Does Wearing A Bike Helmet Discourage Anyone from Riding a Bike?

Does Wearing A Bike Helmet Discourage Anyone from Riding a Bike?
Courtesy of Boston Public Health Commission

There are many out there that would say “you need to have your head examined” if you want to ride a bike in a city like Chicago.  But is it the fear of literally needing one’s head examined that is preventing more people from participating in city cycling?

When Dr. David Edelberg posted his opinion that helmet usage may be dissuading ordinary people from taking up bicycling in his blog post on the Whole Health Chicago website on November 20th, debate ensued that caused many of us to examine our own convictions about the bicycle brain bucket.

Dr. Edelberg begins his post with an innocent question regarding Chicago’s upcoming bike share program.  Will the average person that sees this inviting opportunity to explore our fine city on two wheels impulsively take the plunge or will echoes of “you’ll split your head open without a helmet” cause that individual to walk right on past the bike share kiosk?  Have we (cyclists, bicycling advocates, industry insiders, parents, insurance industry risk experts, personal injury lawyers, legislators, Nanny State supporters) erected an unnecessary barrier in our quest to make cycling a safer activity for all to enjoy?

Much of the doctor’s post cites a recent New York Times news analysis that touts the lack of helmet usage throughout bike-friendly Europe.  Tens of thousands of citizens take to their bicycle-safe streets sans helmets each day without incident.  In one of the safest cycling cities in Europe – Amsterdam – helmet usage is less than one percent among the 85% who cycle somewhere at least once per week.  With a full fifty percent of the city’s 743,000 residents taking 37% of all trips by bike daily, an annual fatality rate of 6 or 7 people is quite remarkable.  The Netherlands averages a mere 1.1 fatalities per 100 million kilometers traveled versus the US average of 5.8 for the same distance (62,137,119.2 miles, to be precise).

These statistics certainly give cause to remove the Styrofoam skull cap and scratch one’s sweaty head…

Why is it that we Americans take less than 4% of the bike trips that the Dutch take (27% national average), yet we still experience more than 5 times the fatalities per kilometer pedaled?  Clearly, we’re doing something wrong, but is it really the helmet that is holding us back?

Let’s take a look at helmet stats in the US.  It is estimated that 50% of American cyclists regularly wear a helmet.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety states that “helmet use has been estimated to reduce head injury risk by 85%”.   According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, bicycling fatalities in the US average just over 600 per year with injuries at approximately 52,000.  Of the 616 killed in 2010, 94 (15%) were confirmed to be wearing helmets while the remainder was either reported without (429 or 70%) or unknown (93 or 15%).

In a separate report from New York City, 74% of fatal crashes involved head injuries and nearly all cyclists killed (97%) were not wearing a helmet.  Instances of death (3%) and serious injury (13%) were lowest among riders wearing helmets.

Statistics such as these confirm that bicycle helmets are effective in preventing death from a head injury, so don’t toss yours in the trash just yet…

Maybe the question we need to be asking is why do American cyclists need to wear helmets when Dutch cyclists do not?

Readers of both the doctor’s post and commenters on the discussion thread of Grid Chicago’s Facebook page were quick to point out the differences between cycling in Chicago and ambling along in Amsterdam.  Bicycling in Chicago has more than its share of challenges.  Buses.  Taxies.  Inattentive drivers.  Disappearing bike lanes.  Riding in the door zone.  Precarious positioning at intersections.  Manholes.  Potholes.  A*&-holes.  Those that take to the streets on two wheels generally don’t do so on a whim.  It takes time to develop the skill, confidence, and nerve to share the road with trucks, buses, cars, and cabs.

Chicago has a long way to go to become as bike-friendly as Amsterdam.

One of many reasons why the Dutch are safer on their bikes among motorists is that most Dutch motorists also bike (85% of the total population in Amsterdam!).  That simply isn’t the case here in the US.  Most of us – and I am repeating what I have said here many times – are highly skeptical of the motorists we must share the road with.  We simply have a hard time trusting drivers to prioritize a cyclist’s safety over their own momentary inconvenience.  We have learned this from sharing the road with drivers not just on our bikes, but as fellow motorists.

We’re caught in a classic Catch-22.  Cyclists won’t realize a greater feeling of safety on the road until more motorists become cyclists and more motorists won’t become cyclists until the roads are safer to bicycle on.  Those style-challenged shells strapped to our noggins and cinched beneath our chins serve as a glaring reminder that we Americans have yet to resolve this dilemma.

While I was crafting my commentary, I discovered a post on Momentum Magazine’s Facebook fan pageMomentum recently shared a link to Bike Safe Boston's critique of the Boston Public Health Commission's new helmet awareness campaign with a thought-provoking quote:

"Here’s the thing about helmet awareness campaigns: the only way that they can be effective is by promoting the idea that you’re likely to crash. Essentially, they have to advertise for bike crashes."  Josh Zisson

This statement certainly parallels the contentions made by both Dr. Edelberg and NY Times article author Elisabeth Rosenthal.  We advocates are not doing ourselves any favors by reminding potential newcomers that there is an inherent danger to bicycling.

But is slipping on a bike helmet really any different than sporting a life preserver on a boat or strapping on a seatbelt in a car?

This is usually where the discussion veers off course.  We could spend a great deal of time debating the merits of both the pro and anti helmet arguments.  From verifiable statistics that demonstrate helmet effectiveness in a crash to the likelihood of getting into a crash in the first place.  A helmet emboldening a cyclist to ride more aggressively in traffic versus the common sense to ride more cautiously due to greater vulnerability.  Protecting oneself from risk-taking motorists versus garnering respect from risk-averse motorists.  Teaching our children personal responsibility versus instilling unnecessary fear and trepidation.  It’s easy for either side to dig their heels in and accuse the other side of exacerbating the problem.

But wasting our energy on the helmet debate still isn’t solving the issue at hand – making US cycling safer to encourage higher participation rates.

In many ways, that highly conspicuous bicycle helmet is like the presence of body fat on an overweight American.  It is a very visible symbol for something that is not quite right, yet we're uncomfortable pointing it out, let alone talking about it.  It's a symptom of a much larger problem.  The bike helmet is really just a mask for a whole host of underlying and interconnected issues to hide behind.

Prioritizing the bicycling safety issue is, ironically, part of the solution for our nation’s obesity epidemic.

If we could raise bicycling participation rates nationwide to the levels experienced in Germany, Sweden, or Finland – 10% of all trips made – we could make a serious dent in America’s latest and largely preventable health crisis.  More daily exercise and less excessive body weight will lower the incidence of heart disease and diabetes.  Healthier Americans will suffer fewer heart attacks and strokes.  Stress-related health issues will also lessen.

If we can reach our tipping point - just as they have in progressive European nations - the risk of not riding a bicycle will be perceived as greater than the current presumed risk of riding a bicycle.

We don’t have a helmet problem.  We have a helmet perception problem - a safety problem hiding under a helmet perception problem.

From this point forward I'm going to view my skid lid as a hard hat.  I'll gladly take it off when our work is done...

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