Why Not Wear a Bike Helmet?
June 4, 2011
Helmets are a ridiculously divisive issue, and it seems like many people pick their corner and defend it at all costs, no matter how ridiculous their arguments become. I don’t think you’re reckless just because you don’t wear one, nor will I laud you for setting a positive example to mankind if you do. I probably won’t notice one way or the other.
On the other hand, many of the arguments people take against helmets are naive at best, and laughable at worst. It’s your own business if you don’t want to wear a helmet, but getting bogged down in rhetoric doesn’t make anyone any safer.
A Helmet Does Not Make You Invulnerable
This is just common sense, right? Even the best helmet may not be any use if a car slams right into you doing 60 km/hr. They aren’t designed for high-speed impact, and they’re certainly not going to do anything to prevent serious internal injuries or spinal trauma.
This is not news to cyclists. It may be news to pedestrians, drivers, and those in the media. Almost any news story about an injured cyclist will talk about whether he or she was wearing a helmet. Let’s review a few points before deciding whether or not that is relevant:
- A helmet is not mandatory in Ontario if you’re over 18. The absence of a helmet has no bearing on the cyclist’s lawful behaviour.
- What sort of injury did the cyclist sustain? If it’s a head injury, then sure, the presence of a helmet may be relevant. If it’s a spinal injury or broken limbs, who cares if the cyclist was wearing a helmet?
- It may not be relevant. If someone gets run over by a cement truck, a helmet is not going to help.
A Helmet That Doesn’t Make You Invulnerable Is Still Useful
If automobile collisions at 60 km/hr were all we had to worry about, it would be easy to avoid injury: Just stay away from any street with high-speed traffic. (To be fair, in many places, this isn’t so easy – roads get scary the further you get from downtown.)
But accidents happen in many forms, and for many reasons. Car doors and right hooks are a constant danger to cyclists, and a helmet may help prevent injury there. Toronto is also covered with streetcar tracks (problematic at the best of times, and even worse in rain or snow), potholes, and sewer grates. Careless pedestrians, reckless cyclists, and even rogue pets can all cause accidents.
I Ride Slowly and Carefully, So I Don’t Need a Helmet
You don’t need to be going fast to have a collision. I once fell while going over some railway tracks on a bicycle path. I was going slowly, because it was snowing and I knew there were tracks ahead, but I still fell, and I fell hard and fast, bruising my hip and smacking my helmeted head into the pavement. Even if you’re perfect 100% of the time, there are risks, and being perfect all the time is a lot to ask of anyone.
I’m also not sure that the people who suggest this sort of thing understand how awesome it is to ride a bicycle really fast.
If I Fall, I’ll Protect My Head With My Hands
Yes, apparently people think this is possible. I’m not going to say it’s impossible; maybe you have incredible reflexes, or a finely honed ability to snap into fetal position at the slightest hint of trouble. Maybe you’re Spider-Man; I see no reason why Spider-Man should wear a helmet to ride a bike if he doesn’t wear one when he fights the Rhino.
On the few occasions I’ve fallen, there was no time to think about it. Once I knew I was going to fall about half a second before I did; another time, I had no idea what happened until I was lying on the pavement. Even if you have the time to think about it, your instincts may be working in other ways – trying to regain balance, or bracing your fall.
Thinking you can avoid falls or collisions is naive, and counting on having astonishing reactions if you do is downright dangerous. You may never have an accident on your bike, but if you do, I imagine you’d want to have a helmet on.
A Helmet Makes Cycling More Dangerous
A study from 2006 found that drivers were more likely to pass a helmeted cyclist unsafely than an unhelmeted one. But that doesn’t mean helmets are unsafe. This is an issue of driver behaviour, not cyclist safety. Drivers should be passing all cyclists safely, not just the ones who look vulnerable.
The study also found that drivers were better behaved around a cyclist who appeared to be a woman – as suggested by a long, blonde wig – than a man. Wearing a helmet isn’t any more dangerous than being a man, or a woman with short hair.
A Helmet Makes Cycling Look Dangerous and Scares People Away
I’ve been riding a bike for most of my life, and it’s been my primary – and preferred – mode of transportation for the last ten years. Some times, and some places, riding a bike can be scary and intimidating. But I’d never describe cycling as “dangerous”. Skydiving and rock climbing are dangerous, though I’m sure there are those who’d tell me they aren’t dangerous if you take the proper precautions.
We’re surrounded by safety infrastructure. Cars are loaded with safety features, but no one thinks of driving as dangerous, even when they put on their seat belts. Life jackets don’t scare people away from boats, and a fire extinguisher in the kitchen is not a tacit admission that you are afraid to cook dinner.
Cycling isn’t dangerous, but there are risks. Maybe wearing a helmet is excessive, maybe it’s inadequate, but the risk remains, whether you like it or not. Wearing a helmet doesn’t say “I’m afraid to ride a bike.” It says “I like riding a bike, and I’m taking a reasonable precaution.”
(Interestingly, this point seems to contradict the “helmets won’t protect you from everything” argument. Cycling, apparently, is not dangerous enough to worry about small collision, but it’s dangerous enough that if you do get into an accident, it’ll probably kill you whether you have a helmet or not.)
Bike Helmets Distract Us From Other Issues
Why talk about helmets when there are so many other issues? Flawed driver training, lacklustre enforcement, inadequate infrastructure… shouldn’t we pay attention to these things instead? Maybe, if we fixed them, we wouldn’t need bike helmets at all?
This is flawed reasoning. Whoever said we can only talk about one issue at a time? If your back tire is flat and your brakes don’t work, you can’t just fix one problem – you’ve got to address them both. I can happily wear my helmet while I’m riding, and send emails to my city councillor about bike lanes later.
A bike helmet is cheap – for $30 to $60, you can buy a helmet that will last you for several years, assuming it isn’t damaged in an accident. Most of the time, you’ll forget that you’re even wearing it. I’ve been out biking thousands and thousands of times, and only once have I ever needed my helmet. But wearing it never feels like a burden or a chore – it’s just something I do. And I was certainly glad it was there when I needed it; the sound of the helmet smacking into the pavement isn’t something I’ll forget.
If you don’t think you need a helmet – if you don’t think there’s enough of a risk, or a helmet isn’t enough protection – then by all means, do your own thing. But while I won’t tell you that you need to wear a helmet, or insist that the government pass laws that make you wear one, I still can’t see a single reason not to wear one that outweighs the one reason I have for wearing one: Because it might save my life some day.