We need a new way of talking about bike helmets

We need a new way of talking about bike helmets

 

note: I wish I had more time to develop this one into something a bit more in-depth, but you needed something to read today and this is what I’ve got. If you want to add to this conversation, please do, as I’ll likely come back to it soon!

 

I find it one of the more tiresome topics in regards to cycling. There aren’t really that many common topics in the general body of cycling conversations when you think about it – cars vs. bikes, red lights, lightness, Lycra, does it come in carbon, and of course: helmets.

It’s really something that will never go away no matter what the situation regarding bicycle helmets is. Even where they have been optional for ages, or maybe even forever, it’s still a hot topic.

You might think that there would be just two sides to this debate, but there are actually three, as I see it: 1. everyone should wear them, 2. everybody should have the personal choice as to whether or not they want to wear one, and 3. wearing a helmet is not only responsible for keeping cycling from becoming more widely accepted, but it’s actually downright dangerous. It is the view that lies in and around the third position that I want to take issue with here. The all-or-nothing arguments, hostile to any suggestion that compromises their black-and-white view that helmets are from the devil (for some…).

Why does this concern me? Not because I completely disagree with much of what is argued, but because I think that this line of argument goes so counter-intuitive to a normal person’s understanding of reality that strong, impassioned statements to the contrary, which often seem to contradict themselves, work to undermine the effort of promoting greater cycling participation.

Generally speaking, I am on board with the main point behind these advocate’s arguments: that cycling should not be considered a terribly risky activity, full or fear and danger at every turn. Focusing on wearing a helmet because of the threat of death or debilitating injury is not likely to encourage people to take up cycling, which would have a far greater positive impact on society on the whole. Besides, it distracts from the real issues of cycling safety – motorists lack of responsibility and road infrastructure designed exclusively for them.

With that said, here are my two main points of contention. First, that anti-helmet advocates claim with religious fervor that bike helmets do nothing to protect cyclists heads and can even be dangerous, and second, that anti-helmet advocates often get caught-up arguing for contradictory sounding points – that helmets are not only useless but even a barrier to cycling, and that the roads are fraught with danger and need to be improved or more cyclists will continue to die.

The first point

Here is a perfect example of what I am referring to. Lets call it the Deity Argument. It might go something like this: “You can’t prove your God exists, therefore your God doesn’t exist.”

“I firmly believe that my God does exist. You prove that my God doesn’t exist!”

“Pffff, whatever. You’re a fool.”

This can take a few different forms, but I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that, on the whole, we’re not really going to crack that one with the old, “prove it” tactic.

Similarly, “some studies show that helmets are not proven to be useful, therefore helmets are not useful and a scam. Don’t wear one, giving away your rights and freedoms to a higher power.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m constantly hearing from cycling advocates such as yourself about how dangerous the roads are and always reading reports about cyclists being killed on our roads. For my entire life (and throughout history) I have seen protective headgear employed in almost every aspect of life, be it sport, work, or even war, and furthermore, I had a bad crash a few years ago where I hit my head, my helmet was destroyed, yet I’m here talking to you about it rather than drooling on myself and eating through a straw.”

“Pffff, whatever. You’re a fool.”

See? Simple. It doesn’t work. It will never work. People just have to discover whatever they want to do about helmets for themselves. And you know what? If they are happy cycling and promoting all the good that cycling does, then who cares, right? Helmets are not quite as pivotal as attaining one’s eternal salvation, even if your adversary claims it saved theirs, so here’s my advice: shut up about it and be supportive of living a better life, rather than what motivates one to do so.

Don’t take the bait. Address it quickly and succinctly. Say, “I see your bait, and here is why it doesn’t matter”, and then move on to the far more important conversation of how we actually improve the conditions for cycling and get to the place where helmets really won’t be an issue. If helmets are not the real issue, then don’t make it so. Hopefully when helmets cease to be such a contentious issue and its curious stranglehold on people’s rights and freedoms are loosened (i.e. the debate looses its appeal), they will no longer be deemed as such a pivotal measure to insure one’s apparent safety.

The second point

The second point is that the spaces that people are provided to travel on are often dangerous, and given the ever-increasing necessity to change the way our societies function in terms of how that relates to urban design and how it impacts our quality of life and the environment, etc, we cannot continue to accommodate the personal motor vehicle as we have been for the last hundred years or so at the expense of more responsible means of transportation. As it currently sits, those more responsible means of transportation are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to safety, but also convenience. That needs to change.

Put another way, our world is changing, cars (as personal transport) cannot continue to be used with abandon, walking, cycling and public transport are underutilized and effectively discouraged because of the actual and perceived inconvenience and danger that comes as part of the package, and that needs to change.

Helmets don’t really factor into this situation at all. Or at least, they don’t need to.

Let’s say that they aren’t effective. Then they would be neither a positive nor a negative, and would really have nothing to do with the entire debate over cycling’s place in society.

Except that influential people, businesses, and entire governing bodies suggest that they do. That helmets are possibly even the most important factor in cycling safety, and that’s where I think the real concern lies. That’s why many anti-helmet advocates rightly get upset – because to focus on helmets is to miss the heart of the matter entirely. Safety is not primarily about minimizing injury, it is about minimizing the danger. It’s like smoking on a couch soaked in gasoline and then making sure we’re all wearing our oven mitts.

To focus on helmets is to distract from the real work needed to encourage more people to cycle, and keeps people busy debating “foam hats” rather than fixing the real problems. Mandatory helmet laws (MHL’s) are often seen as a tool to paint cycling as a needlessly dangerous activity and, furthermore, can be used to place the responsibility of safety on the road primarily on the more vulnerable road user. This is where I am totally on-board with the anti-helmet bunch. Everyone happy so far?

Alright, now if we leave aside the discouraging aspects of MHL’s, if we could temporarily divorce these from helmets in general, we might be able to see that helmets are really an incredibly minor inconvenience to cycling. In my opinion, of course.

Freestyle Cyclists (for the record, they do a lot of good work) suggests that “bicycle helmets present a significant barrier to everyday cycling.” No they don’t. That’s ridiculous. That’s no more true than suggesting that seat belts present a significant barrier to driving (people arced up about that too), or steel capped boots present a significant barrier to manual labour. Not having to bring my helmet would make many trips easier, much like not having to cook would make it easier to eat (I’m not one who gets psyched about cooking), but I cannot think of a single instance where I have even been tempted to abort a trip by bike because I had to bring my helmet.

(While that may be technically true, as Jason points out in the comments, practically, it’s a different story. Helmets aren’t technically a pain to use, but that’s not where they are a deterrent for some.)

But aside from my opinion, it seems pretty obvious to me that from a practical point of view, to argue vociferously for increased safety for cyclists on the incredibly dangerous roads while calling passionately for people to put their helmets down in a world where helmets generally equal increased safety (again, whether this is technically true or not does not matter to my point), seems a little misguided and more than a little confusing for the average person.

Or maybe I’m just below average. That’s a possibility, but in any case, I’m still going to suggest that in putting more energy into the first part (more real safety) rather than the second part (plastic caps), cycling will be given a greater boost in its current position in society.

Sometimes arguing is fun, but sometimes it’s pointless. Like arguing over the proof (however you want to apply that term) of one’s personal convictions – especially when those convictions bear fruit – arguing that helmets are useless and even bad is a waste of time. Furthermore, given that the evidence as to a helmet’s effectiveness is inconclusive (some say good, others bad – I call it a wash), you just end up in the whole, “you’re God isn’t real because you can’t prove it”, “And you can’t prove that statement either”, exchange, which gets you nowhere.

Focusing on helmets is a waste of energy in terms of the overall benefit to cycling that could be brought about by better infrastructure and other laws or policies, while presenting two contradictory sounding positions to the general public, namely, “the roads are dangerous”, and “your safety device is stupid” (to generalize). I don’t want to pick on these folks, but the irony of the statement, “The safest riders are those who go slowly – typical everyday cycling to get from A to B”, held up next to the position that “they only need to test their helmets to a total impact velocity of 20 feet per second, which translates to 13.64 miles per hour (21.95 kilometers per hour)”, is not lost on me. Essentially, the slower you ride, the more effective a helmet actually gets. Oh, except for these. See if you can count how many heads hit the deck (and in once case, even an airborne bike finds a head).

We have to change the way we argue about helmets. While arguing for a repeal of the MHL is all good, I think it would be wise to stop short of arguing that helmets are stupid and nobody should wear them while in the same breath arguing that we need safer infrastructure because it’s really quite dangerous for cyclists. We need to focus more on infrastructure and “accident” prevention (this is a good effort, and I just came across this as I finished writing). When someone starts going on about bike helmets, ask how a helmet prevents a collision, effectively directing the conversation back to the far more relevant “accident” prevention subject (i.e. real safety), and go about dealing with MHL’s on a more subtle and indirect route.

 

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