Why Bike Helmets Are the Last Thing We Should Be Worrying About

Bike Safety Flyer


It’s Bike Month, that time of year when we have Bike to Work days and do everything we can to promote cycling. It’s also the time of year where we get campaigns to promote bicycle helmet use. One that is happening right now is from the American Automobile Association, which has this weird message in a tweet:

It has started a lot of discussion in the biking Twitterverse, with many pointing out that there is no logic to it at all, any more than there is in noting that 100 percent of drivers who were killed were not wearing helmets. But a response from Kostelec Planning reminded me of how things are done differently in industry and construction.

construction worker in helmet on jobsite
Lloyd Alter / CC BY 2.0

I wear a bicycle helmet. When I am on a construction site, I wear a construction helmet. It is just one of many things that you do when you think about construction safety, and as an architect, it is one of your responsibilities.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Center for Disease Control, tries to get to the root of accidents in the workplace, and writes:

Controlling exposures to occupational hazards is the fundamental method of protecting workers. Traditionally, a hierarchy of controls has been used as a means of determining how to implement feasible and effective control solutions. One representation of this hierarchy is as follows:

Controlling exposures to occupational hazards.  cdc.gov / NIOSH 

The idea behind this hierarchy is that the control methods at the top of the graphic are potentially more effective and protective than those at the bottom. Following this hierarchy normally leads to the implementation of inherently safer systems, where the risk of illness or injury has been substantially reduced.

So on a construction site, one makes sure that there are safe routes, protection from dangerous equipment, picking up the crap and keeping everything in good order, and lots of fencing to keep people who are not construction workers away from those who are. Then there is education and training of the workers, strong enforcement of the rules, and good maintenance of the tools.

heirarchy on road
Hazard Control on the Road.  KostelecPlanning.com

In their tweet, Kostelec shows a version of the control hierarchy as it would apply to deal with the problems of cycling.

This is the fundamental problem with the Automobile Association promoting bike helmets. Because the vast majority of the deaths of cyclists are caused by them being hit by drivers of big complex pieces of equipment going at high speeds. That the operators of this equipment are not isolated from pedestrians and cyclists by decent infrastructure. That few places are trying to change the way people drive by dropping speed limits. If the hazard control hierarchy was applied to transportation, we wouldn’t be worrying about helmets on cyclists; we would be preventing “accidents” in the first place. Bekka Wright, AKA Bikeyface, nails it totally in this info-cartoon:

bikeyface prevention

If the American Automobile Association was really concerned about cyclist safety, it would be telling its members to slow down; it would be supporting the installation of bike lanes even though they might lose a driving lane here and there; they would work to get people out of giant pickup trucks and SUVs with big flat fronts that are disproportionately deadly, and they would support Vision Zero campaigns. But instead, we have this.

Oh, and Bikeyface alsofixed the AAA poster.