Everyone Should Wear Helmets. So Why Pick on Cyclists?

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Video screen capture. Tom Babin sans helmet

Author Todd Babin wonders why there this obsession about cyclists and helmets. So do I.

Everybody apparently has an opinion about bicycle helmets, often with drivers of cars yelling out the window, "Get a helmet!” and lazy journalists who might be covering a crash where someone is squished by a cement mixer still turning it into a discussion about helmets. I stopped writing about the issue a few years back when my late mom took a spill and hit her head. Now I think everyone should wear a helmet, particularly drivers, who have the most head injuries, and seniors, who fall down a lot. I think of Mom and now wear a helmet most of the time (on my bike, not when I am walking).

Tom Babin, a Calgary journalist and author who writes about bikes, recently made a video about urban cycling and didn’t wear a helmet, and the reaction was quick: “Don't you think wearing a helmet at least for the video would have showed a much better example of responsible bicycle riding?” Tom responded with one of the most thoughtful and articulate discussions of the issue that I have read on his blog, Shifter.

In a nutshell: I wear a helmet in situations in which I feel the risk of being struck by a car or the risk of crashing is great.

He then really gets into the oddness of the whole issue, the statistics about who gets killed or has head injuries, and shakes his unhelmeted head.

cause of head injuries

Rebel Metropolis/via

..you are hella more likely to be struck by a car by simply walking the streets than riding a bike on them. Yet only cycling is perceived as dangerous enough to require a helmet. It makes no sense, yet helmet use has gone from the fringes to orthodoxy in a generation. It’s now so ingrained in many people that it’s unfathomable that someone would choose to ride without a helmet. Yet the idea of wearing a helmet as a pedestrian is so absurd as to be laughable. The most dangerous thing you will do in your day, statistically speaking, is drive a car, yet where is the helmet debate there? Such a suggestion would get you laughed out of the room. Yet, if we were to require helmets while driving, we would almost assuredly save more lives than if we require them on bikes.

Tom notes that the campaign to get people to wear helmets creates a perception that cycling is dangerous, and scares people off bikes. He probably hasn’t read Tara Goddard’s new research yet, or he would note that that is entirely the point; drivers do not want bikes in their way and will do everything to make it more miserable, from helmet laws to mandatory licensing.

The real issue here is a battle over pavement and who controls it.

The other thing that bothers me about this whole debate is the way it distracts from the real issues around bicycle safety.... it’s beyond debate that building a strong network of protected bike lanes creates a safer environment for people on bikes. If you really care about bike safety, this is where you should focus your efforts.
miners with helmets

© Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

Sure, if you fall off your bike you are better off with a helmet. But Tom is right: why single out cyclists? Everybody is better off wearing a helmet if they fall. I mean really, coal miners even wear them in the White House. What is going to fall on their head there? Nothing, because in the White House, they are symbols. They have taken on a meaning that is bigger than their actual function. The same can be said about bike helmets.

There are certain tropes that you read over and over. “The driver stayed at the scene” is in every news article where a pedestrian or cyclist is killed by a car, because that means the driver didn’t mean it and “it was an accident.” The child “darted out.” When have you ever heard the verb “darted” when it wasn’t in a story about a car hitting a kid? And of course, “the cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet,” which gives drivers licence to crush them to death under their wheels. It is not about safety, it is about semiotics.

fedex lane

Life in the Fedex Lane last week in Toronto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I live in a city with crappy bike infrastructure, almost no truly separated lanes, and the few bike lanes that we have have been co-opted by the delivery companies. Oh, and streetcar tracks. I wear a helmet. But as Tom concludes: “If you spot me, or anybody else, riding without one, all I ask is that you stop before trying to shame them and give some thought to the real issues around bike safety that impact all of us.”

I swore I was never going to write about bike helmets again but Tom Babin wrote such a good piece that I had to. Read it all on Shifter.