The New York Times Business section weighed in heavy on the helmet wars in today’s print edition in a story titled in a way leaves no room for confusion: “Grown-Ups Need Helmets Too.”
Citing crash and fatality statistics, Lesley Alderman begins and ends with impatient insistence that cyclists ride be-helmeted:
Whether you ride on hectic city streets or bucolic back roads, helmets are essential armor. Bicycle helmets have been shown to reduce the risk of head injuries by up to 88 percent and facial injuries by 65 percent, according to a Cochrane Database Systemic Review published in 2000. Bike riders who play against those odds do not fare well in accidents. More than 90 percent of the 714 bicyclists killed in 2008 were not wearing helmets, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety…. Even a light blow to the head can be serious.
While the statistics are compelling, Alderman takes only one side of a story that should be reported within the zone of legitimate controversy – in other words, there is disagreement and a range of debate about the whether or not a helmet makes you safer. Worse, the article implies that a spattering of local helmet laws should rise to the level of state law across the U.S.
This is a very troubling line of argument, and certainly many of us will find an electronic or printed copy of this article on our inboxes, social networking pages, and workplace mailboxes.
There are many studies and arguments against helmet laws and the notion that a helmet necessarily makes you safer. Without diving into the tired “helmet wars,” the two most compelling in my mind are: (1) the 2006 study at the University of Bath by traffic psychologist Dr. Ian Walker, that found that cars drove more carefully around un-helmeted cyclists than those wearing a helmet; (2) the Chris Carpenter and Mark Stehr study that showed how states that have implemented youth helmet laws have also seen decreased ridership (smart comment on that study here). A simple search of the Internet provides many, many more reasons why helmets do not necessarily make for safer cycling (like this lucid one from Bicycle Austin).
I usually wear a helmet, but not always. It depends on speed, interaction with motorized traffic, time of day, etc. For a lot of my riding, I’m as vulnerable to head injury as a pedestrian, runner, or someone skipping.
Before people start slamming me for creaking open the door to riding like a regular person, let me suggest two important ways to reframe the safety debate, and resurrect it from the sticky normative framework (vehicular freaks vs. facilitative separatists; helmet nazis vs. goin’commando). These debates are unproductive. So, let’s reframe:
First, if we are going to talk about helmets, then motorists are the most vulnerable and threatened group. 33,963 people were killed in motor traffic fatalities in 2009 (a comparatively low figure), most in cars, and most with head injuries. If we are going to talk about helmets (which I think we shouldn’t), then we should start with discussions about making helmets mandatory for those moving by motor vehicle.
Second, journalists need to report a whole range of perspectives in stories about cycling. It seems that news organizations still see cycling as for kids or racers – if they’re not writing about some form of cycle chic, which never discusses safety.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, cycling safety should be about getting more riders on the road and fewer people in cars. Motor vehicles pose the most danger to children and adults alike who walk and cycle. Let’s work on getting cars off the road and changing the way our space works. That, to me, is the most simple and effective strategy, and it will in turn make living more sustainable, healthy, and humane.
Win all around… unless you want to barrel quickly through inhabited space in your V8 while sucking barrels of oil. That kind of choice, unfortunately, is the logic of our current system – thus necessitating “helmet wars.”
Imagine a different world where cars are marginalized (like the Netherlands – It *can* happen here):
Then helmet wars become a truly silly endeavor.