A Million Little Nannies

Looking smart: helmet-less in Paris.

Over the last few days, the “helmet debate” hit a new peak with a well-articulated essay in the Sunday Review by Elizabeth Rosenthal, who used her experience on the Parisian Velíb to argue against helmet hegemony. Note that her argument was not against helmet use – but against requiring helmets for bike share programs in order to increase participation, and ultimately, modal share in cities. I couldn’t agree more.

Let it flow.

In so many ways, my bike education arrives from conversations with Grant Petersen. Nobody has made the helmet argument better than him. It’s a subtle, smart argument about safety. I almost always wear a helmet, as my 10-mile commute is not facilitated by infrastructure, and I ride it relatively fast, as I treat it as “training” for fitness (I have little other time to devote to exercise these days). Its what Jan Heine calls an “American” commute – different from the short urban jaunts that characterize European city riding. But when I ride short urban jaunts, I don’t wear a helmet. Re-read Grant’s post, or his chapter in the brilliant Just Ride to find out why. Riding without a helmet means that being on a bike is normal and safe – which it is. Just like I don’t wear a helmet getting into the bathtub, working in the garage, or driving a car, I choose not to wear one sometimes when I’m on my bicycle. One should note that all of those activities are much more risky for head injuries than bike riding.

But what Rosenthal’s story does is move beyond personal safety and point to cycling advocacy. She’s writing about the success of bike share programs, and ultimately to how we grow bike modal share, thus creating more livable cities for all who inhabit and pass through them. In the spirit of the flåneur, we should do everything we can as riders and advocates to bring the aesthetic joy of riding to the forefront of the urban experience and advocacy efforts. Moving happily beyond the helmet hang-up here in the United States is an important step in embracing the everyday joy of moving through space astride a bike. That’s why I especially enjoyed the Here and Now coverage of Rosenthal’s view: the tone of the story is so charming and affirmative, that it puts all the nattering helmet nabobs in the place they belong – the crying room.

So, regarding these million little nannies that wag their finger and say you’re an idiot for not wearing a styrofoam hat, their frame echoes through a smaller and smaller chamber. I can’t surmise what compels people to tell others what they should do, based on nothing but unsubstantiated, but deeply held beliefs about safety? As a new parent, I experienced the same thing – everybody had an opinion about how I was wrapping my daughter, burping her, feeding her, keeping her warm. Lots of dads experience this, but I was left wondering: what gets into peoples’ minds where they feel they have the authority to tell strangers what’s best for them?

Everyday people are changing cities by walking and biking. Now, we take authority over what it means to ride a bike. Its normal, fun, safe, and for everybody. Its like walking. Its a blast. Defeating the “safety” police for normal city riding is one important victory in creating a more livable urban experience.



  1. Tarik Saleh

    The easiest thing in the world is to pass judgement on is how others are raising their children. And the second easiest thing is how you are going to get killed riding that bicycle.

  2. Paleo Velo

    Dude, I had this friend, and one time he wrecked, totally cracking his helmet. You should all wear a helmet!

    Ha ha. That’s the inevitable line that this debate always seems to follow.

    • Esteban

      Yea… One time I was going 5 mph and I fell and destroyed my helmet and it saved my life. What a spurious claim! Whether it saved a life or not has not been proven!

  3. Doug Peterson

    Someone on the Riv forum mentioned your use of the term “nattering nabobs” but Jim had locked the thread down before I could comment. Spiro Agnew, VP under Richard Nixon, used the term “…nattering nabobs of negativsm…” in reference to those in opposition of the Vietnam war.

  4. Eric P.

    Will also add my other comments. For bikes like most bike shares, I can easily see not wearing a helmet. (Although the sponsor behind the Minnesota Nice Ride have been more actively encouraging helmet use by giving them away this year.) Ultimately, I wear a helmet because of my own personal fears. Pretty much the same reason I ride a steel bike.

  5. Kit

    It is illegal to not wear a bike helmet in New Zealand. I grew up with it – it feels weird not to wear one. I prefer to think of it as the insurance policy I may never need.

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