To Bike Helmet or not to Bike Helmet?

Via Waylon Lewis
on Aug 23, 2009
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bike helmet safety life ugly

Might sound like a dumb question, but I have a dumb answer (day to day): no bike helmet. And I’m far from alone: “How do I get myself to wear a helmet?” is a question 75% of bicycle commuters are, or ought to be, asking.

A few months ago, I was hit by a car. I wore a helmet for a few weeks, after, then started forgetting (as I rolled down the Hill upon which I live, inevitably about a minute into the ride I’d intone a silent dammit!)…then just gave up. It messes up your hair. It spoils that feeling of the wind and open sky, the convertible-top-down feeling that is bike riding. It’s hot, stuffy, it makes little noises around your ears, the very ears upon which I’m dependent to hear cars sneaking up behind me. It’s ugly, turning me from Waylon into a Legoman.

Here’s a few more serious reasons.

> If you support folks wearing bike helmets, you should first support there being a law that bike lanes or bike paths are accessible everywhere. They make things far safer than bike helmets—see Amsterdam, or any country where tons of folks cycle without helmets, but with traffic signs and bike lanes and bike paths.

Bike Helmet Law was defeated in Denmark partly because “the overwhelming evidence is that enforced helmet laws lead to very much less cycling, particularly for utility journeys and amongst young people.”

> Via Reddit; [–]cirrus42

This is commonly known among transportation planners and bike advocates even in America. There’s a huge body of evidence that the best way to make cyclists safer is for there to be more cyclists on the road (so that car drivers expect them, look for them, and hit fewer of them), and that helmets are a big enough disincentive against impulse cycling that insisting upon their use seriously reduces the cycling rate, which in turn makes biking more dangerous. So nevermind helmet laws, even helmet culture is counterproductive. The math is quite clear.

But it’s counter-intuitive so people don’t want to hear it.

> Another: [–]kheltar

I’ve read about the way the government approaches things in the Netherlands and it’s really smart. Cycling infrastructure has the expected benefits of cycling deducted from its cost. So since you never really have to repair cycling infrastructure (or at least very infrequently) and with all the associated health benefits derived from cycling, the cost of cycling infrastructure is incredibly inexpensive.

On the other hand, for children:Bicycle Helmet Laws on Children’s Injuries: “helmet laws are associated with reductions in bicycle-related head injuries among children. […] the observed reduction in bicycle-related head injuries may be due to reductions in bicycle riding induced by the laws”

There’s lots more stats, for and against, out there. One interesting one: drivers drive their cars on average a few inches closer to cyclists wearing bike helmets.

Oh, and it can and will save my lifeif I wear it. So how do you all get yourself to wear a helmet? Or do you not bother? Should it be made a federal law, as it is in parts of the country, and in Canada where I visit me mum?


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


28 Responses to “To Bike Helmet or not to Bike Helmet?”

  1. peter says:

    I've had one fall in which not wearing a helmet would have surely resulted in a significant head injury. My helmet routine is enabled by keeping all my gear in there making it necessary to fetch before leaving the house via bike. For example, I put my wallet, keys, riding gloves, etc in my helmet and put it on the table near the door. It also helps to have my 3 year old scold me when I forget to wear my helmet 🙂

  2. kia says:

    I say wear the helmet. Something so trivial can keep you safe. By the way, is there any word on how the young woman is doing who hit her head on a concrete wall while on the bike path to the Thursday cruiser ride in Boulder a month ago? It was a freak accident where a cyclist from the other direction clipped her pedal.

  3. Billcarroll says:

    Oooooh, the comments on this post should turn into a senseless flame war in 5 seconds. But before that happens …

    Head injuries and deaths from head injuries per capita are higher in cars than on bikes. Think on that. When will there be a call or law to wear helmets in cars?

    I'm not making an argument not to wear a helmet on a bike, just pointing out a curious HELMUT agenda 🙂

  4. Love it. Simple systems make habit changes possible.

  5. Really? Where'd you get that stat? Crazy! I also read somewhere that cars give less room to cyclists wearing helmets, resulting in more accidents.

  6. Bill Carroll says:

    British Study on Passing Clearance and Helmets –

  7. Kris says:

    Per capita (that latin is ironic in this context. haha.) But seriously how many more people transport themselves in cars than in bikes. The logic you are using hear reminds me of someone else —>… A scientific presentation of a stat like this would include the ratio of head injuries in automobiles to the total number of drivers and passengers, compared to the ratio of head injuries caused on bikes to the number of bikers.

  8. Emma says:

    I'm from NZ where it is illegal not to wear a helmet on a bike of any kind. I've seen what happens to people in motorbike accidents WITH helmets on (my dad was a biker).

    It still horrifies me that it is not only not law here in the US (at least IL) but the majority of people you see on bikes are not wearing helmets (particularly motorbikes since you see more of them on the road here)

  9. Jerry Kolber says:

    I wear a helmet because A) I don't want to die when/if someone hits me and B) I got a sport little helmet that looks cool. Waylon wear your helmet!!

  10. I'm with you, unfortunately for me. I wish I could get myself to wear a helment, I just can't. None of them are cool. All of them are stuffy. Skateboarding helmets are often cooler, but I don't think offer the right protection?

  11. Should I wear knee pads then, too?

  12. Bill Carroll says:

    Yes, really good point. "Per capita" is a misspelled latin phrase meaning "by head" … although I think that falls under coincidence rather than irony 🙂 Pretty funny though.

    By saying per capita, if 100,000 drive and 100,000 cycle, more of the drivers will sustain head injuries than those who cycle.

    Everyone who drives a car should wear a helmet. (Yes I'm poking fun to make a point about how agendas and public opinion get set.) Can you imagine requiring motorists to wear helmets? The collective cry of, "But my hair …."

    In fact, a driver who sustains a head injury is more likely to be involved in a secondary collision because they often lose control after sustaining a head injury, and then injure others because the car is still moving and no longer under a driver's control. I think the public safety basis for mandating helmet use for drivers is more solid than for cyclists.

    Here is a site that has collected some cool stats:

  13. swati jr* says:

    what we need is cooler more user friendly helmets. (do helmet makers even wear the things? my riding helmet (horseback) is more comfortable and stylish then any bike helmet i've come across!!) we also need a massive
    advertising/brainwashing/propaganda campaign to get us all on board. maybe it will hit us when we aren't even looking then, just like the pavement.

  14. Stephen S says:

    Just had my helmet save my life!

    I know, I know… one example does not prove the case. But it sure makes a believer out of you! 🙂

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  16. Via FB:

    I recommend transitioning with a cool helmet. Think skateboard helmet with a sticker that says Alpha Male. Although not as protective it'll train you to wear one then transfer the cool stickers to the dorky but protective helmet and just remember that it can save your life, your looks, and your chances of having sexy, smart conversation after surviving an accident.

    Colleen Ast
    i saw this sign once it said "people that don't wear bike helmets are beacons of hope for those that need organ transplants!" i have never biked without one and now that i am starting skiing again, i am getting a helmet for skiing too…other people scare me 😉

    Why not host a "pimp my helmet" contest/event? Make bike helmets cool. Good PR.

    I like to feel the wind through my hair as I'm riding BUT also got a pretty good bump from a car last week whilst on my bike/on the sidewalk…thinking may-be I better get that helmet back on my head cause it sure is not me that I have to watch ouch I mean out for!

    teri is bordering on being a genius.

    One solution is not wearing an ugly-a** bike helmet that looks like your brain is coming out your head. I wear an equestrian helmet and it is much cooler!

    I didn't wear one until I was 38, when, cutting across a parking lot, I didn't see a chain across the entrance. I scraped much of the skin off my forehead and broke my glasses, but, had my left hand not broken (literally, badly) my fall, I'd probably have had a major traumatic brain injury, and would most likely be in a nursing home, now. I've worn a helmet ever since.

    Chicks dig dudes who wear bike helmets…get a sassy old school one and pedal pedal pedal…I always wear mine on my bike, scooter, and climbing….heck i wear my climbing one all the way back to tent if necesssary…gotta protect the marbles ya know…how ya gonna be a bodhisattva if ya dint caring for yourself as well?!?

    Carole Gallagher
    Remember when people refused to wear seat belts? I found myself run off the road on the first day of hunting season in Utah on the Pony Express trail. I came to with all the windows of my car broken and myself hanging upside down by my seat belt. I don't even know how many times the vehicle rolled over down the ravine. It would be far worse if you lost your mind because you were too vain to wear a helmet! Stay alive!

    Leisa G
    The helmet argument- Do people really think they're too cool, or that it is geeky to wear one? And where are all the FB fans who are adamantly against them? I see them ALL the time, riding around. I'm glad people who have had traumatic accidents are wearing them now, but it's really too bad that it takes JUST that before some do. What's really odd is to see a parents put one on the kid, but not on themselves…not a very good example being set. Kids emulate adults.

    regular trips to the ER could be a good reminder about what can happen if you don't wear a helmet. i have an ex boyfriend who was too cool for one too…until he wrecked really hard. it doesn't have to come to that. it should become a law, as it is in other progressive and modern countries.

    I fall into the same category – I know that I _should_ wear a helmet, but find myself leaving it behind more often than not. Haven't figured out how to change my bad habits, but many of the DC drivers have been trying to convince me.

    Bryan Bowen
    I wear one. My 3 and 5 year old sons give me hell if I don't, being well brainwashed..uh, educated.. by my wife. I once ran into a parked dump truck at 30 mph in Pittsburgh traffic, with a helmet. Exploded my right ear like a grape and smashed up the bike. I'm a believer. I'm not so cool on every other front that the helmet is much of a sacrifice, tho…

    I heard an interesting talk by a Dutch bike city planner a while back, and the gist of the helmet issue is this: the more people who ride bikes, the safer it is for all bikers. If many people are not riding bikes because they do not want to wear helmets (a true phenomenon), the less safe it is for everyone. In the Netherlands helmets are rare and it has the lowest bike mortality rate in the world. Just food for thought.

    Mary Yamada
    Very interesting; I am 70 and do not wear a helmet; my buddy is 90 and does not wear a helmet. His 60 year old daughter wears a helmet, and her pleas for us to wear them fall on deaf ears. (literally).

    Ever lost someone you loved?

    My mother in law wears a helmet. Her husband does not. He says you only need one conscious person to call 911!

    Andrew A
    Nothing at all uncool about wearing a helmet. Get a quality helmet, it is well worth it for the level of comfort.

  17. dustyz says:

    just wear one! simple.
    my kid is 2 years old and doesn't forget to ask for her helmet when she rides in the trailer
    if she can remember it, you can!
    and there are plenty of choices of "cool" helmets
    i have two different ones depending on which one of my three bikes i happen to take out that day

    it's way cooler to be wearing one than not


  18. Amen, Dusty! I just have to find one that's comfortable and "cool."

  19. When I first moved to Boulder from Maui in 95, I would roadbike out highway36 for about 10/15 miles out and back without wearing a helmet,just a baseball cap.I noticed a lot of glares and *stinkeye* from other cyclists when I would wave or nod (something every cyclist did on Maui). A couple weeks later I was working with a client who was a professional cyclist in Boulder,and I asked him about it,and if the other cyclists had issue's with me not wearing a helmet……….he said no,most hardcore cyclist here just have attitude:-)

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  21. Bike helmets are a MUST in the city! Separated bike lanes would be a utopian goal, but it’s not always feasible for all the San Francisco bike routes and so we must learn to coexist with cars. And that means being safe and smart and ALWAYS wearing your helmet. Even my most fashionable friends wear them…cause there’s nothing is cute or sexy about your brains on the street. I think we need to squash the ego and change our perception of bike helmets…to me they ARE a hot look. Especially with all the new hip, urban styles of helmets out there! Here’s my fave:

  22. alix says:

    Excellent article. Very interesting to read. I really love to read such a nice article. Thanks! keep rocking.
    cykelhjelm børn

  23. alix says:

    Nice to read your article! I am looking forward to sharing your adventures and experiences.
    cykelhjelm børn

  24. OBD2 Land says:

    I say wear the helmet. Something so trivial can keep you safe. By the way, is there any word on how the young woman is doing who hit her head on a concrete wall while on the bike path to the Thursday cruiser ride in Boulder a month ago? It was a freak accident where a cyclist from the other direction clipped her pedal.