My Very Last Post on Bike Helmets, I Promise, Really

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CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ selfie in bike helmet and rain

Why we need safe bike infrastructure, not a bunch of helmet scolds.

I promised myself that I would never write about bicycle helmets again; I am always saying the same thing, that it's time to stop arguing about helmets and start building safe infrastructure. But then Jen See wrote a very good article, saying the same thing about the issue in Bicycling Magazine. It's summarized in the subhead: Helmets can protect against specific head injuries, but they're no substitute for safer streets and more mindful drivers.

That's why I wear a helmet, because I live in a city with lousy bike infrastructure and lousier drivers. I wish I didn't feel I have to wear one. I wish I didn't have to listen to other people talking about them the way they do. Jen Lee gets this:

If you’ve ever ridden a bike without a helmet, you’ve likely run into helmet scolds. They’ll tell you at length why you should never ride without one, about the risks and dangers. Don’t you know cycling is perilous, even for seasoned riders? They’ll come armed with statistics and tell you about that one time they crashed unexpectedly while pedaling around the block.

Statistics show that helmets can reduce head injuries. But where I live, many of the people killed while riding bikes were wearing helmets; they don't do much good when you get slammed by an SUV. They don't do anything when you get sucked under the rear wheels of a big rig without side guards.

Helmet deaths

Toole Design Group/via

Jen Lee also notes, as we have many times, that the countries with the highest rate of helmet use have the highest death rate among cyclists. The Netherlands, with the lowest rate of helmet use, has the lowest death rate. Does this mean that helmets cause deaths? Of course not, it means they have the infrastructure and the traffic laws that keep people on bikes safe. They have more people on bikes, and there is safety in numbers. Jen Lee writes:

You may still decide to wear a helmet on every ride, but becoming a helmet scold could dissuade new riders from picking up cycling—and ultimately make you less safe. When helmet use became mandatory in New Zealand, for example, the number of bike trips fell. Available evidence suggests that more riders on the road make us all safer, because drivers become more attuned to cyclists and drive more carefully. It also means more cyclists advocating for more and better bike lanes.

When I am on a bike in Toronto, I wear a helmet; I pretty much lost my mom to a head injury, incurred by walking without a helmet. This happens a lot to older people. But I also concur with Jen Lee's conclusion:

It’s up to you to consider the risks and make your own decisions about when to wear a helmet. Maybe that means every time you bike, maybe it doesn’t. I’m not here scold you for your choices. I just want to see you out there enjoying the ride.

I am really tired of people in cars yelling, "Get a helmet!" I would feel a lot better if they would just give up some space for safe separated bike lanes that would make the roads safer for everyone. I shouldn't feel so unsafe on the road that I put on a helmet; I don't when I am in Copenhagen. I don't when I am on a Citibike in New York City in physically separated lanes. That's what we need, not helmet scolds.