Why helmet giveaways are an act of surrender
This past July, the Herald News in Fall River, Massachusetts, reported that the Somerset police were handing out $5 ice cream gift certificates to kids cycling with helmets on. With the ice cream came the following admonition:
While the ice cream giveaway if fun, the effort also came with a stern reminder from police of what is required: “We would like to remind you that any person 16 years of age or younger operating a bicycle or being carried as a passenger on a bicycle on a public way, bicycle path or on any other public right-of-way shall wear a helmet. Said helmet shall fit the person’s head, shall be secured to the person’s head by straps while the bicycle is being operated.”
The next day, one of the happy ice cream recipients, a 6-year-old boy, was killed by a driver while riding on a bike path:
The day before the fatal crash, Somerset police spotted the boy bike riding with his father and gave him a gift certificate to a local ice cream shop because he was wearing a helmet.
“I guess it's kind of ironic in a very sad way,” said Somerset Police Chief George McNeil. “(It’s) just a tragic accident.”
This was “just a tragic accident,” really? No. This was a crash—not an accident—and it was one that was waiting to happen. Indeed, after the crash, local residents went and installed their own stop signs.
As for irony, well, it’s one thing to dismiss tragedies as “ironic” while you’re doing bong hits on the couch; it’s quite another when you’re the chief of police and a motorist has just killed a child. Here’s the definition of irony the police chief appears to be invoking:
a (1) : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result
It’s almost impossible to imagine a law enforcement officer blithely throwing up his hands in any other situation in which a child has been killed—but, of course, when the death is caused by a driver it’s just a simple “accident,” nothing to see here, please move along. That a motorist killed a child on a bicycle despite the fact that he was wearing a helmet is in no way ironic. Indeed, given our ass-backwards approach to road safety, it’s very much the “normal or expected result.” If anything, handing out ice cream cones instead of addressing glaring infrastructure problems, then calling the death of a child “just a tragic accident” is way more negligent than it is ironic. It also fits one colloquial definition of insanity, which is this:
Trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Yes, giving away helmets and/or delicious reinforcements for wearing said helmets is a time-honored tactic when it comes to politicians and municipalities who wish to create the illusion they’re actually doing something to protect children. New York State Senator Simcha Felder has also done the ice-cream-for-helmets thing, though when it comes to actual policy, he's attempted to raise speed limits and kill school zone speed cameras. All across the country, local governments and organizations dispense free helmets by the thousands in ostensible displays of concern and munificence, to the extent that no matter where you live, it’s just as easy to score a gratis foam safety hat as it is a complimentary gluten-free mac and cheese sample while browsing the aisles at Trader Joe’s. Yet here we are, still in a deep trough when it comes to the number of kids who still ride bikes.
Unfortunately, when it comes to encouraging kids to ride bikes and keeping them safe, helmet giveaways are the ultimate cop-out. They’re a symptom, not a cure, and tossing free helmets at our deadly driving epidemic is like throwing your empty pistol at the advancing T-1000 Terminator android before turning tail and running away. And it’s doubly insulting when the agencies giving away the helmets are the same ones that are directly responsible for street safety—your local transportation department or police precinct foisting a helmet on you is like your restaurant server presenting you with a barf bag along with your food order.
It’s no coincidence that the safest countries for cycling have the lowest rate of helmet usage: this is because the more cyclists there are, the safer cycling becomes. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that putting too much emphasis on helmets discourages cycling. Want to keep kids on bikes safe? Give them more safe places to ride and encourage them to do so. Instead of giving them ice cream for cycling in helmets, why not just give them ice cream for cycling? Instead of giving them free helmets, why not just give them free bikes? As it is, giving away free helmets is a great way to make no difference whatsoever, if not actively make things worse. At this rate, by 2050 children will no longer ride bicycles but there will be a polystyrene island the size of Maui floating around in the Pacific.
But don’t worry, there’s still a great use for all that foam: free helmet giveaways for motorists! After all, motor vehicle collisions are a leading cause of TBI. And if helmet giveaways prove as effective in promoting driving as they have in promoting cycling, we should see the end of cars within a generation.
Illustration by Taj Mihelich