Well Being

In Defense Of Ditching Bike Helmets: Why Making Them Mandatory Is Bad For Cycling

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bike helmet laws

A few weeks ago, I read Elizabeth Rosenthal‘s article in the New York Times, ” To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose The Helmets.” I've always been a big proponent of wearing helmets while cycling, but Rosenthal's article, which basically posited that helmet laws discourage people from riding bikes, completely changed my perception of biking and helmets. Intrigued, I set off to find out if bike helmets are really as necessary we think they are.

I've always wondered why I frequently see celebrities (like Lauren Conrad) and popular bloggers (like Joanna Goddard) riding without helmets.  Was it because helmets are almost universally ugly?  Was it just a one-time oversight? Regardless, it struck me as both dangerous and irresponsible. I mean, you only get one brain, so why take any chances with it, right? I'm not the only person who thinks that way—but among some cycling enthusiasts, the idea that helmets are necessary is about as popular as Lance Armstrong‘s doping charges. Over the past few weeks, I delved into the very controversial, very passionate, very heated world of the cycling helmet debates.

The idea of wearing bicycle helmets gained popularity in the 1970s and 80s, although their use never seemed to really catch on in Europe, where biking has been a popular form of casual transportation for a long time. In the United States, a more car-driven culture, the widespread use of helmets was considered an appropriate safety precaution for all riders, no matter their age, skill level, or riding purposes. Currently, there is at least some kind of bicycle helmet law in place in 19 states, including the District of Columbia.

I spoke to the editor of Momentum magazine, Mia Kohout, about her publication's stance on helmets, which is that people over 16 should not be required by law to wear them. Momentum, whose tag line is “smart living by bike,” frequently features photographs of people without helmets, something Mia says is very controversial among their readers. Mia herself, who only recently started cycling helmetless, sees helmet laws as both prohibitive and overly protective.

“The more I read about it and learn about it, the clearer it becomes from my point of view that the research is not conclusive that helmets are the be-all and end-all as a life-saving protective gear. I look to European cities where no one wears helmets; this idea of civilized cycling. You ride upright, you ride slow, you ride on safe, protected routes. Cycling is not dangerous. If I'm not going to wear a helmet when I'm crossing the street or climbing a ladder, why would I wear one when I'm riding a bike?”

The idea that helmet laws discourage people from riding bikes is not new; in fact, it's been tossed around for years by cycling proponents. Piet de Jong, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, quoted in the New York Times article, says that,“Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits.” Dr. de Jong also helmed a study that found that helmet laws have serious, though unintended, health consequences.

In Brisbane, Australia, officials found that the mandatory helmet law was very likely responsible for causing people not to take advantage of the city's bike share program: the 2000 bikes in the program are used, on average, only once every four days. But in cities without helmet laws, like Dublin and London, the bike-sharing programs report increased use.

Kohout thinks that helmet laws ultimately prevent people from riding bikes: “For the overall health of society, people are going to live longer and have overall healthier lives if they ride a bike. The overall effects on society are so much more positive if you don't enforce helmet-wearing as a law.”

Of course, if you're already an avid cyclist, a helmet law isn't going to keep you off of your bike.  But one of the more important aspects to consider when thinking about required helmet use is the type of rider and the type of riding; almost everyone I spoke to agreed that long-distance and racing cyclists should certainly wear protective headgear. But it's the casual, commuter cyclists that might benefit from increased physical activity on bikes, and it's also these people who are less likely to invest in a helmet for every day wear. Brian Massie, a casual rider, told me, “I don't ride faster than about 30 mph and I haven't had a bicycle incident in 20 years. Even then it wasn't much more than a skinned knee. You might consider me irresponsible, but I've never worn a bicycle helmet.”

I heard again and again about the importance of personal choice in regards to helmets. Mikael Colville Anderson, the creator of Copenhagen Cycle Chic, is known for his staunch anti-helmet stance; you can see his incendiary TEDx talk here. Lawyer Josh King, the general counsel for Avvo.com, emphasizes the fact that riding a bike is not a risky enough behavior to require helmets:

Cycling is not an inherently dangerous activity – for children or adults – and the government shouldn’t treat it as such by mandating helmets.  People can make their own choices about whether wearing a helmet is appropriate.

Burton Avery, the brand manager for Civia Cycles, also encourages the idea of personal choice:

“The Civia philosophy is that wearing a helmet should be an informed choice based on where, when and how someone rides.  At Civia we encourage everyone to wear a helmet when they can, but recognize that a helmet is not a necessity for all neighborhood riders and riding.  By neighborhood riding we mean shorter distances, lower  speeds on less traveled roads or paths and when you're riding in your regular clothes.”

But those who are proponents of helmet laws also cite personal reasons as to why it's important to wear a helmet. Helmet wearers are disdainful of cyclists who don't wear helmets because helmets are uncomfortable, because they destroy hairstyles, or because these cyclists want “to feel the wind in their face.” Many people have stories about themselves, their loved ones or their friends who directly benefited from wearing a helmet when in an accident. Mark Waite, the founder of Cycling CEO, told me, “Had I not been wearing a helmet in 2006 when out for a bike ride, I likely wouldn’t be sitting here. I was hit by a car, flew over the front of the car, landed on my right shoulder and smacked my head on the pavement.”

I also spoke with an internist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Dr. David Scharff. He's president of Lateral Stress Velo, a bicycle club and racing team from Baltimore, and a participant/organizer of the annual BIKEJAM racing event. As a dedicated cyclist, Dr. Scharff says:

“There is no down side to wearing a helmet.  They are inexpensive, comfortable, and work. I know of many people who have been pinned into a curb by a car, had a wheel go into a rain grate, and slid on a wet road: those with helmets never had head injuries.  And I know folks who had concussions and serious head injuries from the same minor incidents (didn't wear it because just pedaling to the store or just pedaling around corner to school). If you have ever seen a crushed helmet after an accident, and a well person without a head injury, you would never go anywhere without one.”

There are extensive statistics to support both sides. A 1987 study found that the wearing of helmets reduces the risk of head injury by 85% and of brain injury by 87%, and a 2001 study found that bicycle helmets do prevent serious injury and even death. But a 2011 analysis found that the results of the 2001 study were exaggerated. People also cite research that suggests that people on bicycles might engage in riskier riding behaviors if they're wearing a helmet, feeling that the helmet provides a sense of false security.

Whichever side of the debate you're on, I think the key here is to make an informed decision about yourself as a cyclist. I don't think I'm going to stop wearing a helmet anytime soon, but I've stopped judging those who don't wear them. The idea of personal choice resonates with me, as does the idea that we, as a society, could encourage more cycling if we didn't place such a high value on helmets. Cycling is beneficial for both the health of humans and of the environment we live in; it's up to us to decide how we can best reap those healthy benefits, with a helmeted head or not.

Photo by Anthony Niblet, courtesy of Momentum magazine