Having written about bicycle rebellion, tactical urbanism, and the Right to the City movement here on Rebel Metropolis for almost a year now, the one issue I’ve shied away from has been bicycle helmets. If you’re a regular reader here, you know I’m not reluctant to question prevailing logic concerning the burgeoning urban cycling movement. But the helmet thing can be such a distraction, can off-put so many, that delving into this snake-pit here at Rebel-M seemed perhaps ill-suited, at least via print. Some have rightfully moved past the helmet debate, others righteously continue entering the fray.
To summarize the questions most often asked about bike helmets: Are helmets good for you? Sometimes, perhaps. Are bike helmets bad for you? Maybe. Are bike helmets a good defense against collisions with cars? Hell nope. Are helmets bad for cycling as a movement? Hell yes.
Without spending vast volumes of words explaining my answers to these questions, (as you’re likely already familiar with some of them), it’s worth noting my POV on this scarcely matters. People can feel totally different about this and they’ll argue for hours and nobody budges. We can certainly agree that perpetuating the myth that “cycling is dangerous” scares would-be riders away from ditching the car and embracing the bike.
If we agree that aggressively promoting safety gear that few outside the U.S. use is part of that fear-scape, then we can progress with understanding one another. The bicycle as a tool for combating global warming and promoting equitable urbanism would seem to beget this logic.
It’s been repeated, some types of cycling might require plastic and styrofoam headgear, but most types of cycling definitely do not. The problem that I and many others have with the self-righteous attitude claiming ALL types of riding necessitates helmets is that this is the wrong attitude to take if we’re in agreement that recruitment is a common goal. Bike advocating non-profits that have adopted a helmet-only approach to their imagery and branding like Portland’s own Bicycle Transportation Alliance have been accused of actually demoting cycling by universally promoting helmets. If helmets are their real agenda – and not bikes, then clearly there’s harm being produced.
Everyone’s got their pet studies and personal anecdotes that reinforce whatever rationale they believe. There’s the research that’s showed bike helmets reduce head injury by 80% – the problem was that the “researchers” tested un-helmeted adults on open streets against helmeted children on a closed course. Hardly scientific without any control group. This study has been debunked over and over.
Yet regardless of the facts at your disposal, it only takes one person with a story of blood and gore claiming a helmet miraculously saved their life to trump reason. The alarmists understand this. Our brains are hard-wired to react emotionally to story, not fact – legend, not logic.
Yet after years of arguing proof vs. anecdote, there’s been scant progress in either direction. Cycling in cities is on the rise almost everywhere. Whether you ride with a helmet or not, the important thing is that you’re riding; certainly another point we can all agree on. So is the debate itself around helmets possibly more of a detriment to the movement than the fear-mongering safety-patrolers themselves?
“Helmet arguments focus much-needed energy away from what really matters in making cities safe for cycling. We understand that our readers often have personal stories of loved ones who feel that they were saved by wearing helmet. Before you write us about helmets, please first write a letter to your local representative asking for better bike infrastructure and separated bike lanes. We need to move the conversation forward. We all have much more important things to talk about.”
It’s hard not to appreciate Momentum‘s logic. If overall safety is such a concern, we should be talking about why motorists aren’t fearful enough to wear helmets. After all, they’re in the greatest risk pool for head injuries out of anybody. People riding bikes? We’re damn near the safest of all. The less we fear, the more we ride. And that’s the greatest insurance policy there is.
See you in the streets.
Australia and New Zealand are the only countries with unfair, all-age mandatory bicycle helmet laws. After 20 years, these laws have not made cycling any safer. Instead, they have been a disaster for bike share schemes, cycling participation and civil rights. We only want the same rights as the rest of the world.
Thumbnail image courtesy Yehuda Moon.