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Let's Call a Truce in the Helmet Wars, Please

There are valid arguments for both wearing and not wearing a helmet. But shaming people for their choices is useless.

Whether or not someone chooses to wear a bike helmet, let’s end the debate and just respect each others’ personal decisions. (RyanJLane/iStock)
Photo: RyanJLane/iStock bikes

There are valid arguments for both wearing and not wearing a helmet. But shaming people for their choices is useless.

Maybe five or ten years ago, the tweet would’ve passed unnoticed. Denver surgery resident (and cyclist) Jason Samuels mused:

The comment thread promptly turned into a pro-con debate about whether wearing helmets is helpful or may actually worsen safety for cyclists. It’s a fairly regular topic these days.

The argument against Samuels’s position unfolded more or less like this: Cycling’s not an inherently dangerous activity; drivers and motor vehicles are the problem. So don’t pin the safety responsibility on cyclists by telling them to wear helmets. Put it on motorists, and build better infrastructure that keeps riders out of harm’s way. (This is entirely rational.)

The counterargument, from the pro-helmet crowd: Great idea, but it’s fantasy. The vast majority of U.S. cities don’t have large networks of safe riding routes and won’t for some time, but cars and bad drivers exist now and will for a long time. So wear a helmet anyway. (Also valid.)

Ah, said the pro-barehead contingent: If helmets help when riding, we should also wear them—or maybe even personal airbags!—for walking, driving, and showering. (Fair point.) Also, helmets don’t protect against all urban bike crashes. (Also fair, although benefit estimates vary widely across studies.) Finally, some even argue that merely wearing a helmet makes cycling seem like a dangerous activity, which means fewer people ride. So don’t wear one. (Wait, what?)

Pro-helmet shamers have been around for decades; what’s new is the rise of anti-helmet scolding. And I’m wary of the debate, because the whole argument over whether you should or shouldn’t wear a lid is beside the point. It’s time and energy not spent speaking with a unified voice about changes that have a larger effect on safe cycling, like protected bike lanes and driver awareness.

Often the debate over wearing or not wearing a helmet turns on familiar studies that purport to show that helmets do—or don’t—protect against crash impacts. Broadly speaking, the pro-helmet crowd’s territory here is shrinking. Reviews have challenged earlier studies that championed helmets as overwhelmingly effective. Actual protective benefits in a crash are likely lower than initially assumed, perhaps by a lot. And some innovative research—like Ian Walker’s famous observational study from 2007 that found drivers pass helmeted cyclists slightly more closely than they do unhelmeted riders—suggests that helmet wearing may have some collateral drawbacks.

Even taking Walker’s work into account, though, no scientific evidence has emerged showing that in a crash you’re more likely to be hurt wearing a modern bike helmet than not. (Emphasis in honor of the dude I saw last weekend wearing an eighties-era soft shell.) The knock, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that bike helmets were simply never designed to protect against the violent impact of a rider getting hit by a car, because they’re tested only at lower levels of force. That provides a false sense of safety, to say nothing of the fact that many cyclists hit by cars suffer grievous and sometimes fatal injury to other parts of their bodies. After decades of research of varying quality, the verdict on how well helmets work is unclear. (Virginia Tech’s recent work is a welcome advance in testing, at least.) The result: each side is dug in deeply enough that even new research is discounted if it comes from a source one group considers suspect. (Not that the author of said study helps his case much with comments like this.)

I understand where the helmet backlash comes from. For decades cyclists have been told that wearing a helmet is both our personal and social responsibility. Helmet effectiveness was overstated, which helped lead to mandatory helmet laws that are thought to reduce rates of cycling. Safety campaigns like this demon-weed-style PSA from Phoenix routinely put the onus on cyclists to wear protective gear and pay attention, even while often failing to tell drivers to slow the fuck down and pay attention. News stories about cyclists hit and killed by drivers often use victim-blaming language, like mentioning whether the rider was wearing a helmet even in cases where they’re crushed by multi-ton vehicles. It’s quaint by current presidential scandals, but when then President Obama skipped the helmet during a 2009 ride on Martha’s Vineyard, it was covered by Politico, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Daily News, among other outlets.

All that was highly effective at turning cyclists into arguably the most vigilant helmet enforcers. But in the past decade, cyclists have broadly started to wake up to the fact that helmet shaming is itself some pretty shameless gaslighting that might well be slowing bike-safety efforts. The backlash against wearing helmets is a collective fuck you to decades of societal guilt-tripping that we’re at fault for our injuries if we aren’t wearing a helmet and get hit.

The irony is that pretty much everyone arguing about helmets is A) a cyclist, and B) wants more cyclists to be able to ride more safely. We know that ridership increases (sometimes dramatically) when protected bike lanes are put in. And we know instances of crashes with riders drop as well. Given how clear that is, and how ambiguous helmet-safety data is, it suggests we’re all arguing amongst ourselves about something that may be a rounding error in the grand scheme of improving public safety. We’d be better served focusing our energies on what we all want: more bike lanes (especially protected ones), and a hard stop to victim-blaming cyclists when they’re hit by drivers.

Personally, I still wear a helmet most of the time. I wear one while mountain biking because I guess I’m pretty bad at it and fall a fair bit. I wear one road riding because traffic has increased and rural roads often lack paved shoulders. I wear a one at night, because I don’t trust that drivers will see my lights. And I wear one around town if my route is going to involve a lot of on-street riding. I wear one because even if helmets only help mitigate some head injuries in some crashes, I find that the physiological, financial, and sartorial cost of wearing one are negligible, especially compared with the infinitely bad outcomes—from my perspective—if I’m hit. But I don’t always wear one, and I won’t claim that my choices for when and where I do are always rational.

Your own cost-benefit risk analysis may be different. And that’s exactly the point, as Samuels himself stated later on in the thread: wearing a helmet, or not wearing a helmet, is a personal choice. I don’t want pro-helmet folks to claim that I’m blithely unaware of or unconcerned about the risks, because I’m not. I’ve thought about it a lot, and my guess is that you have, too. Nor do I want to be fed logically unsupported arguments about how the simple act of wearing a helmet somehow makes me less safe because it increases my head size, or that it is a message to others that cycling is not safe.

As Charles Barkley once said in a different context, “I am not a role model.” Wear a helmet or don’t wear a helmet, for the reasons you want, whether they make sense to other people or not. And if you see someone doing something different, don’t criticize them for their choices. Now let’s go build some protected bike lanes.

Filed To: Bike Safety / Biking / Cars