The question of whether Dale was wearing a helmet or not
pales in the face of the much larger question - were all the riders putting
themselves at great risk because they felt they were protected by their
Try this. Go for a ride wearing a helmet. Then, do the
same ride without a helmet. Did you ride more cautiously without the helmet? Is
your faith in a helmet so strong that you ride with less caution when you’re
wearing one? You might as well be clutching Dumbo’s feather.
Dale Stetina incident begs the question - how much safety does a bicycle helmet
truly afford? Risk compensation notwithstanding, how much protection does an
8-ounce piece of polystyrene provide? Sure, a helmet will diminish trauma
within a low-velocity range of incidents (although they do a surprisingly poor
job of mitigating concussions), but beyond that, people start whistling past
the graveyard. Example: you crash head-first at 20 mph into an on-coming truck
that’s travelling at 40 mph. Your closing speed is 60 mph. Will a bit of
sculpted foam make any difference? Sadly, no. But, you reason, accidents like
that are rare and, if you ride, it’s a risk you accept. The question is, does
risk compensation cause you to ride less cautiously when wearing a helmet and,
if so, does that reduced caution outweigh any additional safety a helmet might otherwise
afford? Does wearing helmets actually increase the frequency of accidents?
In America, you’re more likely to die from a bullet than
from a bicycling-related head injury. Do you put on a bullet-proof vest every morning?
If not, why not? Similarly, you’re more
likely to sustain a fatal head injury by falling from a ladder than from a
cycling-related head injury. Do you wear a helmet when you climb a ladder? No,
because you’re careful when you climb a ladder and you assume that the risk of falling
from the ladder is sufficiently low that specific head protection is
unnecessarily over-cautious. Why don’t we make the same consideration with
If you torture statistics long enough, you can get them
to say anything. Certainly the bullet-proof vest argument can be parsed.
Likewise the force of any helmet safety argument gets diminished once you eliminate
night-time riding without lights, inexperienced riders, traffic signal
violators, the inebriated, and Strava record attempts with ear buds. But my
object isn’t to use statistics to prove a point. Rather, I want to challenge
the pervasive American belief that every rider should ride with a helmet, on
every ride because…“helmets keep you safe”.
A recent article
in Bicycling magazine
entitled “Senseless” (with no apparent irony) reviewed the state of bicycle
helmet art with the conclusion that current bicycle helmets do almost nothing
to prevent concussions. Huh? Bicycling
has tirelessly promoted helmets for the past 30 years to the ceaseless drumbeat
of “Always wear a helmet. Helmets keep you safe.” Now, suddenly, they discover that’s
not exactly the case.
But surely, you say, wearing a helmet is a small price to
pay, even if the protection it offers is limited. Maybe. But “it’s a small
price to pay” is a knee-jerk justification too often used without nuance or
consideration and unanticipated consequences often result. What if that “small
price” is bigger than it seems?
What if helmet use actually makes cycling more dangerous? What if, by promising
“safety”, helmeted cyclists ride more aggressively and with less caution than
they would if they weren’t wearing helmets? It’s an interesting and, I believe,
a valid question.
As much as we might like to believe otherwise, Americans live
in a culture of fear. And fear is lucrative. If you can make people afraid of
something (e.g., gluten, cholesterol, body odor, terrorists) you can sell them
a “solution”. And they’ll stand in line, ready to pay because, whatever the
price, “it’s a small price to pay” for the promised security. It doesn’t matter
if there’s no rational basis for the product or if the problem is wildly
inflated or if the “solution” is ineffective or worse than the problem. Once
people are afraid, they are easily led and ready to buy anything that
supposedly makes them safe. Fear sells massive SUVs to soccer moms. It sells
insurance. It sells magazines. It sells cosmetics. It sells wars. And it sells
bicycle shops sell about two million helmets every year. Mass market retailers
sell another five million or so more. This market barely existed 30 years ago. Somehow
Americans managed to live without bicycle helmets or even think about them
until the early 1980’s. Then, bicycling began to be marketed as “dangerous” and
helmets were the solution.
Although solid numbers are hard to come by, the total
U.S. bicycle helmet market is something on the order of $500 million per year.
It’s a nice business, driven by fear. A helmet is an easy add-on sale made with
the sale of any new bike. And it’s doubly attractive if it generates goodwill
while upping the bottom-line. After all, $100 is “a small price to pay” for the
security of knowing that you’ll be “safe” on your new bike.
But helmets don’t
“keep you safe”. However, there’s little money to be made in the promotion of
safe cycling and there’s big money in a fear-driven market for bicycle helmets.
Helmet advertising supports editorial reviews and helmet tests that presuppose
everyone needs a helmet. Advertising and editorial coverage create a need
that’s filled by bicycle retailers who love the additional revenue stream
helmets bring. Millions and millions of helmets pour into the United States
each year, even though, if you’re riding responsibly, the actual risk of head
injury is quite low and evidence of helmet efficacy is weak.
Helmets are a religion that feeds on itself. The message
“helmets keep you safe” has been has been told so many times that many
Americans accept it as gospel truth. The dogma, in a nutshell, is this: They make helmets for bicycling because
bicycling is dangerous. Since it’s dangerous, you should never ride without a
helmet. As with any religion, people
don’t like to have their beliefs challenged. But I will. While it’s comforting
to believe that wrapping your head in foam will keep you safe, maybe (forgive
me) you’re burying your head in the sand.
not suggesting a vast conspiracy exists to defraud American cyclists by selling
helmets they don’t need. I’m sure most bicycle retailers, writers, and
manufacturers truly believe they are making bicycling safer, even if they are
coincidentally creating a climate of fear around bicycling and profiting by it.
But, what if there’s a better alternative to flooding the market every year
with millions of imported polystyrene magic hats? What if that annual $500
million went to making cycling safer? What if cycling were so safe that the
risk of crashing was negligible?
In the Netherlands, millions of people commute everyday
by bicycle without helmets. Less than 1% of Dutch cyclists wear helmets, yet the
Netherlands is the safest country in the world for cycling! How is that
possible? If bicycling is so dangerous, how do all these millions of Dutch
people manage to ride safely every day without helmets?
municipal and national governments rightly recognize cycling as a
congestion-relieving transportation mode that offers the additional attractive
merits of being environmentally benign and healthy to boot. And they support it
accordingly, pouring millions into infrastructure to encourage cycling and make
it both easier and safer to travel by bike. Example: the Hovenring in
Eindhoven, Netherlands is a floating suspension deck that allows cyclists to
cross over a busy highway. This €20 million cycling infrastructure show piece is
only one of the numerous projects the Dutch have taken to enhance cycling
But it’s not just Dutch cycling infrastructure that makes
it so safe. The primary reason it’s so safe to ride a bike is numbers –
everyone rides and there is strength in numbers. In the Netherlands, there are
more bikes than people, and most Dutch ride their bike every day. As numerous studies
have shown, cycling safety increases as the number of cyclists on the road
increases. As more people ride, bicycling becomes a safer option, so more
people ride. And then it becomes even safer, so even more people ride. It’s a
virtuous circle in which every additional cyclist makes the community safer for
Defenders of helmets will immediately object that the
Netherlands is different from the U.S., that they have a culture of cycling,
that motorists are more aware of the rights of cyclists, etc., etc., but in the
end, I think it's a weak defense of the status quo. Saying “we can’t do what
they do” ensures that we won’t. We will never achieve the level of comfort and
security that exists in the Netherlands as long as we continue to focus our
attention and spend our money on helmets rather than working actively to make
cycling safer in our communities. The best and fastest way to make cycling safer
in America is to get more cyclists on the road. We need to follow the Dutch
model - it’s not dangerous, come out and ride!
of focusing so myopically on a safety product of limited value, the goal should
be doing things that’ll make cycling safer. Rather than spend $500 million
dollars a year on millions of foam helmets, and then repeating it year after
year, imagine if that money were spent each year on cycling infrastructure, on
bike to work programs, on advertising, or on cycling instruction. Half a
billion dollars every year would go a long way toward making cycling safer,
which would mean more people would ride, which would make it safer, so more
people would ride, which would make it safer, etc.
The biggest problem with helmets is they discourage
cycling. The message it sends to potential cyclists is that cycling is so dangerous
nobody should ever ride without a helmet. Is this really the message we want to
send? If you’re not already a cyclist, why would you ever want to take up
something so dangerous? Why take the
risk? Why not drive instead? What responsible mother would ever allow her child
to ride a bike to school when it’s such a dangerous activity?
But cycling is not dangerous. And, before 1980, almost
nobody even considered wearing a helmet. For decades, millions of American kids
rode their bikes to school every day without helmets. And millions of adult Americans
rode without helmets. And thousands of amateur and professional racers rode
without helmets. Yet
was never any cycling-related head injury crisis. Zero. It wasn’t even an
issue. It didn’t become an issue until there was money to be made selling
Rather than focus on the supposed “danger” of cycling and
the “need” to protect your head (however low the risk and however limited that
protection may be) why not proactively encourage cycling?
Ride like you’d ride without a helmet. Maybe even dare to
do it. The best and fastest way to make cycling safer in America is to get more
people riding bikes and riding them responsibly. Wrapping yourself in body
armor provides less protection than you’d like to believe, especially if your
belief is so strong that you take risks you wouldn’t otherwise take. Making
cycling seem more dangerous than it really is supresses growth. And that’s why
I’m real iffy about the conventional wisdom. Maybe it’s not a small price to
pay. Maybe it’s the reverse.
Think twice about that helmet, and definitely lose the
Tom Petrie is a lifetime
cyclist, a daily bicycle commuter, and owner of www.CantitoeRoad.com a bicycle parts e-commerce company..