Why I don't wear a bicycle helmet

Why I don’t wear a bicycle helmet


Not me, of course, because I do wear a bicycle helmet. It’s this guy who doesn’t.

Why doesn’t he? Well, naturally, he doesn’t need one. See, he’s careful. He sometimes rides on bicycle paths. He doesn’t run red lights. He points out that millions of people around the world cycle around without a helmet quite successfully and without incident.

Compared to walking, by miles traveled, he points out that you are more likely to be injured walking than cycling. These are all true, and commonly argued points, but… well, I’ll come back to that.

The other reason he doesn’t wear a bicycle helmet is because it’s a “stupid law”. “It discourages people from cycling”, and “cycling needs to become normal”.

Again, these are both good points that need to be considered. In an age where traveling by anything other than a personal vehicle is often considered to be done only because you can’t afford to do otherwise (though the tide is turning), there is a stigma that is still attached to cycling that places it in the not-normal category. This is on top of the more pervasive perception that cycling is risky, presenting dangerous situations that are unlike those presented to the occupants of personal vehicles.

Forcing people to wear bicycle helmets because of the perceived danger does tend to send a message that cycling is, in fact, a more dangerous form of transportation than pretty much anything else.

In a way, though, it’s kind of true. Look at these (via Cycling Uphill):

Why I don't wear a bicycle helmet

Why I don't wear a bicycle helmet

Now, I know that these figures are always debated, and you can find other studies that give different numbers, but even if you use them as a rough example you’ll generally find that this is the case (the numbers are even lower for buses, rail, and water).

So, relatively speaking, cycling is actually reasonably risky when compared to other forms of transport, depending on how you look at it.

Stepping back a bit, we know: that by volume, helmets would protect far more heads from head injury in cars that they do on bikes; that there are a great number of everyday tasks that are more risky than cycling that nobody cares about; and that there are far more significant factors to consider when talking about reducing the risk to cyclists than whether or not they wear a helmet, such as adequate infrastructure, speed limits, and even the way “accidents” are treated in the eyes of the law. Basically, the risk cyclists face, which is almost exclusively at the hand of motorists but sometimes themselves – is better managed by improving the context that cyclists must cycle in rather than simply putting a helmet on it.

Focusing so much on bicycle helmets allows lawmakers to side-step the more significant issues surrounding cyclists safety while at the same time, focusing people’s attention on the fact that it is risky. In short, it’s not helpful.

Furthermore, if you have to compare the risk to society of cyclists not wearing helmets, and the risk to society of the health risks of inactivity as it is currently, it absolutely pales in comparison. Not to mention that with the constant flow of people into urban areas worldwide, the fact that no matter how many new roads we built, it will never be enough to keep ahead of traffic volumes – never-mind even catching up to it; the fact that fossil fuels are a finite resource; the fact that we need to decrease pollution… if a mandatory helmet law keeps people from taking up cycling, then it seems pretty clear that our priorities are in the wrong place.

This brings me to the main points I wish to put out there for discussion: the claim that the author doesn’t need to wear a helmet, and, is it so crazy to make bicycle helmets mandatory? The argument that you’ve never had an accident, and you’re careful, and that therefore you won’t be involved in a collision, is just plain stupid. The argument that, because these other people have not been involved in a collision, therefore I too will not be involved in a collision, is absurd.

The chances that you will be hit by a car are reset each and every time you take to the streets on your bike – there is no way of knowing what will happen to you until it happens to you. You can increase or decrease your odds, of course, but you cannot simply decide to not be the victim of someone else’s mistake or carelessness. I’ve never been hit by a car, and I’ve narrowly avoided a number of occasions where I might have been due to being alert and successfully taking evasive action. That does not necessarily mean that I will be able to be so lucky in the future.

The fact is, you can argue (rightly so) for better cycling infrastructure until you are blue in the face, but when you are actually involved in a collision, a helmet is the only form of protection against serious head injury (or death) that you will have as a cyclist. A helmet would definitely make passengers in cars more safe, but keep in mind that there are already a large number of federally mandated regulations that car manufacturers must adhere to (ie, laws) in order to keep those passengers safe – none of which can be employed on a bicycle. People fought seat belts when they were first introduced, which to this day are still uncomfortable and inconvenient (they wrinkle your freshly pressed shirt!), but you have to wear one. A helmet is the only option for cycling, and, in Australia, like seat belts, its use is enforced.

Saying that you don’t need one is no different to saying that you don’t need life insurance, health insurance, contents insurance, or any other kind of insurance or indeed, any kind of warranty. When you buy a product you ask what the warranty is. If it doesn’t have one, you probably wouldn’t buy it. Why? Is that because there is a chance that something might go wrong with it? This is reality. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. This was unplanned, and it was his helmet that got in between the ground and his skull:

Don’t be stupid enough to say that you don’t need and will never need a helmet. Do us a favour and say that you don’t want to wear one (which is ok), but that you are comfortable with the risks associated with not wearing one, no matter how significant or insignificant.

Now, this is getting into a related but different discussion, and one that will surely be controversial. Could it be argued that someone who chooses to not wear a helmet but suffers a head injury that could be demonstrated to have been avoided or significantly reduced should have to pay some sort of premium in the cost of dealing with that head injury? It’s actually an interesting debate, and one that has a stark similarity in the medical profession for another treatable condition.

To be continued tomorrow…


Header image: source