
    So wear a f***king helmet!! Accident don’t happened only to the others.

  • Louisuchet

    Life is dangerous but i don’t want to live afraid. If helmet for cyclist would be really effective we should were one every day life also in our cars! Or like pedestrian…What we need is slow traffic and respect!

  • Louisuchet

    Life is dangerous but i don’t want to live afraid. If helmet for cyclist would be really effective we should were one every day life also in our cars! Or like pedestrian…What we need is slow traffic and respect!

  • ed

    “in North America, most city streets have a posted limit of 50km/h ” oh if it were only so! 50kph = 31mph. Most streets in our post-car cities (phoenix) are more like 40 or 45mph.

  • ed

    “in North America, most city streets have a posted limit of 50km/h ” oh if it were only so! 50kph = 31mph. Most streets in our post-car cities (phoenix) are more like 40 or 45mph.

  • mkgordon

    Cycling over 30 km/h is cycling fast. That’s racing. Most cyclists in safe cycling environments choose to go about 20km/h, topping out at 25km/h. That’s not “slowly.” 10km/h is slow. If you’re going to ride fast, or engage in some other risky behaviour (cycling in the dark, cycling on dangerous roads, down steep hills, off-road, etc) on a bike, and you feel like a helmet might help you, by all means wear one. And stop telling people who just ride bikes for transportation to wear one. Cycling at a normal pace, you won’t “come off” unless you’re a klutz and if you do, you won’t injure yourself much. The point is that it’s unsafe cycling environments that put us at risk, not whether we wear a lightweight plastic hat that only protects you from low-speed collisions (12 km/h) when the top of your head strikes something.

  • Mike G

    Cycling over 30 km/h is cycling fast. That’s racing. Most cyclists in safe cycling environments choose to go about 20km/h, topping out at 25km/h. That’s not “slowly.” 10km/h is slow. If you’re going to ride fast, or engage in some other risky behaviour (cycling in the dark, cycling on dangerous roads, down steep hills, off-road, etc) on a bike, and you feel like a helmet might help you, by all means wear one. And stop telling people who just ride bikes for transportation to wear one. Cycling at a normal pace, you won’t “come off” unless you’re a klutz and if you do, you won’t injure yourself much. The point is that it’s unsafe cycling environments that put us at risk, not whether we wear a lightweight plastic hat that only protects you from low-speed collisions (12 km/h) when the top of your head strikes something.

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