Today, on my way to the shop, a car pulled up beside me at a traffic light. The driver wound a window down, and politely, with genuine concern, asked me why I don’t wear a helmet. Don’t get me wrong, he was really nice and clearly meant well.*
I was also criticised for not wearing a helmet in the comments on a recent article in a local paper about negative attitudes to cycling in Dundalk. The issue is not quick and easy to explain. Much of my reason is captured in this excellent article, but there’s a bit more to it for me.
I used to be a helmet fanatic, and fought endlessly with my son to get him to wear a helmet. One day, he challenged me to get him the facts on how much safer it makes him when he wears a cycling helmet. I turned to the internet with complete confidence, only to find that the helmet issue is not simple at all. It seems a no-brainer: they make you safer! but it’s not. An argument can even be made that some kinds of brain injuries are made more likely by wearing a helmet. What statistics there are don’t make an indisputable case for helmet wear increasing your safety, and even those are contentious – the vast majority of cycling accidents don’t get reported, as most result in only minor injuries. An argument can be made that helmets may even increase cyclists’ risk of being hit by a car, .
Complicating matters more, not all cyclists are the same. You can’t assess the risks for a pro racer flashing past at 60km/h, and try to apply rules based on those risks to a utility cyclist hardly ever going over 10km/h.
We’re not done yet, there is an even deeper layer of complication. The exercise inherent in cycling holds health benefits. Like it or not, people don’t like wearing helmets. The helmets look stupid, they’re a pain in the arse if you’ve cycled to the mall and now have to figure out what to do with it, and for those wanting to cycle to work, there’s a difference between brushing wind-blown hair to look neat for the office, and trying to do something about horribly flattened, sweat-soaked hair. You may not feel the same about your appearance or the inconvenience of what to do with the thing when you arrive, you may not agree with people’s objections to them, but the reality is that if people have to choose between cycling with a helmet or not cycling at all, they’d rather not cycle at all. Bring in mandatory helmet use, and you get an immediate decline in cycling. So here’s the question: what holds the biggest health risk: lack of exercise, or cycling without a helmet?
Lastly, let’s assume a cycling helmet will indeed save you from serious injury or even death in every single serious cycling accident. Firstly, most cyclists go through their lives without ever getting into a serious cycling accident, as in, something that puts you in hospital. Secondly, I believe we would get a lot more bang for our buck by working on staying out of accidents than advocating for helmet use. I think a high visibility vest and cautious cycling contribute much more to a cyclist’s safety, in the big picture, than a helmet. Much more than that, cycle lanes, especially segregated cycle lanes, are probably the most enormously effective steps we can take to make cycling safe.
More on the side of speculation, I think our preoccupation with cycle helmets is a form of victim blaming. Don’t feel cycling is safe? Wear a helmet! That’s comparable to saying: “The ship doesn’t have enough life boats. Each and every passenger therefore needs to learn to swim”, rather than saying: “Wow, maybe we should put enough life boats on the ship.” We make posters and launch campaigns to get kids to wear helmets, and do nothing at all to get drivers to stop driving like arses, nothing at all to get them to respect cycle lanes and not park in them.
I started looking around me as well, when first my son challenged me about the helmet issue. I realised that the majority of utility cyclists, people who cycle just to get around town, don’t wear helmets. So one day, I stopped wearing mine. I found an interesting thing: I’ve always been a careful cyclist, but now I was so aware of my vulnerability that I became even more careful when on my bicycle.
Should I get into an accident, it’s possible my lack of a helmet could lead to serious injury or death. I wager my risk of serious injury or death is increased more by the act of cycling itself, over driving or staying home, so for me, it’s a matter of considering how big that risk is, and I don’t think it’s big enough to justify the drawbacks.
I also know no matter how safely I cycle, I might get into a fix through no fault of my own. Yet overall, I feel the risk is not big enough to justify the inconvenience inherent in helmet use for utility cycling. So am I anti-helmet? Not at all. If you’re comfortable wearing one, do so.
*At the time of writing this article, as I did not want to be an asshole, I declined to tell the whole story. The more time passes, though, the more I think it’s too good not to share: I listened to this concerned motorist questioning my lack of a helmet politely, explained that my not wearing a helmet is not an oversight but a thoroughly considered decision. I then, still very politely, asked him if he was aware that he was not wearing a seat belt.
You can’t make this stuff up.