Bicycle helmets are hilarious (and why I wear one)

How exactly did this helmeted piece of postmodern architecture come to exist? I don’t remember precisely. Friend and fellow transpoblogger Gary Kavanagh stayed with us for a night on a recent visit to Portland, and there was a conversation over breakfast the next morning which involved a lot of laughing, and then suddenly Gary is sending me photoshopped buildings and funny captions and I’m laughing too hard to say anything but “Just post them already!!!” and he does.

Anyway, you really have to read the captions to get it. It’s all right here.

Something must be in the air, because in the last couple of weeks I’ve been finding myself in several unrelated, more serious conversations about bicycle helmets.

I came away from researching a feature article on the topic last year feeling more confused than when I went into it. One of the people I’ve been emailing with is Koula Redmond, a bicycle advocate we met on tour in Jacksonville, Florida, who expressed misgivings about helmets similar to the ones I feel — they’re designed to protect us from very specific and limited types of impact, but the rhetoric on both sides is flying so fast and furious that it’s hard to come to a clear decision. And it was nice to hear Redmond’s perspective, because like me she has sympathies on both sides and has chosen not to choose.

The pro- and anti- helmet activists are equally, ferociously sure of their scientific and moral high ground, and both deploy a mix of good and seriously skewed and incomplete stats to make their cases. In practice, I find myself in equal disagreement with both sides.

I wear a helmet most of the time when bicycling because the evidence, albeit anecdotal, presented by health care worker friends scares me utterly. It scares me so good that the only thing that prevents me from wearing one at other times when I’m in or around cars is that I don’t relish the idea of being that lady with her helmet on walking down Powell. The risks of head injury are significant by any mode, and it’s a relief at times that it’s socially acceptable to wear a helmet at least while on a bicycle.

On the other hand, I don’t always wear my helmet because the damn things are uncomfortable, the chances of it being needed feel reasonably slim, and there is also something to the points of the anti-helmet faction—for instance, there is some tenuous evidence that without a helmet, you’re perhaps perceived as more vulnerable and given a bit more breathing room. The anti-helmet people also like to say that not wearing a helmet helps normalize bicycling. But helmets are the norm here in Portland, and not wearing one while cycling inevitably attracts notice and commentary; I tend to go helmetless primarily when doing something that’s already a bit outlandish, like dressing up to the nines or hauling furniture or people.

Either way, my main objection to both the pro- and anti-helmet rhetoric is that it seems sadly inhuman to try to live life by any scientific statistical calculation of safety. The helmet debate is at core an argument about what is the most rational way to live your life. In the two sides’ juxtaposition you can see the vein of irrational absurdity that may rightly be the real basis of our society.

One thing that is certain is that all-ages mandatory helmet laws do more harm than good, reducing the amount of cycling and therefore its safety in any given place. Redmond compared helmets with sharrows—an easy, cheap, way for advocates and politicians to act, even if the effect is more symbolic than useful or safe.

Which brings me back to Gary’s blog. The way helmets are often promoted and legislated as the be-all of bicycle safety is beyond absurd (with a less-funny element of misdirected blame), and I love the way these photos and captions demonstrate that. But I hate the similar nagging tone taken by the anti-helmet folks, informing us that our social responsibility is to ride helmetless, preferably in outfits more expensive than our bicycles.

What would happen if we dropped the stats and postures and worked together on the most irrationally plausible goal of all — eliminating the issue of traffic safety entirely? Cars, speed, drunkenness, distraction and roads are the real problem here, and there are more terrifying numbers to back that up than any helmet-debater can boast of. It would be easier to see that, though, if we stopped railing against the styrofoam hat industry and each other.

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20 Responses to “Bicycle helmets are hilarious (and why I wear one)”

  1. Cathy June 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    Thanks for sharing! I’m always interested in hearing others’ thoughts on safety and, in particular, helmets. I agree with most of what you’ve said here. I personally would never, ever ride without a helmet, for the simple fact that I can look at my helmet right now and point out to you the green streaks from that time that green car hit me last November. I walked away from that crash with nothing worse than a few large bruises, a broken shoulder blade, and $40 in bike repair that I probably could’ve done myself. And paint streaks on my helmet from where my head hit the side of the car. I will never go helmet-less on my bike in Baton Rouge, or anywhere.

    That said, I agree that helmet-wearing should not be mandated for all ages. And I definitely strongly feel that advocacy groups and the media put way too much emphasis on helmets, to the detriment of other, more urgent, bicycle safety measures. In my experience, it’s rare to come across any sort of public awareness emphasizing smartly choosing your route, riding on the road, using hand signals, being predictable, maintaining awareness, maximizing visibility, safe bike maintenance, how to be assertive without aggression, using lights, etc. etc. etc. The unfortunate effect being that many new riders feel that if they simply put on a helmet, all will be just fine.

    So ultimately, while I know that helmets are certainly not the be-all/end-all and there is much, MUCH more to bicycle safety, my response to those who would ask why I continue to insist on wearing a helmet even though I understand that the likelihood of it actually saving me from serious injury or death is small is…why not?

    • Caroline June 29, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

      Wait. What? You’re still wearing a helmet you wore when you got hit by a car? Please tell me that you shellac’d the thing and it’s mounted on your wall as a souvenir, and that you are no longer using it. Helmets are made to endure an impact (even just dropping it 3ft onto concrete could do it), and then should be thrown away. Many helmet manufacturers will give $ breaks on replacement helmets post-impact to encourage this turnover. Get a new helmet; your green-striped one is most likely absolutely useless.

  2. Cathy June 29, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

    Another thought…
    In my one year as a Baton Rouge resident so far, I have come to the conclusion — through riding around town, talking to people, and observing other riders — that wearing a helmet may also have indirect effects on my safety. While my city as a whole is not very bike-friendly, I live in a quiet neighborhood a little over 2 miles from the university, and I have found that cyclists on the road are irritations that will be tolerated as long as the cyclist is riding smart. In other words, wearing a helmet, riding in a straight line, and, for the love of god, not salmoning. And if I’m wearing spandex- even better. While I’ve definitely received more honks and ugly hollers than I did while living in Davis (as in a handful here vs. zero there), people are generally tolerant of my riding on the road. I’ve witnessed a lot more ugliness lobbed at the clueless undergrad riding a Walmart bike without a helmet, swerving in and out of parked cars while listening to music and/or talking on a cell phone. And when talking to people in coffee shops or class, the general feeling is that motorists respect cyclists who appear to respect motorists. And in the eyes of someone who hasn’t touched a bike since they were 9 (i.e. the majority of LSU students), that would mean, first and foremost, wearing a helmet. Some twisted logic, perhaps, but whatever will make me less likely to get hit.

    (Note that this does not include those angry motorists who are clearly out to deliberately kill every single cyclist out there. They exist, but there’s nothing I can do about that.)

    • Elly June 29, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

      Thanks for these thoughts, Cathy.

      It’s funny, about a helmet being part of what gets you more respect on the road. I’ve recently become aware of an even better bicycling accessory for that purpose — cute children. I rode across town recently with a mom & two kids and it was mad respect the whole way.

  3. Cathy June 29, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    Caroline- yes, I know. But thanks for the tip anyway. No, I’m not still using that helmet. I bought a new one immediately after the crash. I’m not keeping the old one around for any particular sentimental reasons; I’ve just been too lazy to find the best way to dispose of it…!
    Sorry, didn’t think to mention that in the original comment.

  4. Caroline June 29, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    I wear helmets for the little un-anticipated head bumps that might occur at speeds <15MPH: catching a wheel in a railroad track, getting doored, having something catch in my wheel or chain, or some sort of silly fumble when I'm showing off or tipsy.

    I do not expect a typical road helmet to do much for me in the case where I am hit by a car or truck or motorcycle. I wear it anyway in case I suddenly topple for some other reason and hit my head on concrete. I might as well. No harm.

    Yes, there are limits to what a helmet can do for you, and like anything, sometimes there are unexpected, paradoxical results. People are babbling about statistics but I am not sure any empirical studies have been done yet. They are saying that helmets don't help and even that they are harmful in crashes (whoa, tell the scientists at Giro that). They seem to be extracting data from other studies. It does seem to boil down to riding style and speed when efficacy is measured. Going really fast, or riding alongside traffic seems to mean that your helmet no longer does as much to protect your noodles. You can't blame a helmet for not stopping a two-ton vehicle. Cyclists are sort of at a major disadvantage when on mixed roads. It's just too bad more cyclists don't take other head-knocking hazards into account.

    I would MUCH rather get hit on the head while wearing a helmet than not. I think anyone who says they'd rather get knocked on their bare head than get knocked on a nice helmet over their bare head — frankly — isn’t using their noodle anyway. That said, there are all sorts of barriers to helmet-wearing, like you mention, such as fashion, comfort, price, fit, and peer pressure, and so I think it’s definitely up to the individual to decide when or if they wear one. Attractive helmets that are so light and comfortable you can’t feel them CAN be found for <$50. I am a bargain hunter and just came out with a $140 helmet for $45.

    Lately I've been getting into some more aggressive styles of riding and find that people in these disciplines have no hesitation in wearing protective gear. Many of the riders are very stylish and appear to be swayed by peer influence quite a bit, but will pull on the pads and a helmet before riding. Like, big gaudy uncomfortable stuff, head-to-toe. Why? Because once you fall and suffer the sport-correlated injury, you generally learn your lesson.

    I wear my bike helmet in the produce aisle, down the frozen aisle, in the lingerie department, and while shopping for paint. I can get away with that in Portland; nobody blinks. But it wasn’t that way 15 years ago; people used to stare and laugh. Be a trendsetter, wear your cycling gear — whatever it be — loud and proud.

    Was that funny?

    • Dave July 2, 2012 at 8:12 am #

      The other thing about riding style/bike is that, to a large extent, it determines your relative risk of a crash in the first place, and how serious the crash will be. It’s much more worth wearing protective gear if you’re riding down low, aggressively, especially in some sort of competition (even if that competition is fast traffic), because you have a greater chance of crashing, and a greater chance of injuring yourself in a crash.

      Riding an upright bike 10mph casually, you’re much less likely to crash, and it’s much less likely to be serious if you do, so the need for protective equipment is less.

      It’s all just a matter of choices and priorities, which people make each time they ride – which is also why it shouldn’t be mandated that everyone wear one all the time. There’s nothing wrong with riding hard and fast, but if you choose not to, you shouldn’t be held to protect yourself as if you are.

      That’s not to mention all the social things that can come along with forcing the vulnerable party to protect themselves…

  5. Gary Kavanagh June 29, 2012 at 7:22 pm #

    On helmets I have become a contextual helmet user. I used to be adamant about a helmet all the time for every kind of ride. But I have to say I have been influenced by the idea that for riding on reasonably safe routes, a helmet crash risk is low, and their benefit seems overstated, and it makes cycling seem more accessible and normalized. The introduction of helmets into UCI racing didn’t really stop the occasional death in the Tour de France and other professional races, although I do always wear one in a fast riding context.

    One of the subtle things I have noticed experimenting with going without, is that I dial back risk taking without thinking about it much even though I thought I was always careful before. I feel more exposed without the helmet, but I feel as part of that I ease up on accelerating, wait more patiently to get through tight spots, and am especially alert. I think there is this tendency for some riders to be subconsciously influenced by the helmet to subtly take more risk. Tom Vanderbilt also describes how crash rates and speeding are higher in cars with more safety features than older cars, and I’m wondering if that is related.

    When I’m riding my fast bike, or leaving Santa Monica borders, I still always use the helmet, but I am liking going without sometimes. I like to try every hat within the cycling world. I was even a hardcore VC only roadie rider for a short time, purposelessly avoiding bike infrastructure I might ordinarily go out of my way to use, even for going to work, just to experience what that was like. At the moment I’m trying going helmet free for some rides, and really here in Santa Monica that is a pretty normal thing. A lot less people use helmets here than I noticed in Portland, especially tourists riding on the beach paths. Although the streets are smooth (unless you go cross into Los Angeles) and dry nearly all year round. So there are fewer potential solo mishaps to worry over.

    On my most recent trip up to Portland, I left the helmet at home for a change, and never felt overly concerned about not having it there riding all over. Exempt on one occasion following someone else down a steep hill, but I rode the brakes far more heavily than I might have had I had that little comfort in the back my mind that a helmet might help a little should I fall.

    Meghan worried about my trying this for a while but came to accept it and knows I am very careful rider. I still ride with a helmet sometimes, just not nearly as often as I used to. My relationship was helmets has gotten a lot more complex in the past 6 months or so. Maybe it will change again soon..

  6. Erik Sandblom June 29, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    Elly, your health care worker friends scare you about head injuries? Why do they do that? Do they scare you about other things like rape and cancer too? The reason I ask is that I think doctors and nurses should comfort people, not frighten them.

    Cycling is healthy and prevents sedentary diseases, which are the most common cause of death. It’s so healthy in fact that regular cyclists live longer. So, health professionals, welcome everyone who cycles, whatever they’re wearing. And no guilt trips please!

    • Elly July 1, 2012 at 7:19 am #

      Erik, I planned to not get mixed up in any arguments about helmets, but I’m going to push back a bit here. Not because I disagree with everything you say, but the manner in which you say it is a prime example of how frustrating helmet debates are. The glib comparison to unrelated things—rape and cancer–is beyond off-putting as a rhetorical tactic. The lecture to health professionals about how to do their jobs (or rather, in this case, how they should discuss some of their most personally traumatic on-the-job experiences with their friends) is not going to win you any conversations much less converts. I’m sympathetic to your core arguments, as you must see if you’ve read the article, but it’s stuff like this that makes me not *want* to be on your side.

  7. Koula June 29, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    Elly, thanks for this post! One of my main gripes re: helmets is that I’ve seen lots of people pick up helmets and believe they’re being “safe” simply by wearing a helmet, but the same people don’t bother to look up or abide by local rules of the road. Likewise, I wish that cycling was covered in driver’s ed classes. Ultimately if more people are educated about how to properly ride a bike in a courteous fashion, and how to drive safely and courteously around cyclists and pedestrians, we’d have less issues and less fear. I do think that infrastructure that takes cars away from cyclists is the best solution, but in the meantime, education can go a long way.

    On the other hand, if wearing a helmet allows cyclists to reconcile with fears and get on a bike, great. If not wearing one gets them on a bike– great. I respect folks’ decisions either way, as long as people get their asses on bikes!

    On another note, I’m glad to hear that kid cyclists garner respect from drivers in Portland! I love seeing kids and ladies on bikes; it gives me so much hope for the future of cycling.

  8. Merlin June 30, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Thanks for this post, Ellie. The real issue is making sure crashes don’t happen, and that requires a collective, community-wide commitment to changing the ways our cities are organized. Arguing about whether or not helmets should be worn is a distraction. Love the photos and captions! What were those buildings thinking, getting in the way of cars??

  9. Dave July 2, 2012 at 8:25 am #

    This image ( had me cackling hysterically :)

  10. Caitlin July 2, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    Mostly when I ride these days, it’s either as part of a competition or in training for a competition, so I always wear a helmet. Even if they weren’t made mandatory I’d still wear them, just because I feel a tiny bit safer with it on. I know it doesn’t protect me completely but that peace of mind is definitely helpful. I just wish it was possible for me to wear a helmet while not looking like a hundred pounds of dork. :/

    I do agree 100% with your belief that the real issue is more of a structural problem with the way our cities are organized around cars, and that putting such heavy focus on helmets takes the onus off cities and society to search for wider solutions by acting as though this is a problem that can be tackled most effectively through individual solutions. Take for instance my neighborhood in Clearwater, Florida. I live in a little community that pretty quiet but the only way we are connected to the rest of the city is by navigating this heinous monstrosity of a six-lane road that feeds directly onto a highway. Consequently you have people traveling 65 mph less than a block from my home and often blowing right through red lights. A helmet isn’t doing to do shit to protect me against someone who is speeding off I-275 except maybe contain my brain splatter to a smaller area.

    So yeah, the problem is way more extensive and requires much more effort than just “wear a helmet and be safe!”

  11. Judy August 1, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    I never wore a helmet until the time I was briefly distracted, hit a pothole, flew over the handlebars, and ended up with a huge goose-egg which then gave me two black eyes. And I was only going about 8MPH. Never again. Now I always wear.

  12. Prattle On, Boyo August 4, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    I’ve been riding a bicycle since I was 4. There was never any mandatory local laws so I didn’t wear a helmet all throughout school, including college. In fact, I didn’t wear a helmet until I was well into my 30s. I just thought it was a good idea to have fundamental protection like the helmet & gloves just in case. Turns out, I was prescient.

    I was hit on my bike in on a busy Saturday afternoon in broad daylight while in a cross-walk at a red light by an SUV who was more worried about making his right hand turn on the red than he was about paying attention to the pedestrian traffic directly in front of his vehicle.

    The impact knocked me out of the saddle. I knew when I landed on the macadam that my leg was broken. I was bruised from head to foot, including my face. But on the plus side, because I was also wearing gloves, the road rash was limited to my legs. The helmet protected my head as it hit the ground.

    I don’t know that the driver even saw me or had any other thoughts in his head other than must-make-right-hand-turn-on-red-light. (At the time, I assumed that anyone who is sitting at a red light behind the wheel would be paying attention sufficient to SEE numerous pedestrians on foot directly in front of his vehicle before he hits the accelerator.) But unfortunately, I cannot comment intelligently as to whether I was afforded less safety because I was wearing a helmet and gloves. What I can say definitively is that the helmet prevented a head injury on top of abrasions, bruises & a broken bone.

    Bottom line: Always wear a helmet while biking because it’s better to err on the side of caution than to trust a driver who may or may not even notice you.

  13. Chris BeHanna November 15, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    I’m right there with you, Elly. The rhetoric is incredibly heated. As a bicyclist and a motorcyclist, I believe that too many people conflate the meager protection afforded by a bicycle helmet with the much greater protection offered by a motorcycle helmet. Here’s the rub: that motorcycle helmet is designed to protect your head from the same four-foot fall to the pavement that the bicycle helmet is ostensibly rated for, but the motorcycle helmet is *considerably* more substantial.

    It’s one thing to *feel* safer. It’s quite another to actually *be* safer, and alas, the data simply aren’t there to make the case for the latter. I’ve read the testing standards (most people who praise their helmets would be surprised to learn that a helmet that comes apart FAILS the test), and I’ve read the laughable “counting” and “self-reporting” studies. The actual data we’d need, injury and fatality reports comparing head injuries sustained by both helmeted and helmetless riders (something akin to the NHTSA’s FARS database), is simply not collected. Thus, we’re subjected to moronic questions whenever a rider gets tagged by a car (“Was he wearing a helmet?” Like that matters when you get broadsided at 40mph, in which case the blunt force trauma to the torso is often fatal all by itself).

    Now, having said that, yes, I almost always wear my bicycle helmet (the rare exception being tooling down to the mailbox and back), and I always wear my motorcycle helmet. My body, my choice. Not my place to choose for others.


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