Tuesday, May 10, 2016

It's Not Really About Helmets

Each time I write about helmets, I think it will be my last post, but it seems to be a matter that continues to pop up in various situations and I find myself typing again about a topic that can not only be controversial, but is one that I would often prefer not to bring up at all. Just recently though, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with friends and soon-to-be-open local bike shop owners for an interview (I'm still filtering through pages of notes and audio, but I'm excited to post about all of that soon) and the matter of helmets came up in conversation.

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."
*Image found here
We continued to talk a bit about the matter and then moved on to other topics. The reality is, however, there is something a bit more that goes on in my mind when it comes to helmets. What I said in reply was the truth for me - when I'm riding around town, I do often forget as I'm leaving to grab a helmet, so I wasn't trying to get out of anything. I am well aware that a fall could happen at any time and that there is always the possibility of an injury when this happens, but I trust myself and am willing to take whatever minimal risk there is for me to ride helmet-less. In my estimation, there is also the possibility that I could trip crossing the street while walking and get injured, or that getting in a motorized vehicle could result in injury or death.

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.
*Image found here
When there's already a high level of concern or fear and it is being reinforced by the notion that wearing a helmet is a necessity for personal safety, I believe it creates an environment of fear-mongering and potentially puts a new rider off from riding at all. I'm not at all saying that our friend is trying to encourage fear among riders by any means, but I find that when someone is told repeatedly that a helmet is a necessity for safety, it can cause the individual to have additional or increased anxiety about getting on the road with his/her bicycle.

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.
*Image found here
Wouldn't it make more sense to encourage non-riders to simply get out and ride, however they are comfortable? Promoting safety and awareness is reasonable when the time is appropriate, and there may be individuals who need this reminder right off the bat (young children, accident prone individuals, unsteady riders, etc), but allowing an individual to see how enjoyable and free the experience can feel seems like a better way to promote riding a bike - at least to me.

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.

18 comments:

  1. I rock a cycling cap, having given-up wearing a helmet several years ago. And yes, I've gone down while riding -- both times, during sunny, daylight hours... both times, hit by distracted drivers... both times, while riding in a DOT-compliant bike lane... both times, while wearing a high-visibility, long-sleeved jersey and reflective ankle bands... both times, with a 70-lumen, flashing rear taillight and similar headlight -- and in neither instance did I sustain head injury. And both times I was asked by the drivers and police why I wasn't wearing a helmet. In reply, I asked whether a helmet would have kept them from hitting me, given my apparel, accessories, and riding. The answer was "no"... it's always "no".

    So, it wasn't my clothing, or anything else; it's always the many things that can, and do, distract a driver *within their immediate environment*. Nothing I can do about that.

    Am I afraid, you ask, of being hit? Yeah, sure... so I wear a rear-view mirror on my glasses, and look in it frequently... I don't listen to music or talk on any "devices" (I don't own any); and... I *always* yield right-of-way to cars/trucks, even if it's me who has that right-of-way.

    Helmets suck. They're hot, heavy, and cumbersome... and there's not a one of 'em that'll keep one of THEM from hitting me. Besides, there's nothing like a classy, thick, 100% cotton cycling cap from Rivendell Bike Works!

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    1. I don't think you're the only person who's been struck while riding and asked why s/he wasn't wearing a helmet - as if that somehow justifies a motorist striking a cyclist who is following the rules of the road. I've even heard stories of the person driving asking the cyclist that question, which is absolute madness to me.

      I think it's nearly impossible in current road conditions across the US to not have some concern about being struck while riding. I agree that having a mirror is helpful because I can kind of keep an eye on what is happening behind me and (hopefully) avoid any catastrophes.

      I have often wondered why more companies don't take advantage of the current lighter weight technology for helmets - particularly for city helmets. Perhaps if they were lightweight and cooler, some of the folks who don't wear them for the reasons you've mentioned might actually consider it.

      *Side note: I do love my Riv cycling caps too! :)

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  2. G.E., I've come around to thinking that insistence on helmet use detracts from getting more cyclists on the road, for all the reasons you succinctly describe. Personally, I will always wear a helmet because I've gone down (more often than I'd like to admit) all due my own error, frequently whacking the side of my helmet. I insist on our children wearing helmets also, because I'm a mother and worry, particularly about our youngest wild child. However, I no longer rant about adults wearing helmets. They are old enough to make their own decisions and if that means riding a bike without a helmet, more power to them!

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    1. I think this exactly my point. I am certainly not saying people shouldn't wear helmets, but rather that trying to force others into wearing one doesn't help get more people on bicycles.

      As for your kiddos - I can completely understand being protective and insistent with them on helmet use. That's your job as mom... to worry about them and try to protect them as best you can until they're ready to make their own choices (and then even after, I'm sure). :)

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  3. G.E., bravo for an articulate, nuanced, balanced and rational discussion of a very difficult topic. Very well done.

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    1. Thanks, Rebecca. Tell me what you think. Does forcing helmets on new riders keep them off the roads, or do you think it's better to err on the side of caution with new riders and insist upon the use of a helmet?

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    2. Statistics in Australia show that helmet compulsion severely inhibits take-up by new cyclists. From a personal viewpoint, I think it's better to say nothing on the topic. Many new riders will look around and copy what they see around them. Maybe they'll do some research before buying a helmet, maybe not. I wore a helmet in the beginning, even though yes I had done tons of research and knew it was pretty much the emperor's new clothes. But I was unsure of myself and somehow... well. It wasn't til I started riding in groups with experienced cyclists -- of whom only perhaps 40%, no more, wore helmets -- that I realised that, not only did helmets not have the backing of science -- but it was totally socially okay not to wear one. So I stopped. I've won mine for a few events where you pay a fee and the event insurance requires helmets, but I've pretty much finished with those types of events now.

      There is one other thing I want to say on this topic but I need to get the wording exactly right so will be back later...

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    3. I understand your view entirely, Rebecca, and I agree that saying nothing is often the better route to take. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and experience.

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  4. I personally will choose to wear a helmet, even tho I know that most times I can ride to/from work without any mishap. I live near a school and the street is well-trafficked, there is (to my knowledge) a total of 4 "bike lanes" in Decorah. I wear a bright colored helmet for visibility purposes :)

    Anyways. I work at a bike shop- and we make it known that we advocate helmets. We won't force someone or pressure someone to buy one, but will suggest it- especially if they are new to riding or their helmet is over 5 years old.

    We rent bikes and we provide helmets for the rentals. We know full well that there are a handful of people who do not wear the helmets we give them once they are out of the lot. Hanging on handlebars or they throw them in their vehicle until they come back. We have had renters and customers crash on the paved trail which has some switchbacks that can be scary-fast. Many have lost control around a couple sharp corners, too.

    As with many things, it's a choice.

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    1. I don't think I've ever seen a bike shop that didn't provide a helmet with a bike rental. Even test rides have generally required a helmet on my head (not always, but more frequently than not). I remember the first time I test rode a bike without a helmet and it shocked me that the shop didn't care. I was fine with it, but it was just surprising to me as it so rarely happens.

      You make a good point: Even if you provide a helmet with a bike rental, it certainly doesn't mean the person is using it. That would be a really difficult thing to enforce, and as you said, it is always a choice.

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  5. Great post! I always wear a helmet when I ride, but if I were being truly rational about the risk of head injury, I'd be more likely to wear it while walking and driving. I think everything you've said here is right on the mark. Well done.

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    1. I think for some there is a comfort in wearing a helmet. I admit that sometimes I wear one to have some peace of mind (as in the slippery road instances mentioned above). I don't know that it will actually help in every situation, but at least it is something.

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  6. I have been lectured a few times before about the necessity of a bike helmet. Usually by people who don't even know how to ride a bike.

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    1. That is interesting, and a good point too. I have had people who don't ride at all question my lack of a helmet. I think it's become such a part of seeing someone on a bike (at least here - most of the time someone is in full spandex and racing down the road more commonly than one sees a person running errands - though it is becoming more common) that if someone sees a person without one, they wonder what is wrong with that individual.

      As JB pointed out above, the few times I have fallen off of a bike, I did not strike my head at all, so I can't help but wonder if it depends on how a person falls (or is thrown) from a bike and/or how much protection there would actually be from a helmet. Which, again, is not to say that I couldn't hit my head, but simply that it hasn't happened.

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    2. Some people are more prone to accidents, are less careful about slowing down for treacherous road conditions (my son), or are too oblivious, admiring the trees and flowers en route (that's me). And yes, some people hit their heads because they go down fast, without time to react. Just depends on lots of factors.

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    3. So true, Annie. Lots of factors involved.

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  7. I hear that you never see a helmet in the bike riding capital of the world, Holland. Then again, I saw a picture of P's smashed helmet after he had his crash from near standstill on an in-town street when the light turned green. Somewhere between these two anecdotes there is some wisdom to be gained but I doubt that we'll ever get to a happy middle ground in the USA.

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    1. Right... I saw that photo as well, Peter. Very scary to think what could've happened had he not had the helmet on. I completely agree with you that there is a happy place somewhere in the middle, but where and how we get there is the real challenge it seems.

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