Sunday, March 1, 2009

To Helmet or Not to Helmet?

It's a question I ask myself, more and more.   I never wore a helmet until 5 years ago.  Then, two months later, I got in an accident where the helmet protected my head from certain injury. But now I find myself questioning the wisdom of making helmets the one thing that will keep you safe on a bike.  How many times, when the subject comes around to my biking, has someone asked "Do you wear a helmet?".  Why this question, again and again?  Perhaps more importantly, what is behind that question?  You'd be crazy not to wear a helmet because cycling is dangerous!

I'm not going to suggest that cycling isn't without risks, but it does seem obvious that as long as riding a bike is seen as a high risk endeavor, it's not going to rise above the exclusive club of risk takers and become apart of the larger culture.  And that would be a pity, because it has become obvious to me that the car culture that has grown to dominate our communities, is not a good one.  I found this on David Hembrow's A View from the Cycle Path blog, on the trouble the Dutch are having finding places for people to park their bikes.  Isn't that funny?  Think about what, we here in America, have done to accommodate the the car.  We have literally spread out our communities to make room for this mode of transportation.  Just take a look at a suburban mall to see what I mean.  The parking lot is bigger than the mall.  If I have a problem finding a place to park my bike, it's because of all the space cars take up.  

For me the helmet issue has become a question of, is it helping to knock down the car culture, or is it something that will continue keep the bicycle culture on the fringe? has written much on this subject.  In this article he talks about how a helmet awareness push may be causing a decline in people who ride bikes in Denmark.  And this is in a country that is a generation or two ahead of us bicycle culture.

I'm not saying don't wear a helmet, but if you hear about a drive in your community to require helmets or even a just a "wear your helmet" drive, you should have some real concern about how that is going to affect the growth of your bike community.   If you really want cycling in your community to be a safe pursuit and you want to see it grow, "helmet first" isn't going to to it.  

What do I think will grow the bike culture into something wider?  That'll be a future blog.


2whls3spds said...

I struggle with the helmet issue too. I have been riding for almost 43 years on a fairly regular basis. I raced back in the '70s and we were occasionally required to wear a helmet, we wore the old hairnet style, which I am sure did a lot of good. I have survived several crashes over the years, in all but one I was not wearing a helmet. And in that one it would have made no difference.

IMHO traffic has changed over the years,(and not for the better) if we had separate bike facilities that were not being shared with anyone but other cyclists I probably would never wear a helmet.

But 90% of my riding is on narrow two lane roads shared with careless drivers, I wear a helmet for what little protection that it may afford.

Should they be required? Mandatory? Or even strongly suggested? No, there is no conclusive testing to prove they really work. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, plenty of fear tactics and heavy handed local ordinances.


The Jolly Crank said...

I think helmet wearing should be left up to personal choice. I think the only reason cycling is dangerous is because cars are dangerous and a helmet probably won't save you if you're struck by a car (the last car/cyclist fatality in the Twin Cities metro is a case in point--the victim was wearing a helmet and riding in the designated bike lane). There are studies that show that many motorists' lives could be saved if drivers were required to wear crash helmets (but you won't see that law being enacted any time soon). There are cycling activities (like racing, stunt-jumping or other recreational sports) where a helmet probably makes sense. But utilitarian cycling? I don't know. That being said, I do often don the styro hat.

Anonymous said...

I've gotten the "do you wear a helmet" (yes) question from a few people, the first words out of their mouths after they find out that I cycle. I always find it odd. If safety is a concern, here are just a few questions they should ask first (for Chicago riding): do you stay out of the door zone? do you take the lane when necessary? do you stop at red lights? do you use front and rear lights at night? do you avoid riding to the right of trucks? do you avoid waiting to the right of a car at a light? do you watch for potholes? do you check over your shoulder for other cyclists before moving left? do you have and use a bell for pedestrians? If they're really concerned about safety.


Rat Trap Press said...

You just opened a can of worms with this post (search this topic in Bike Forums and see what I mean). I'm for personal choice. When I'm mountain biking or riding in the dark or on a road bike where my head is a little more forward, I'll wear a helmet. When I'm riding my LHT, seated in an upright position at low speeds I usually won't wear one. I just think about all the crazy stuff we used to do on bikes as kids in the 70's when Evel Knievel was everybody's hero, nobody ever wore a helmet. Our nanny culture will force us to wear helmets for every ride before long.

m e l i g r o s a said...

I think it should be up to you. I wear one because it is my choice and I personally feel strongly about it and have no problem with people thinking otherwise, is cool too.
That's the beauty of riding, all you need is a bike and if you decide to wear a skirt, lycra, be naked or wear high heels, is up to the rider. Variety is the flavor of life and dictating what to wear or not or why other cities are better than others because of it is just a waste of time.
anyways - keep on riding regardless, yes?! :D

spiderlegreen said...

Thanks for everybody's comments. I'm totally in the personal choice camp. But I am warning you that as your bike culture grows(Hopefully grows), there will be people who are going to react to it. One reflex comment I always hear is the bike helmet issue. "There's too many bikes and they don't wear helmets!" turns into legislation mandating helmets. "Their spending too much on bikeways and they don't wear helmets!" I'm just suggesting that you keep an eye out locally for this kind of stuff.

Meli~ I wouldn't dare tell you what to wear. i wouldn't want to mess with perfection. :)

anna said...

I have resolved the helmet question for myself in a certain way. Most of the time I wear a helmet, because in the city itself I ride slow and a helmet there 'could' help. But if there were less cars on the road I wouldn't feel that I should wear a helmet - I have experienced that myself (e.g. on the weekends I feel much safer).
Although I wear a helmet, I don't want it to be a law. It's not proved that a helmet helps.
The biggest problem is that some people think that helmets will reduce the number of injured and dead cyclists. Wearing a helmet certainly doesn't help to prevent accidents. There might even be some situations or bad types of helmets where a helmet constricts the view (e.g. like skiing helmets do).
I have even read a study that cyclists with helmets are overtaken with less distance than others, cause car drivers intuitively think that people with helmets are better cyclists.
Awareness and respect of cyclists would be much more effective cause only this way accidents can be avoided.

2whls3spds said...

There is a certain little college town in NC that has mandated helmet use for ALL cyclists and they back it up with a citation and fine. I haven't visited that town in quite a few years...but I am tempted to and ride helmetless and then fight it in court. I don't think they can put a local ordinance in affect like that on a state highway. FWIW the ordinance has been in effect since 1995!


spiderlegreen said...

Aaron~ I wonder how many people ride that town compared to other college towns. I bet less.