Time to Stop Arguing About Helmets and Start Building Safe Infrastructure

Bike helmet in Copenhagen

We really don't have time for all these silly debates.

Every year about this time when the weather gets warm, peoples' thoughts turn to complaining about bike helmets. In Vancouver, where bike helmets are mandatory for everyone, TreeHugger favourite Chris Bruntlett explains why this is a problem to the CBC, and why mandatory helmet laws are unnecessary.

Chris and Melissa Bruntlett

Lloyd Alter/ Chris and Melissa Bruntlett/CC BY 2.0

According to Bruntlett, these laws were all introduced roughly 20 years ago, before cities began building safer, separate cycling paths. He claims some people don't want to wear a helmet for one reason or another, and the result is that it becomes a barrier to cycling.

"All these myriad benefits of getting on a bike that we talk about — whether it's reducing congestion, increasing health, quality of life — they're all lost because we've suddenly decided as a society that stopping cyclists from hurting their heads is ... a prerequisite to getting on a bicycle," he said.

He doesn't wear one, but says he feels safe and comfortable.

"Putting a helmet on would feel as silly as it would if I did it while I was jogging or any number of other activities we do that also run the risk of head injury," he said. "We just seem to have singled out cycling as the single most threatening, when statistically, it most definitely isn't."

I have biked in Vancouver and they have seriously wonderful bike infrastructure, and it does feel safe to ride there.

London and the UK in general is another story. They argue about helmets all the time there, and people scream at you from their cars if you are not wearing one. But as Peter Walker notes in the Guardian, the real problem is their feral streets. In a short article looking at why fewer women ride in Britain, he notes that in Netherlands and Denmark, more women ride than men.

In contrast, London remains a largely feral and hostile environment for cyclists, despite the arrival of a handful of so-called cycle superhighways. It is a road culture that emphasises speed and assertiveness, and this tends to put off many but the most gung-ho, enthusiast riders, who tend to be drawn from a smaller demographic pool.

Walker notes that "the solution is clear – safer cycling streets" but everything takes so long with endless consultations "seeking to assuage a minority of critics who will never be convinced."

It is, as one exasperated campaigner notes, as if Joseph Bazalgette had been stopped from building his sewers for a two-year consultation on whether separating drinking water from sewage was a good idea.

I am not anti-helmet; I wear one myself. But it's crazy; every city should be promoting bikes as a way of reducing traffic and improving the health of its citizens. We know what needs to be done to get people on bikes: protected infrastructure. Peter Walker and Chris Bruntlett are both right; we don't need foam on our heads, we need safe places to ride.