A few years back, I used to think bike helmets were a good idea, and used to even write posts suggesting that bike activists like Matthew Modine should wear them. Mikael Colville-Anderson of Copenhagenize wasn't impressed, and called me "a darling of the helmet industry" and the Fox News of the bicycle world.
Over the years I have become convinced that he was right, that helmets can marginalize and isolate urban commuting cyclists, who are no more likely to crack their heads than pedestrians or drivers. That they can scare people from cycling, just like the car manufacturers fought against mandatory seat belts because they thought it would tell people that driving is dangerous. That we have a right to ride in our city without armouring ourselves against cars. That normal urban cycling doesn't need special clothes and equipment, just a bike.
Toronto bike activist James Schwartz, who blogs at the Urban Country, has gone through the same transformation and writes an ode to his former bicycle helmet. He writes:
I know it has been a very long time since we went on a ride together. It may sound cruel, but I honestly don’t miss you at all.....I know you always had good intentions, but sometimes when I wore you I felt invincible and rode on roads I probably shouldn’t have been riding on and took chances that I probably shouldn’t have taken. Not wearing you makes me a more cautious and relaxed cyclist.
After going through the logic, James concludes:
If you happen to end up on another cyclist’s head, I will still be happy that they are out there riding. After all, the more of us there are out there, the safer it will be for all of us. But if you cause a person to decide against riding their bicycle, adding another barrier to an already long list, then I won’t be happy about it.
Let’s work together to make cycling more convenient and safe for everyone by creating better bike infrastructure, educating our road users and promoting civility on our streets. I don’t plan to ever wear you again, but I still appreciate our time together because you helped me realize that there is more to bicycle safety than yourself.
Read it all at the Urban Country.Now before everyone goes wild in the comments, by coincidence Charles Komanoff said much the same thing in Streetsblog. He summarizes the problems with the arguments for helmets in three points:
- They ignore the possibility that some non-helmet wearers will cycle less or will refrain from taking up cycling in the first place rather than use a helmet or risk being cited for riding bareheaded.
- They ignore safety-in-numbers, or, in this case, its inverse, by which having fewer cyclists on the road tends to raise per-cyclist crash rates with motor vehicles, as cyclists’ diminished presence on the road leads drivers to treat them as aberrations rather than as part of traffic.
- They overstate helmets’ protective value in reducing injury severity in the event of crashes.
And he backs it up with numbers at Streetsblog.
Being perfectly honest, I feel safer with a helmet and unlike James will continue to wear it when it is not too hot and sweaty. But not wearing one has become a political statement, for better or worse.