Helmets don’t protect Cyclists. Know what Helps?

Via Waylon Lewis
on Nov 29, 2012
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Photo: @waylonlewis on Instagram.

If I get killed before my time, 50/50 it’ll be on 9th Street.

Wear a helmet, my loving family says!

I say: helmets don’t help. There’s studies on it. Helmets result in folks driving closer to cyclists, on average. In Amsterdam, families don’t wear helmets—what helps is bike lanes, bike paths, separated from traffic. What helps is prioritizing healthy, green transport for humans over parking for cars.

By “helmets don’t help” I mean—every time I’ve been hit by a car, I’ve been hit in the tire, in the legs, in the ribs…a helmet might save my skull, but I’d still be run over in any real accident. And it’s a matter of time on streets like 9th where they tell you to take the full lane but if you do so cars will honk and pass in the other lane (understandably, they’re way faster than me)

Yes: if I’m spaced out or hit a pothole or, say, an antelope charges me, a helmet can help. But I don’t fall. I ride every day in all conditions and haven’t fallen for 7 years, once. I have a good grip. What does happen is I get hit by vehicles. I was hit two weeks ago. I was hit a year ago. I was hit two years before that.

“Wear Helmets” are society’s response when the response should be “pedestrians have sidewalks, cars have roads…what about bicycles?”

To the suggestion that I up and sue whomever when I’m hit, fine: but I’ll be a cripple, or dead, most likely. Cyclists lose arguments with drivers.

What protects cyclists is not a helmet (see, again: Europe) but providing the conditions so that more than 2% of Americans can get cycling on a daily basis. In Europe in some bike-friendly cities 15% of folks bicycle to work every day. Which makes bikes a big presence, reduces traffic for drivers (win-win) and is good for children’s health, cuts pollution, cuts down on our ravenous war-hungry need for foreign oil. What protects cyclists is safe, accessible, separate bike lanes everywhere—which leads to many folks cycling, which makes it safer and is a win for drivers.

And if you think all I’m doing here is whining online, you don’t know me and my hometown and our community. I do a ton of whining in real life, too, and we make some real changes. And I call this dialogue, research, conversation, not whining—so leave your comments, ideas, constructive criticism and experiences in comments, below.

Bonus: Bike Commuter Porn (SFW)


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & 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. elephantjournal.com | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


5 Responses to “Helmets don’t protect Cyclists. Know what Helps?”

  1. Rod says:

    You're absolutely right to underline the importance of continuing to fight for more bike presence, friendliness, etc. But keep the helmet on! I've been riding for over 40 years, and never fell off my bike, not once. Then, three weeks ago, I did, for no apparent reason. Just went down hard on a street with no traffic, and later, examining the big crack in my helmet, realized that it had saved me from a major concussion, or worse. I love Amsterdam, but if I ever move there, and bike there, I'm wearing a helmet.

  2. Hank says:

    Helmets do help. If for example you are clipped by a car and lauch headfirst into a lightpole. Or, in my case, you are just riding along down a trail and you hit a rock that launches you headfirst into a tree. That helmet saved my life.

  3. By all means wear a helmet if you want to. But mass helmet use has never been shown to make any useful difference to the head injury rate, and they aren't designed to crack. They are supposed to absorb energy as the liner is crushed, but in reality they seem to break instead. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_helmet

  4. Wow. As a person who came to yoga as a result of a head on collision at Haight/Divisadero back in 2000, this post spoke volumes to me. Ultimately though there is a greater solution than lanes and it's what this site is all about: mindfulness. The more one come into 'a basic sanity' {to use Chogyam Trungpa's phrase}, and by that I mean in touch with reality rather living in our heads, the less likely we will be to crash or be crashed.

  5. Christopher says:

    This seems to be a false dichotomy, based on anecdotal evidence with a sample size of one. Yes, safe cycling ways and culture are needed, and yes, helmets do effect driver behaviour – but helmets do also save lives. I was in Amsterdam last year and witnessed a cyclist collision with a motorbike – no helmet, and I very much doubt he survived – this is also a small sample size, but it is part of the picture. There is also anecdotal evidence from brain surgeons who are very pro-helmet.

    I grew up in a country with mandatory helmets, and when I ride without one, I feel much less secure. Why? Human head + tree, concrete or electricity pole at 30km/h, without protection? Not a good combination.