Helmets Off to Safer Streets?

Bike helmets keep individual cyclists safe, but helmet-free riding may help make streets safer for all cyclists.

Cycling friends need not share the same helmet preferences. Credit: Elsie esq. on Flickr.

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Bike advocates hear the same fears over and over from those who eschew city cycling: “I just don’t feel safe.” “I’ll ride on trails in parks, but nowhere else.” “I just wouldn’t take that kind of a risk with my life.” Safety is, without question, a main concern among those who choose bipedalism (or other modes) over two pedals.

This past weekend, the New York Times explored the apparent Catch-22 surrounding the use of bicycle helmets. It goes something like this: Helmets discourage non-cyclists from getting on bikes. Fewer bikes on the streets mean less safe conditions for cyclists (think safety in numbers).

If street conditions are more dangerous and helmets save lives, then cyclists should wear helmets. But this may also discourage more people from riding, which will make conditions even less safe on the streets and thus further necessitate the need for helmets, and so on.

Case in point: Helmets are less popular in the cities around the world which tout the most successful bike share programs. The programs that do require helmets appear to have less success.

If we stop pushing for helmets, more people will likely start to bike, which will help improve bike safety. But this alone will certainly not be enough to transform any city into a cyclist’s paradise. Perception of risk has a lot to do with increasing ridership as well — flying is safer than driving, but most of us are more fearful of boarding a plane than entering a sedan. Despite its real dangers, driving is more ingrained into our daily lives, and so we are more comfortable with it. In order for cycling to become more commonplace, cities need to provide better means for people to feel safer while riding.

For some this may indeed mean the use of a helmet, but there are numerous other elements essential for safer cycling. A May Streetsblog tweet gets at the heart of it: “The point is, helmet laws don’t make people safer. Better engineered streets and more people biking make people safer.” Better infrastructure will encourage non-cyclists to go for a ride and be safer while doing so.

If anything should be mandatory, it should be education for amblers, drivers and cyclists alike that increases mutual awareness. In the Netherlands, for example, drivers are taught to exit their cars by reaching across to open the door with their right hand, which causes them to turn their head and shoulders to the face the street and see if a cyclist is in the bike lane.

As a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition explained in an e-mail:

[T]he helmet issue often dominates the conversation about bicycling safety to the exclusion of infrastructure and ridership… Wearing a helmet is a personal choice we strongly support, but many people who could obtain critical health benefits from bicycling should not be discouraged from doing so by the cost, appearance, or danger associated with helmets. Furthermore, a mandatory bicycle helmet law in Pennsylvania would look incongruous in a state that does not require helmets when riding motorcycles.

Or we can take a different stance: For every complex problem, there is a consumerist solution. Swedish designers spent six years designing an airbag helmet that looks like a collar and is released in response to “abnormal head movement.” The cost? Roughly 4,000 Swedish krona, or over $600. Vanity has its price.

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Tags: new york cityphiladelphiainfrastructurebikingbike-sharehealthpublic schoolspublic safety

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