Monday, August 1, 2011

Bicycle Advocacy: Where's the Line Between 'Supporting' and 'Scaring' New Cyclists?

Over the weekend, I ended up in a relatively short conversation about helmets with a cycling advocate {before anyone gets too heated, I will say that the point of this post has little to do with helmets themselves}. The whole conversation was rather accidental, actually. I made mention briefly of something in regard to a helmet, and the gentleman I was speaking with began a story about how he'd been traveling at high speeds down the side of a local mountain on his bicycle and flipped/skidded over his bike, wasn't wearing a helmet, and walked away with out a concussion or any damage to his head, and that therefore he doesn't wear a helmet when he rides. He continued by discussing statistics that he views to be flawed that show the number of head injuries to non-helmeted riders. By the time the brief story was over, I got the impression that he was advocating for people not to wear helmets, and that in fact that they could potentially cause more harm than good.
A local ride with helmeted cyclists
My personal choice is generally not to wear a helmet, unless I'm participating in an organized ride that requires me to wear one. I live in a relatively small town (population under 100,000), with fairly slow moving traffic (most traffic streets are 45 mph or less), multiple miles of greenway/multi-use paths, and several streets with bike lanes. I don't feel unsafe by making the decision to go helmet-less. If, however, I lived in a higher traffic area, with faster moving or more erratic vehicles, perhaps my choice would be different. It's no bicycle utopia, but I am comfortable with my choice, and believe that it is each individuals decision to make for themselves.

Although I have the utmost respect and admiration for the work this gentleman does for local bicycle advocacy and setting an example by riding his bike daily, I have to wonder if the way bicyclists approach non-cyclists or new cyclists could potentially ruin them from ever wanting to ride again? When we approach someone with such vehemence for or against something, I think it can further the idea that cycling is a fringe or outsider "sport," and that only extremists participate in this mode of transportation. While I agreed with his opinions on wearing helmets, I would find it difficult to tell someone they shouldn't wear a helmet, and would instead offer what I see as the pros and cons of helmet use. Then, the new cyclist could make their own decision as to whether or not they want to wear one. 

I love to see someone who is so pro-bicycles, but I have to wonder where the line between advocating and scaring someone exists. What do you think? Have you ever been intimidated by the way another cyclist broached a topic, or by someone who's been riding longer than you have? Did it put you off the idea of cycling, or were you able to dismiss the ideas and move on with life and riding your bike? Feel free to take the poll or leave comments.



  1. Like in any other endeavour, some cyclists are very strong-willed and opinionated, and aren't afraid to pontificate to the point of being preachy. I think people get that and are able to make their own decisions by listening to reasonable points of view on both sides of an issue. I remember being told once authoritatively years ago by such a fellow that fat-tired bikes were a silly trend that would soon be extinct. This particular anti-helmet voice goes far overboard, in my opinion, to the point of ranting and I know that it's got to be uncomfortable to his fellow local cycling advocates, especially since they supply hundreds of helmets to kids annually. If I were anti-helmet like him, I would quietly do my own thing without feeling like I needed to take down the other side or constantly evangelise my position. Again, I would expect that those who have heard his speech would be able to balance it with other perspectives and not be scared away from cycling.

  2. Anon... I agree with you completely. But, I'm also a "live and let live" sort of person, so unless something strikes me as morally or ethically wrong, I am likely not going to voice a strongly held stance (unless I'm feeling extra feisty on the particular day). After this conversation though, I couldn't help but wonder how many people have run into similar personalities and been put off the idea of riding a bike. I can appreciate strong personalities and their tightly held beliefs/opinions, however, there are times when it goes overboard. In his defense (since you know the person I am referring to), I will say that there were no other people around during our conversation, and he seemed to simply be expressing his thoughts on the subject. I was completely fine with listening, but I couldn't help but think, "Does he have these conversations with other cyclists {or non-cyclists} on a regular basis, and if so, does it affect them at all?"

  3. I understand that helmet use is an issue where it is required by law (as in Canada), but why do people argue the point otherwise? Is it human nature to find things to separate us? I guess we can't possibly work together toward a goal of getting more riders on the road.

    I've read both sides of this issue, and just go with what my gut tells me. At this time, it tells me to wear the helmet because of my current skill level, anxiety, and a previous (non-bike related) nine day hospital stay. I haven't encountered anyone like the person you've mentioned, but I would probably excuse myself and walk away if they started telling me that I shouldn't wear one. With that said, the bicycle advocates that I've met in my city are pretty awesome; they have been very encouraging as I learn how to ride again.

  4. Jillian,
    It is interesting to see people argue so strongly for or against helmets (and for that matter, many other issues that are argued like riding in every day clothes vs spandex, or the type of hand signals cyclists should use, if any, just to name a couple). As you said, you have your reasons for wearing a helmet, and I would never begrudge anyone their choice to wear or not wear one. I think that whatever makes a person feel safe and comfortable to ride a bike is great, and telling a person that they're wrong (either way) seems rather pointless and counter-productive to the main idea which, as you pointed out, is to get people on their bicycles.

    I will say that the people I've met locally have been great (including the person who sparked this little post), and I believe they truly want to see more people on their bicycles/help in any way they can. I think sometimes personal opinions take over the main objective though, and it's unfortunate because really were supporting the same thing. The little differences are so insignificant that it really shouldn't play into the main goal... and, I would hope that hearing a strongly stated opinion wouldn't dissuade anyone from riding a bike.

  5. Such a good point. Sometimes I wear a helmet; sometimes I don't. My decision depends entirely on the pedaling conditions. I've had a couple of people (strangers on bikes) smuggly remark that I should be wearing a helmet, as if I am a novice rider who has never heard of or met anyone with a closed head injury! It really is a turn off. If I ever decide to take up single track trail riding or bike racing, I will most certainly wear a helmet each and every time but until then I will continue to follow my instincts.

  6. I agree... the conditions (where, when, how fast) certainly play a roll for me when making a choice about my helmet. If I'm running half a mile down the street where there's little traffic, it seems unnecessary (for me - doesn't mean this is true for everyone though) to put on a helmet. If I'm racing down the highway with cars motoring at 65+ mph, well, I might make another choice (then again, I might not). I agree that I often allow my instincts to play a huge role in my decision though.


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