The Great & Overstated Focus on Helmet Use

Video Tuesday

On the issue of helmets and bicycling, I prefer seeing people without them. It lifts my spirits. When someone asks me from their car or the sidewalk, “where’s your helmet?” I typically reply, “where’s yours?” It is a silly question.

I’m uncomfortable with the steady mantra promoting helmet use and believe it does more harm than good. Real solutions to bicycle safety are better design & public investment to decrease conflicts in order to increase bicycle ridership more generallywith or without helmets.

Contrary to popular sentiment, helmet use isn’t the single most important personal action to take to protect yourself on your commute or trip to the grocery store. Much more important is developing confidence, skills and awareness both personally and in relation to the built environment. I fully realize that for some people and in some circumstances, that involves wearing a helmet.

Mikael Colville-Andersen, of fame, in part lays out this perspective  in the TEDxCopenhagen video below. The data he reports on isn’t contrived or fabricated, though some people claim the data he uses is overstated. I’ll let you research for yourself and be the judge. Still, at a minimum, his findings question some widely held assumptions. It’s longer than a normal video Tuesday clip, but not too long, and for anyone who has yelled from the sidewalk, “hey Gary! Where’s your helmet” it is required viewing.

Some of his main points:

  • Riding a bicycle is safe, let’s not embrace the culture of fear.
  • “It’s all about data” and the data has been incompletely presented.
  • Where helmets have been legislated or heavily promoted, cycling levels drop.
  • There is safety in numbers.

My findings, experience and subsequent views tend to align more along the lines that helmets simply needn’t be such a focus. The writer Elly Blue expressed an excellent balance on the subject in her post last year: Helmet Wars: A gripping account of the great bicycle helmet campaigns.

I agree 100% with her closing perspective:

Personally, after all this research, I remain most swayed by the point that the great helmet question is the wrong one entirely to be asking.

When bicycle safety is treated like a war of attrition, with every soldier responsible for her own body armor, we all lose. When we can freely ride on streets where we are not threatened with deadly violence at every moment, we all win.

Amen, sister.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The reason I’m writing about helmets today is due to a discussion that took place at the MyWHaT Facebook page. A small debate occurred after I posted a tweet in response to a Record Eagle brief about a bicycle-car crash on South Airport. Without much detail about the crash, or the injury, the phrase “the bicyclists wasn’t wearing a helmet” was tossed into the brief. So, I tweeted:

Reading today’s @RecordEagle in briefs abt bicyclist hit by car. Why mention she wasn’t wearing helmet? It’s irrelevant.”

I took issue that there was perhaps an inference of a social value-judgment on the person riding a bicycle by including the fact out of the context of any injury. Particular at issue was that she was near one of the most dangerously designed intersections in the region–La Frainer and South Airport. I say, why not point out the dangers of the context instead.

Riding a bicycle is one of history’s most efficient, enjoyable and safe forms of transportation (and all of the benefits that go with it) and we should strive to make it an inviting, default option irregardless of whether someone is wearing a helmet or not.

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  1. September 13, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Interesting video, thanks Gary!

  2. September 13, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Favorite quote: “The bicycle is a real and immediate threat to the dominance of car culture in our cities.”

    I’m right along with you on this Gary. Take the formality away from bicycling and perhaps we’d get more folks on the road. I think Jordan Owen and his Tweed Ride movement is a great example of this notion at work. We don’t need spandex and plastic to ride appropriately. Get dressed up, chat, smile, and make the road your own!

    Colville-Anderson brings up a great point in the video about helmet design constraints. In my 45 or so years riding a bicycle I’ve been hit by cars three times (once getting doored the other two direct collisions) and each time I got away without a skull injury wearing no helmet. The two latter events though did cause trauma to my face and teeth (as those of you who know me may attest). My other injuries were to my legs, arms, and hands. None of which any reasonable helmet design would’ve prevented.

    I choose when to wear a helmet. And that’s usually when I’m riding my mountain bike on difficult terrain, or riding my road bike “at speed” on the open road, or when attempting stupid bike tricks designed for younger, more supple, folk. Often I’ll wear one out of respect for ride organizers (like the CCCC) who admonish riders going lidless. But for the most part I don’t wear a helmet when I’m tooling around town, commuting, or otherwise trying to enjoy the moment on my bike.

    Thanks for bringing up one more elephant in the room.

  3. Ashlea
    September 13, 2011 at 10:10 am

    Thought-provoking post here, Gary. And timely. I rode Wren to school this morning sans helmet and all the other Moms I saw were wearing helmets and so were their kids, of course. If looks could kill…! A pregnant lady riding a bike without a helmet. Gasp!

    Part of the issue is “being a good example” for the kids and wearing the helmet so they will wear one too. Hmmm.

  4. September 13, 2011 at 10:33 am

    You rock, Ashlea and you’re not a bad parent. In fact, you’re a fabulous mother who cares about her child and your actions show that you want to raise them in a world full of choices, freedom and confidence.

    And, you’ll look great doing it! Ride onward.


  5. Max
    September 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    I was riding up to see a movie at a film festival venue. I locked my bike and got in line and this guy came up to me and started lecturing me about not wearing a helmet. I didn’t say anything, just looked at him with a raised eyebrow. He told me it wasn’t about the speed but about the height. Uh wait a minute I’m like what 4 or 5 inches higher than I would be standing on the ground? Come on, how is that a dangerous height? He then started telling me about a family member with a head injury. I asked if it was caused from falling off a bike and he claimed it was. I still don’t wear a helmet. I used to, but decided that it really doesn’t make me any safer safer on my bike. The traffic on the streets is far more dangerous to me than falling from 5 inches higher than my standing height.

  6. Ashlea
    September 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm


  7. September 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    For 70 years I did not wear a helmet — and heard the cry, from so many people, “Where’s your helmet Henry,” “You are such a public figure, you should set an example.”
    My son told me a “scare” story, and for a couple of years I wore a helmet
    For the past few weeks I’ve ridden without a helmet.
    Big realization. Big-big realization. Helmets hinder the very real, very social, side of bicycle riding. When I have a helmet on, people do not know who I am; when I ride without a head covering so many people call out, “Hi, Henry,’ “good to see you back, Henry.
    We hate the anti-social side of people contained in cars. People encased in helmets are anti-social, almost anonymous. Because I love the social interaction, I am back to not wearing a helmet.

  8. September 13, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Thanks for chiming in…great story, Henry.

    I had a few people say they secretly dug this post and the perspective, but would feel shunned by certain people in their circle if they publicly supported it. That is simply wrong…

  9. Marya
    September 13, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    2005. My first bike race. No cars in sight, no poorly designed intersections. Just me and my bike and somebody I was drafting off of and somebody drafting off me. We hit, I’m down. I wake up 20 minutes later in an ambulance. My helmet is smashed in half. I would have been dead.

    Maybe the writer mentioned her lack of helmet in sympathy.

  10. September 13, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    I’d wear a helmet in a bike race as well.

  11. September 14, 2011 at 8:06 am

    There is a time and a place. Quiet neighborhood streets, quick commute: I opt to leave the helmet at home. Cross-town commute, mountain biking, races: I wear a helmet.

    Side note about kids and helmets: most of them I see are WAY too big, hanging off the kids heads, over their eyes. What’s the value in that? Simply making the parents feel a bit better about their choices, maybe? False sense of security…

  12. Fille à Vélo
    September 14, 2011 at 9:34 am

    This discussion is so great! I agree with Ashlea, There is a time and a place. When I road ride and mountain bike, I always wear my helmet. As far as racing goes, I have never been to a race (I do a lot) where you were allowed to compete without a helmet. Cruising through town and commuting-I don’t feel the necessity. In fact, I feel kind of dumb with it on. Eleven years ago when I moved into town and started cruising/commuting I never thought twice about wearing a helmet. But I feel like I missed some big meeting where a discussion was had as to why we have to be wearing them now. I sometimes get the “shunned” feeling from my fellow cyclist. But still I resist!

  13. Marie
    September 14, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Seriously? I think you miss the true greater picture here. It’s not about you! It’s about you being the safest you can be in situations that are not safe! Riding on a busy street, busy intersection, whatever, it is dangerous! If all it takes to protect your head from fatal or disabling injuries is a $15 helmet, come on! Really? You high and mighties are so full of yourself, that by the grace of God you will not ever be in such a situation where you care enough about yourself to keep you or your children safe? You are not taking into account that vehicles and their drivers are hazardous to a bikers health! It’s the same as not wearing a seat belt or talking on the cell phone while driving! All of these (and many not mentioned) are just not good practices! And again, if you want to be willing to absorb the total cost and anguish that comes from your inability to realize the importance of prevention, then may the Lord have mercy on your soul.

  14. Max
    September 14, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Wow, with that sort of fear I guess we all ought to don a helmet as soon as we get out of bed!!

  15. R. Shimel
    September 14, 2011 at 11:59 am

    I don’t know, Max, but if God is on my side and the Lord is with me why do I need a helmet? On the other hand, if God is not with me and the Lord is not on my side what good is a helmet going to do me? I am in favor of bicylists being insured.

  16. rob
    September 14, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    I would be curious to know where all the non-helmet wearers stand on the motorcycle helmet law. No need to lecture the difference. Just curious.
    I believe it is up to me to protect myself, not the government or some stranger on the sidewalk.

  17. anonymous TC biker
    September 15, 2011 at 9:26 am

    i’m against the motorcycle helmet law, frankly. yes, actually riding a motorbike without a helmet would be even worse than participating in a bicycle road race without one — but if people want to be that foolish, that should be a risk they should be allowed to run, as adults in charge of their own bodies.

    i’m against automobile seatbelt laws too, for the same reason; i never drive or ride a car without wearing one, because i know the risks, but i resent having it forced on me as if i were too incompetent to evaluate the risks and benefits for myself.

    we let people smoke, we let people drink, we let people jump out of planes with only a parachute to save their lives, and climb sheer mountain walls for their own entertainment — the same competent adults who can evaluate and prepare for all those risks don’t suddenly become blithering morons when it comes to putting on a helmet. let them decide that for themselves.

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