What’s More Problematic: Bike Helmets, or Arguing About Bike Helmets?

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?

A couple years ago, Momentum Magazine theorized as much. From their September, 2012 piece by  and :

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.


Helmet Freedom TV ad 2012

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 saf…

 Thumbnail image courtesy Yehuda Moon.


  1. You forgot to mention the simple fact that helmets and helmet laws don’t help cyclist but discourage people from riding. What keeps cyclist safe the most and reduce Cycling accidents are having more people ride bicycles in a particular area. I don’t have the link, but I came across this story in Streetblog back in 2007 or so on how the number of Cycling accidents being reduce in NY not because of their silly helmet law, but more people simply riding their bicycles.
    My policy about helmets are simple. I wear one because I woke up in a hospital in 2001,but I do not want to live in a world where I have to wear a helmet to be safe on my bicycle.

  2. Re: helmets, as a cyclist who has been at it for 45 years, I’m just not fucking stupid enough to go around the block without one. The world, especially my Southwest Washington part of it, has too many Xristian evangelical conservative idiots in it already; don’t want to hit the deck with my head and find out that I love Jesus and believe Fox News when I get back up. Also, what’s with this idiotic bullshit about cycling-specific clothing being “intimidating,” or “elitist” or whatever other idiot word you want to use. We don’t live in fucking Copenhagen, the equipment and clothing for that city or (your fantasy location here) don’t work as well. Wear bike stuff–let your freak flag fly!

      1. Rebel,
        I’m not a particularly angry person in general but, having had a friend or three die of a head injury in the BB(Before Bell) days of leather or no helmets, having had a few more saved by hard and microshell lids, find this idea that helmets scare beginners to be an infuriatingly stupid variety of what they call “magical thinking.” The bike world has for the 40+ years I’ve been part of it bandied around various ideas of how to make “normal people” ride bikes; all in the realm of one form of fantasy thinking or another. More than I can remember–bikes that a complete moron can shift gears on with no experience, eiderdown saddles that dispense anesthesia into the rider’s tush, hill-free, traffic-free separated bike paths (hmmm, as I age, hill free sounds better…..) but you get the idea. So much stuff that makes cycling both safer and more fun has happened in the time I’ve been in it; it is growing. I live in Vancouver, WA. We now have as visible a cycling population as Portland had 20 years ago, which is not insignificant. It’s growing and even as they drive in states of self-afflicted mental retardation (phones, etc.) drivers are taking more notice of us. But, no, I just plain know too much to believe this shit about helmets and helmet laws discouraging riding. No sir, I’m just not that fucking ignorant.

  3. Lets not forget work related head injuries.
    Back in 2006 I was hit by a forklift at work, my hard hat went flying off and I struck my head on the floor, causing a skull fracture and cracked vertebrae in the neck, bleeding n the brain and severe concussion. My point is, head injuries occur no matter where you are or what you are doing.

  4. I am concerned about the statistics that you provide. I would have thought that more meaningful stats would be head injuries per hour, or head injuries per mile/km; broken down per transport medium. Maybe card drivers have more head injuries simply because people spend more time in cars and cover more distance driving cars than they do riding bicycles? I don’t know if it is true or not, but I would like to see those statistics rather than what you have there.

    My next question is would helmets actually help prevent head injuries in cars? Most modern cars are already fitted with airbags that are supposed to prevent head injuries, and as more cars are fitted with curtain airbags at the side I wonder if this is not reducing the number of head injuries in cars making the argument for helmets in cars superfluous.

    I would be interested in seeing useful data on this rather than emotional arguments based on spurious data.

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