Why We All Have to Stop Obsessing About Bike Helmets

Video screen capture. ABC News

A recent hit-and-run in San Jose demonstrates how we get our priorities wrong.

A few days ago, the driver of a white Honda blithely rolled through a stop sign in San Jose, California, and hit two children while turning right. The driver then backed up and took off to the left. Amanda del Castillo and Heather Tuggle of ABC News report:

Police say the victims include a 12-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy who both had on helmets.
Still, the impact threw the victims off their bikes and into the road. The boy's family says he has a broken wrist, sprained fingers, and some bumps and bruises.

It’s the word “still” that bothers me. It almost implies that the helmet should have protected the kids from being thrown off their bikes and the boy breaking his wrist, as if it had some kind of car-repellent magic. (The girl’s family says she suffered a concussion, so the helmet may have done some good for her). The authors repeat, as the last line of their report, that “SJPD says both juveniles were wearing bicycle helmets.”

Anyone watching the video and who has ever driven a car can see what happened here. The kids are riding on the sidewalk because the road is wide and cars go fast and it is not safe for kids. They are going against the flow of traffic. The driver of the Honda is looking to the left to see if he or she can turn, probably didn’t even look to the right, and of course, didn’t stop. I have been knocked off my bicycle in exactly this way on a contraflow lane in Toronto.

fox news

Fox News/Screen capture

And of course, in Fox News, it’s a car that flees, not a driver. Because there are autonomous cars in San Jose.

The big problem here is, of course, the fact that it is a hit-and-run; without that and the video, nobody would be paying attention. The second problem is the almost universal helmet obsession. It has little or no relevance here, but the authors feel it is important enough to mention twice, closing the story with it. It always happens; I have written about a woman crushed to death under a right-hooking cement mixer, her helmeted head perfectly intact, but the news is all about helmets.

Nobody is asking why it is not an all-way stop intersection, why there is no protected bike infrastructure so that the kids wouldn’t have to be on the sidewalk riding against traffic, or why stop signs are so ineffective and so regularly ignored.

Helmets can and do save lives, as they would on anyone, including pedestrians and drivers. But that facts are that it is crappy infrastructure and cars and drivers that kill and maim, and in most cases the helmet is not a factor.

There is nothing inherently dangerous about cycling; there is no real need to armour up to ride a bike. It’s the getting hit by car or truck that causes the problem, and in most interactions between bike and truck, the helmet doesn’t make much of a difference. So I wish people would stop obsessing about them; they are really not relevant or important in the larger picture.

And if anyone comments, “If it only saves one life,” I’m gonna scream.