Helmet laws – don’t take the bait!
I was going to respond to this in the comment section, but it got a bit lengthy, so now it’s a post.
From Jim Lindner:
“Perhaps recognizing helmets and high-viz as not any more effective and less comfortable when cycling will help put the conversation on track. Every reason stated for a cyclist to have these items applies with more reason to cars and their passengers.”
If you look at the statistics, which show an alarming number of head injuries for vehicle occupants resulting from car accidents, I completely agree with the second point – helmets make more sense on motorists heads than on cyclists.
I think helmets for cyclists is such a convincing argument for many, however, because cars have a multitude of safety features built-in for their occupants (and in fact, have to, by law), whereas cyclists have nothing more than their awareness, the awareness of motorists, and lights and high-viz to help prevent accidents, and only helmets to help protect them from (head) injury in an actual collision.
The abundance of legally required and optional safety equipment is why helmets for vehicle-occupants doesn’t hold much interest. Why nobody questions why racing drivers have to wear helmets is beyond me, as the danger is pretty equal in many cases (I can’t find any hard numbers to back this up, so feel free to prove me wrong). Yes, the speeds are greater, but the traffic is all going in the same direction, there are gravel traps, no intersections, tyre barriers, roll-cages, crumple zones with safety-cells, run-off areas, and a significantly larger dose of driving talent to help offset the danger. The speeds on public roads are lower, usually, but there are none of the above safety features either (unless you want to argue that a sidewalk full of pedestrians is pretty much as good as a tyre barrier…), and on a typical highway (or even a semi-major road) in a collision in a typical passenger car, the severity of the impact after factoring in these differences is likely to be similar, if not worse than in a racing car in some instances.
It makes even less sense why there is no debate as to why pedestrians don’t have to wear one.
Anyway, as to the fist point, if helmets offer protection for cyclists, than whether or not they are uncomfortable is not a convincing argument for me, strictly speaking. Seat belts got the same reaction, and, oh, how they crease your clothes! That helmets are no more effective for cyclists than motorists may also be true, but as I said, it’s the only physical protection cyclists have, in contrast to cars, so I can understand the focus on them.
I think the trouble that we get into here comes in a few forms, but here are two popular ones:
1. The argument is framed as a zero-sum game. Helmets are only necessary because motorists do not take sufficient care around cyclist, so all the responsibility lies with motorists, and/or,
2. It is the fault of insufficient infrastructure, especially segregated cycle-ways.
Well, that’s fine and all, but is it very realistic on the roads as most of us experience them? Shall we not protect ourselves while we work out who is to blame, and while we wait for everyone to be perfect? That’ll be some wait…
And that’s the trouble – helmets and high-viz do in fact help, but because we don’t have sufficient cycling infrastructure and must therefore cycle on roads that are heavily biased towards motorists, combined with the fact that the law does almost nothing to incentivize motorists to exercise more caution around cyclists, this results in the unfortunate truth that, as it stands, if we have to run the gauntlet, we’re better off doing so with a little protection, plain and simple.
I’ve never felt vulnerable passing a cyclist, another car, or a large truck while in a car. I often feel vulnerable when being passed by anything bigger than me while riding my bike. I don’t wear high-viz, but I wear my helmet and use lights because it’s smarter than not doing it, not because it is the law.
Here’s the rub: cyclists get upset about this argument because that’s where it usually stops. Wear a helmet for your own protection. Done.
That needs to be a footnote to the real issue, not the headline, and that is precisely the point of nearly everyone who is against helmet laws and those who are upset that elected officials talk about cyclist safety but offer no action. I’m pro-helmet wearing, anti-helmet law, and think that we need to talk about the real problem surrounding cycle safety, like Jim says, and get the conversation on track where it belongs.
So, when discussing helmet laws or cycling safety, don’t deny that helmets are useful – that won’t earn you any credibility with most people (because it’s ridiculous), and instead puts you on the back foot. You’ve taken the bait. You’re wasting breath arguing against something that is irrelevant to the problem at hand. Instead, say “sure, helmets are useful”, and then immediately move on to discussing the roots of the problem rather than a reaction to it that has nothing to do with improving it.
Don’t feed the monster. By focusing so much energy on helmets, I’ll bet that the general public probably has no genuine appreciation of what the real issues are. Rather than fighting the issue, take away its power by disengaging with it. Move on, treat it as irrelevant, and maybe it will be. Who knows.
Header image: source