After publishing a guide to the different types of and trends in Bicycle Helmets, (see below) I received a passionate response from anti-helmet advocate Mikael Colville-Anderson, known through his popular blog Copenhagenize, which started the ‘Cycle Chic’ phenomenon.

 

“You give people the impression that helmets are normal outside of Denmark and the Netherlands but helmets are not promoted or advocated in a long list of countries that don’t feature infrastructure. Only a small percentage of cyclists in the world wear them and most bicycle advocacy organisations are actutely aware that helmets are designed to save lives and that promoting them causes cycling levels to fall and it also scares newcomers from starting to ride because it makes cycling more dangerous than it is.”

 

As Mikael Colville-Anderson points out in his TED talk (below) there’s a 50/50 split in terms of published studies and research into trying to determine if helmets are a good idea or a bad idea. The rational problem is that there simply isn’t enough research and none of it is universally applicable. My feeling is that in places, like Copenhagen, bicycle helmets are unnecessary and can be an emotionally based (fear) detraction from cycling.

Riding a bicycle in Copenhagen or Amsterdam is an absolutely amazing experience – one that is completely different from places like New York City – where The Bird Wheel is based. We’re also heavily influenced by other American cities. Here there are no comprehensive network of elevated, maintained and constantly evolving bicycle lanes. Our daily commute rides are faster, the distances are usually much greater and it’s a far bigger challenge on many levels. The evolution and success of cycling in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam remain an aspiration – one that we are too slowly getting closer to.

 

But even with a major sea change and a fully manifested American ‘bicycle as transport’ culture – we’ll always be a bit different. American cities were built much more recently than European cities, in the age of the automobile, and the sprawl from places of work to the home is generally farther. So there are two important considerations
  1. We’re not there yet
  2. Even when we are, we’ll be different.

The shared goal is always to make cycling a universally adopted, respected & enjoyed form of transport. On this everyone agrees, but like politics, there’s always a lively debate. Let’s return to the helmet debate:

You feature helmets covered with fabric. Not a good idea:
This is an interesting point: that helmets covered with fabric have the potential that “If it snags you can break your neck”. It’s definitely something that I’d like to see included in the larger public discussion about the merits/drawbacks of how a helmet does (or does not) protect the wearer.

I’ve never been a fan of Nutcase’s products – only because I don’t find them attractive or comfortable – however their popularity is based out of  making helmets cuter, more fun to wear. Based on the test results Copenhagenize.com has published I will certainly alter my position to steer people looking for a helmet in another direction.

You could also provide your readers with a link to this TED talk about the Culture of Fear and helmets:

One of the most prominent points of the talk is that helmets are safety gear that do not make wearers safer (a contentious point) and that they exist to make helmet manufacturers and brand money (true). However this site has never received any money, product or endorsement from any company that sells cycling helmets.
The Bird Wheel Guide to helmets is based on a belief that bicycle helmets are beneficial to most bicycle riders where our readership is based. It also assumes that readers are intelligent enough to look around, make a personal determination and then look for something that makes sense for them. Personally, I have been in several bicycle-car and bicycle-bicycle collisions over the last 15 years (the first 7 years without a helmet). I now ride with a helmet 90% of the time. I also live in a neighborhood where the bike lane has been ripped out. In most American cities, I feel that an anti-helmet stance is extremely dangerous.

 

As well as links to the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation: http://cyclehelmets.org
This is a treasure trove for the anti-helmet perspective, largely focused on how inadequate the inner styrofoam collision absorbtion is in the interior of many helmets, or how the presence of helmets indicate danger and this prevents people from learning to ride as children or riding more often as adults. All totally valid points.
Like any contested perspective – nuance and context are extremely important. With a bias in any direction ‘evidence’ and ‘science’ can support anything. Are the studies listed here worthwhile? I think so. Do they prove that helmets are a menace to society? Nope.

 

And the European Cyclists Federation – the world’s largest cyclist organisation:
http://www.ecf.com/3675_1
I *love* how much more people-centric the approach in Europe is. When I was working there I discovered the big grills on trucks and other large vehicles are illegal because the fatality percentages were greater with them, than without. Simple and effective.

 

I also recall having my wheel clipped while riding on a beautiful highway between Hungary and Slovakia. I went down and my head bounced against the well-maintained pavement without a helmet. A car that could have run me over was kind enough to stop and drive me and a fellow rider to a nearby hospital to see about the open wound. With an obvious concussion I was holding my head and managed to overhear the couple, in Hungarian, say “What a stupid American for not wearing a helmet. She deserves her injury for not being smart enough to use one.”

 

And this is the danger of making helmets the social barometer.

 

Should babies be given helmets to avoid every little thud? Of course not. Should people be made to fear cycling? No. But it is good and necessary to understand the context of where you are and what is happening around you. Calculate your risk. Along highways I now always wear a road helmet – just like the riders on the Tour de France. In cities where cycling fatalities are a known issue and there’s friction between cyclists and other groups (drivers, pedestrians and even other cyclists) I wear a helmet. When I visit friends in Amsterdam or the countryside? I ride my bike as much as possible and leave the helmet at home.

 

Nona
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10 Responses to The Argument Against Bicycle helmets

  1. Byron says:

    We responded to Copenhagenize’s propaganda on Bike Hugger earlier this year:

    http://bikehugger.com/post/view/whats-with-all-the-helmet-hati

    As I said on Twitter, ask them how many cyclists have died in their cities. 6 in the past 3 months in the Seattle/Portland area. Then ask them how many people they know that know cyclists who have died — we’re a small community and are just a degree away from tragedy.

    The real fear is on the streets in the US. The Europeans who tell us what to do with our heads, do not ride in the conditions we ride in and when I’m in their cities, I don’t wear a helmet.

  2. jesse.anne.o says:

    I agree that there are two points to consider – whether the helmet actually makes us safer and then also public perception of non-helmeted folks by an already largely anti-bike city.

    “In most American cities, I feel that an anti-helmet stance is extremely dangerous.” <– I agree and think that the perception of New Yorkers is that someone who is abstaining from wearing a helmet is more likely to be a person who runs red lights, cuts off pedestrians, rides dangerously and cuts off cars but will be the first to blame cars if anything happens. Almost every cyclist/car accident reporting I read mentions whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet. It seems to say "Were they a safe and responsible rider?"

    Granted, this issue of a helmet conveying safe cycling is an issue that might only self-perpetuate to a certain extent but I think if all the non-cycling public sees are arguments about how it's not our responsibility to wear helmets and everything should just get a lot safer right now because it should just BE safer, for safety's sake, they will respect us even LESS. Not more. The attitude seems to be "If you can't bother to put a helmet on, why should I bother to drive safely since you clearly don't value your safety." I'm not saying I agree with their argument but the retort is far more nuanced and far longer than any of those folks will want to listen to and the request for the streets to be safer in general is not mutually exclusive to routine helmet wearing.

    Re the safety issue – I'm not sure. The comments on that Nutcase post reference a second set of testing, where the results were released and a comment that the publication originally cited as having "failed" Nutcase not releasing their testing parameters. I will say that I never had an aversion to putting a helmet on, although I was and sometimes am scared to ride in NYC, depending on the area, although that seems to be improving . If we were a no-helmet city with the traffic the way it is currently, I am not sure how that would have affected my decision to try biking on the streets?

  3. admin says:

    Thanks for adding your perspective. On twitter I had a good chuckle thanks to @juleskills

    @nonavarnado If Mikael Collvile Anderson did my commute down 7th Avenue he would shit himself. Diaper + Helmet.

    When there are lives, and not just statistics involved, it’s important to error on the side of caution.

  4. Mike Gordon says:

    I came to this blog posting after witnessing a gratuitous public insult your pal @juleskills threw at Mikael Colville-Andersen on Twitter, copied to you. Okay, you had a nice giggle. But really, what is this? You’re attacking the guy because he’s expressing a point of view you disagree with? I want to believe that this kind of mindless hostility is not endemic in the US. [Propaganda? Really? When you disagree with something, Byron from Bikehugger, it’s propaganda?] I read Colville-Andersen’s comments on the thebirdwheel.com post and I’m really not getting why you described them as “passionate” except to try and ridicule him or his views.

    I don’t care at all if you feel you need to wear a helmet. But you must know that part of the helmet political dynamic in North America and elsewhere in the bike-unenlightened parts of the world (including where I live) is that most people seem to think that that’s all that has to be done to make cycling safer. I don’t think the kind of helmets sold as bicycle helmets offer very much protection at any kind of speed, and really offers no protection at all against most car-bike collisions. If you want to wear one because something’s better than nothing, go ahead. But don’t start to believe the pro-helmet hype. You must know that real bicycle safety, and real incorporation of bicycles into the city’s transport is not about wearing helmets.

    Mike Gordon

    • admin says:

      Hi Mike, thanks for the comment. It’s not a personal attack and I’ve tried to make that clear to everyone in the discussion.

      There is a pointed attempt everything that I write that 1) infrastructure is desperately needed 2) education is desperately needed.

      but in the mean time we should continue to ride bicycles and that in certain environments a helmet is safer than nothing at all.

      In other words, we agree.

      Here’s to hoping all our streets become so well organized & pedaled that we can move on to things like where to go for coffee.

  5. velojoy says:

    Nona, the following quote from your post above is salient: “The Bird Wheel guide to helmets…assumes that readers are intelligent enough to look around, make a personal determination and then look for something that makes sense for them.” Amen.

  6. bikepeacenyc says:

    Nona, quite a lively discussion you’ve started. Personally, I choose to ride without a helmet, and have done so for 38 years. I also personally believe, that for normal day to day riding/commuting, the only real solution for our safety is proper infrastructure, education and more people on bikes (basically normalizing the ‘act of riding a bicycle’, which IMHO should be ‘normal’ anyway). If someone feels safer riding with a helmet, that is their choice, just as it is mine to ride without one. Personally, I am in agreement with Mikael’s view. I have taken the time to read a lot of the literature out there and I still have a ton more to go through. There are many nuances to this discussion.

    It saddens me that the twitter discussion at times has gotten heated, especially since many of those commenting are my friends and people whose opinions and feelings I respect.

  7. […] flared up in the #bikenyc twitter stream this week as pro- and anti-helmet voices reacted to a guide to bicycle helmets posted on the women’s collaborative website thebirdwheel.com. A helmet-wearer always on the […]

  8. ACTIBICI says:

    Hello from Spain, guys. I usually ride wearing a helmet because it makes me look like taller. And it’s a good idea (in my opinion) to look like taller if you usually ride with cars around you :) So my helmet works like a flag saying the the car drivers: “Hi guy, I’m here, have a look on me!”. Do helmets make people think that riding a bike is dangerous? I don’t care at all. I care my life.

  9. Brooke Wickham says:

    Just a personal note about the benefits of bicycle helmets. I was hit by a car (elderly driver over some years ago and ended up in the hospital with broken jar, broken leg, broken teeth and a very broken helmet, but NOT any serious brain injury thanks to the cushioning action of the helmet. You will never convince me that helmets are not life savers because my helmet did exactly what it was designed to do — which is absorb the impact of my head against pavement. It is fine for people to argue about helmets versus no helmets, but ask someone who has been in a bad accident with a helmet on whether or not they would ride without a helmet. I bet most folks would always choose a helmet. I don’t know what it is about humans that we often cannot learn from other’s experience, but if you can learn from my accident experience, please wear a helmet because it can save your life or at least save you from more serious brain injury. This is not “hype”! Gratefully alive and still thinking thanks to my bicycle helmet, Brooke

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