The Helmet Issue (or Stop Making Bicyclists Wear Helmets)

I don’t wear a helmet.

Now before you go off thinking that I am some odd inverse of that Joseph Gordon-Levitt character in that absurdly titled film about bicycle delivery peeps in NYC, I want to assure you that brakes are more important than helmets. (For those who haven’t seen the absurdly titled film, his character always wears a helmet but eschews brakes because it causes him “to hesitate” in the name of speed.)

Senator Carol Liu announced yesterday her support of SB 192, a bill that would not only require bicyclists to wear a helmet (or face a fine) but also require them to wear reflective clothing at night. (For anyone who has the luxury of being able to afford Levi’s Commuter line or Betabrand, you know how precious they are when they’re on sale.)

Ms. Liu, while I understand your concern—your nephew, Alan, was unfortunately killed in 2004 by a drunk driver and that was despite him wearing a helmet—I must state something loud and clear: stop forcing bicyclists to wear helmets.

According to a study by the European Cycling Federation, countries with lower amounts of cyclists have higher rates of accidents. Get this: the Netherlands had witnessed a 45% increase in cycling and a 58% decrease in fatalities between 1980 and 2005—and also, their riders who wear helmets? That accounts for 0.1% of Netherlands’ cyclists. In other words, as the report states, safety lies in numbers, not mandated garb.

There, I said it.

For most of us, when you tell us to stop wearing helmets, the advice is immediately off-putting. Of course, Ms. Liu, I am not an idiot: endless studies have shown that accident are less lethal while wearing a helmet. I am quite sure accidents are less lethal when people follow the speed limit as well. I am sure pedestrians would be more safe were they to wear helmets or football gear.

But there’s a far more important thing we’re talking about here and it is driving behavior. Cities that are extremely bike-oriented—Amsterdam, Utrecht, Montreal, Copenhagen, Berlin, Vancouver—have riders that rarely wear helmets. As journalist Joseph Stromberg so brilliantly points out, this is for obvious reasons: 1) drivers are used to bicyclists in these areas and therefore are more cautious; 2) biking isn’t especially dangerous in terms of head trauma, possibly making the protection value of helmets overstated; 3) 1.8% of traffic-related deaths were bicycling while a staggering 14% were pedestrians in 2012 in the US—which insinuates that biking isn’t as dangerous as people make it out to be. Perhaps that idea of making pedestrians wear helmets will now be on Liu’s radar. FML.

Then we have an image problem. If putting more bikes on the road makes driver more aware and cautious, then people curious about biking will not become more convinced when they see helmets. In a very well-known piece of PR, researcher Ian Walker equipped his bike with a sensor that measured cars passing by him and how close they got to him. While wearing a helmet, drivers gave him less room. This follows the weird finding that drivers give bicyclists more room when they’re in a marked lane and less room when they’re not. (Perhaps that can be solved by wearing one of these helmets.) Psychologically speaking, it might have to do with less need for care—“They’re wearing a helmet, they’re fine”—and ownership of the road—“Ugh, they’re in my lane, I don’t care.”

Even more, according to a study by the European Cycling Federation, countries with lower amounts of cyclists have higher rates of accidents. Get this: the Netherlands had witnessed a 45% increase in cycling and a 58% decrease in fatalities between 1980 and 2005—and also, their riders who wear helmets? That accounts for 0.1% of Netherlands’ cyclists. In other words, as the report states, safety lies in numbers, not mandated garb.

I won’t even get into how, just maybe, wearing a helmet makes bicyclists themselves a tad less cautious.

In the end, it is your choice. And that’s where I want it to remain: your choice.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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