As we neared the end of our interview, Paul looked over and said, "You know, it really upset me that day you rode Sam over here and you weren't wearing your helmet." Paul and Sam had been preparing to go out for a ride and I had meandered over to their house to drop Sam off for no real reason other than to be out for a few minutes. Riding over, Sam had commented that Paul would likely be worked up that I wasn't wearing a helmet. It's not the first time this subject has come up when Paul has spotted me somewhere in town without a helmet (which, I will admit, has happened on multiple occasions), but I laughed it off as I usually do and attempted to move on.
Paul continued though, "So, what is it you have against helmets?" In the moment I replied briefly, "I don't have anything against helmets, and I do wear them sometimes. More often when it's a ride around town though, I simply forget to put one on."
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Some may view my lack of helmet as risky behavior and others would argue that it isn't. Obviously, to date it has worked out fine for me, which is not to say by any means that I believe nothing could ever happen that results in injury or worse, but simply that I have not had problems or injuries due to my choices.
Sometimes my decision is conscious. If the roads are slick outside, I will likely put a helmet on my head. Not because I think it will save me in the event that I'm struck by a motorist, but I find that the odds of slipping under my own power are more likely in these situations. I'm also more likely to put on a helmet when it's dark out - simply because I cannot see the roads as well, and I am more likely to hit debris in the road.
If I'm going out on a long ride, I'm also more likely to strap on my helmet, but those rides seem to be more of an unconscious decision. For some reason if I'm geared up in padded shorts and such, the helmet seems to be an auto-response. If I'm just riding a mile to the grocery store, it just hasn't been a habit I've developed.
The more important issue for me with helmets though has little to do with my personal choice to wear or not wear a helmet, nor anyone else's decision to don a helmet or not. What concerns me more is the level of fear that resides in so many people about riding a bicycle at all and what the topic of helmets can mean in these situations.
For example, let's say I was someone who was considering starting to ride a bike. I've been looking at bikes and trying to figure out if my distance to work (or school, or wherever) is doable by bike. I have seen other people in spandex out riding on local roadways and have noticed that cars seem to travel very close to cyclists. I'm not sure I am comfortable with being so close to motorized traffic while on a bicycle. I also have just read about someone who was hit by a car while on a bicycle last week. When I went to my bike shop, the salesperson told me my first purchase should be a helmet for my safety. I don't like the look or weight of the helmets I've tried on, but I don't want to get hurt while I'm out riding either.
This may not be the exact scenario for every person who is looking to ride, but ask anyone who is considering riding or who has tried briefly and given up what is keeping them from getting on a bike and their reason(s) are frequently to do with fear of injury or death. Certainly, this has been my experience in talking with people.
Driving in a motorized vehicle isn't exactly the safest thing we can do. There are accidents every single day, yet most people continue to get in their cars on a daily basis. During my recent trip to Georgia, there were highway signs announcing the number of crash fatalities overhead to everyone on the road. Not exactly the most comforting thought as the number increased from one day to the next. However, there is social and community support for driving, so we continue to get in our vehicles and drive. No one thinks we are "crazy" for getting in a car to go to work, the grocery store, or wherever our day takes us. We know there's risk of injury or death while driving, but it doesn't stop us from racking up the miles on our cars.
Cycling simply does not have the same community or numbers that help encourage people to continue to use their bicycles for errands, commuting, and so on. Looking up the statistics for the US or Canada, it's easy to see that riding a bike is still very unpopular with the majority of the population. Some cities have better numbers than others, but there isn't the infrastructure to support mass bike riding in North America. So, our community often tells us that we are absolutely nuts to be out on two wheels, risking life and limb. It doesn't help that when a person gets out on the road with motorized traffic it can be highly intimidating, particularly to someone new to riding, and when there isn't reinforced support from community to ride, it's easy to understand why numbers are so low.
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There are advocates of the Mary Poppins effect who believe that if one is in every day clothes, specifically a skirt or dress, cars are more aware of the rider and collision is less likely. There are also studies of actual impacts and the statistics of head trauma and brain damage after a crash and research that investigates whether wearing a helmet makes the rider safer.
I am not trying to debate the merits of wearing a helmet though. In a no-to-low speed situation (such as tipping over, slipping on a slick surface, and so on) a helmet could very well keep a person's head from injury if there is impact with a hard surface. It may also offer protection in a higher speed impact crash with a motorized vehicle. There are tons of places to find statistics and research being done on whether helmets are actually protecting the rider or not, but again, that isn't really the focus today.
My attempt is not to debate whether or not one should wear a helmet as there are plenty of places for that discussion and research; however, I do think telling a person s/he will be injured if s/he chooses not to wear a helmet is a bit irresponsible and more importantly it may be a factor keeping someone who doesn't ride a bike from getting on one.
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While I understand that for many people the discussion of helmet use comes from a good place of wanting to protect others from injury, I continually question whether this conversation is good for the overall encouragement of a community of people riding bikes. I want to see more people out riding because I think that will have a much larger impact on cycling as a whole. It has the potential to change the way roads are used, to provide better infrastructure (and/or physically separated paths), and to change the way communities view riding a bike as a whole. We may still need or want the use of helmets, but I don't think pushing helmets is necessarily the best way to get others to ride.
I am curious what others think about the way the cycling community as a whole views and promotes helmet use or any safety equipment for that matter? When someone is new to riding, do you insist that s/he wear a helmet right off the bat, or do you let the person feel their way through? Do you inadvertently (or even intentionally) scare people new to riding with stories of those who have been injured in order to encourage the use of a helmet? Whatever your thoughts, I'd be interested to hear from you.