Did you pedal today, on Bike to Work Day? And if so, did you wear a helmet? I biked without a helmet, and in the eyes of some, that makes me reckless and irresponsible. Similarly, they say the Guardian has done a disservice to the community by featuring photos of cyclists-sans-helmets in our current issue, a criticism we also received about our Bike Issue last year. It's an interesting enough debate that I thought I'd move it from the comments section on my latest story up into its own blog post.
“Helmets save lives. I was amazed to go through the entire issue and not see one helmet on your biker models. Please mention this in your paper,” Jim A wrote in our comments section. And when I responded that it was a personal decision for adults (children are required by law to wear them), another commenter wrote, “So isn't requiring bicyclists to wear helmets something that would benefit all of us in terms of preventing injuries we all pay for (not to mention emergency room costs and police reports, ambulances etc) -- and therefore much more than a 'personal decision?'”
It's certainly true that helmets make cyclists safer and that's why most cyclists in San Francisco wear them, but there is a significant minority who regularly ride without head protection, for reasons ranging from a simple preference to philosophical opposition to the notion that cycling is dangerous enough to require armor. The best way to make cyclists safe is to prevent them from crashing, and that means wide, hazard-free bike lanes and awareness by motorists of cyclists and our right to share the road.
“It's an extremely fraught and charged issue. People have very strong views on both sides,” says Andy Thornley, program director with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. The SFBC does bike safety and urban cycling classes, which include instruction on properly fitting one's helmet, but they stop short of exhorting everyone to wear them.
In fact, Thornley is among those who rarely wears a helmet. “On balance, you're going to be a little safer riding with a helmet,” he told me.”But I choose not to for my own personal reasons.”
Context is important here. The most recent federal statistics on bicyclist accidents shows there were 716 bicyclists killed on roadways in the U.S. in 2008, or about 2 percent of all traffic fatalities. Certainly, helmets might have prevented some of those deaths, but from public health or statistical perspectives, this is a pretty low number.
By contrast, there were 4,378 pedestrians killed in traffic that year, but nobody is suggesting they should wear helmets, even though it's likely helmets would have saved many of their lives. So this is about how much risk adults are willing to accept, and Thornley argues that if you're safely cycling at the typically leisurely pace that most people ride at in cities, you're unlikely to ever need your helmet.
“We want bicycling to be something that everyone can do without special clothing or gear or feeling the need to wear armor on their heads,” Thornley said.
He notes that in the most bike-friendly cities in the world, such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, helmets are rare because riding a bike is widely seen as a safe, everyday activity. It would be a bit like pedestrians strapping on a helmet to cross the street, something most would interpret as slightly paranoid overkill.
Yet Thornley also admits that he's perhaps a little ahead of his time for San Francisco, a city with few separated bike lanes or other features that would make cycling safer. But that's starting to change, particularly on a day like today when there are so many cyclists the road, something that studies show makes them safer because motorists are more aware of them and drive more carefully.
Personally, I wear a helmet when I go mountain biking, when it's raining, when I go for long recreational rides, sometimes when I'm wearing headphones, or if I'm just feeling unlucky or not on my game – but most of the time, I don't. And I resent the condescending criticism that I'm being irresponsible or that I somehow deserve to be injured.
But what do you think?
P.S. BTW, those federal statistics also show that about a quarter of the bicyclists who were killed were legally drunk at the time, something to keep in mind if you hit any of the BTWD evening afterparties, including the SFBC event at Rickshaw Stop, the Rock the Bike event at the Academy of Sciences, or the Timbuk2 party at their 583 Shotwell Street headquarters. Come think of it, perhaps I should swing by my apartment on the way and grab my helmet.