The tragic deaths recently of three cyclists who crashed without helmets, and helmeted Joey Harrington’s survival of a similar crash has rekindled the hottest debate in bicycling, and I was slotted to import a point from the Netherlands on this morning’s Think Out Loud on OBP. Unfortuantely, AT&T is so incredibly, unbelievably bad at what they do that my call was dropped, so what follows is the crux of the argument I was hoping to make.
Personally, I wear a helmet. I’ve never been in a crash where it’s protected me and I have no idea if it would do any good if I got into a serious crash. I like the feeling of safety that I get from feeling it secured to my noggin, especially if I’m interacting with traffic or going at high speeds, even though these might be exactly the situations when the helmet is least likely to do any good. I’ve also completely forgotten the helmet at times and not noticed until it wasn’t there when I tried to take it off at my destination.
Joseph Rose penned a column in Saturday’s Oregonian advocating for helmets, and he makes some well-taken points despite a somewhat aggressive approach toward those who would argue otherwise that seemed unnecessary and counterproductive. I thought he was a little over the line with his rhetorical tactics on Think Out Loud this morning, too, using weasel words and straw men to shoot down the anti-helmet position. As I mentioned, I agree with Rose’s end point here, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the anti-helmet folks are neither performing “junk science,” nor making the weak and juvenile arguments Rose assigns to them. [Edit: Rose points out that his references to "junk science" were in response to another caller, so apologies to Rose if it was the caller and not Rose that is at the origin of these things I take issue with.]
During my recent trip to the Netherlands (where nobody wears helmets), I had the chance to talk to Hans Voerknecht, the international coordinator of Fietsberaad, a Dutch group that describes itself as an “expertise centre for cycling policy.” It’s notable that Fietsberaad recommends against compulsory helmet use and has a strong, safety-based argument for doing so. Helmet use, not surprisingly, is inversely correlated with the number of miles cycled in a particular city. The more a city cycles, the less likely its cyclists are to wear helmets, and the introduction of compulsory helmet laws have been tied to decreases in cycling. And safety increases with an increase in the number of people cycling. More cyclists on the roads lead to better facilities, and better awareness from drivers; there is safety in numbers.
In short, less hemet use leads to more cyclists, and more cyclists lead to better safety in aggregate. Indeed, Voerknecht argues, the proof is in the pudding: The two safest major cities in the world to cycle are Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which are the two with the lowest instance of helmet use. QED.
Even in the almost entirely helmet-free Netherlands, though, it is acknowledged that there is a personal safety benefit to be gained from wearing a helmet. SWOV, the Dutch institute for road safety research, ticks off the benefits of helmet use before concluding “that a bicycle helmet is an effective means of protecting cyclists against head and brain injury.” Of course, I’d be willing to bet you a guilder for an oliebol that whomever wrote that rode their bike home from work sans helmet immediately afterward, but I digress.
Ironically, the research seems to suggest a sort of prisoner’s dilemma if you want to be on the winning end of all the numbers: The best possible course of action for the safety-minded cyclist is to wear a helmet while campaigning vehemently against widespread helmet use.
I once had a friend tersely declare that either you wear a helmet, or there’s nothing for a helmet to protect, so the whole debate is moot. But a lot of times, lugging this ugly, obnoxious thing with me everywhere I go to defend against the tiny, tiny chance that I’ll get in a crash where it may actually save me feels akin to taking a parachute with me every time I fly so I’m prepared should the plane go down. I think there are good points to be made on both sides of the debate, and it’s an important discussion to have despite the difficulties we often have in remaining civil while debating topics that inflame passions.
The bottom line is this, though. If I get into a serious crash with a car, I don’t like my chances regardless of what is or isn’t on my head. I therefore devote most of my safety efforts to avoiding that, and kindly would ask drivers to do the same, whether the cyclists they’re sharing the road with are wearing helmets or not.
(As a postscript, I’d add that Fietsberaad’s website is a must-bookmark for the cycling wonk, as the “knowledge bank” contains a treasure trove of information. In particular, I found this policy guide for promotion of cycling and this SWOV fact sheet helpful in preparing this post.)