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To Helmet or Not to Helmet? That Is the Question

November 3, 2010

This article in the Wall Street Journal on helmet use in the Netherlands struck me as really fascinating. It highlights the helmet debate in a country where just 0.1% of bicyclists wear one.  Like many cycling-related debates, some of the arguments made on both sides are based on a lot of research and facts while others are based solely on feelings and passion.  While I tend to fall more on the side of logic and statistics, I like to understand both sides.  It’s worth a read.

I’ll post more on this later, breaking down some of the common arguments in the helmet debate, but I wanted to reflect a bit on my experience with helmets here in New York, across the U.S., and across the globe.

My experience overseas and at home speaks a lot to the contextual reasons for wearing, or not wearing, a helmet.  On a visit to Barcelona last year I took out a bike from our hotel but didn’t wear a helmet, only because the hotel didn’t have any to let.  Barcelona had introduced the Bicing program two years before and there were a few separated bike paths along some of the city’s main boulevards, including the Passeig de Gracia, so I felt reasonably safe.  Plus, my desire to photograph the Sagrada Familia early one morning outweighed my safety concerns.  Even this very logical bike rider can sometimes let his emotions get the best of him.

In New Zealand, I took a ferry from Auckland to Waiheke Island, and rented a bike for $8 at a shack near the ferry slip.  Cable locks were included, but the tiny rental service didn’t stock helmets.  Still, I rode.  While I saw few other bikes during ride, I also saw few cars, and there were lots of stretches of the island where there were nothing but vineyards or coastline.  Imagine a subtropical Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, but decades before those islands were overrun by cars.  I could hear cars coming from very far away and took the islands steep downhills slowly and carefully.  With such beautiful scenery and my only deadline a very late ferry back to Auckland, I was in no rush anyway.

I rode in Amsterdam on a work trip the year before that and, no surprise, did not wear a helmet.  It’s hardly worth expounding on my reasons for not wearing one, since so few Dutch riders wear helmets or anything that could even be labeled as biking gear.  I don’t even remember if the bike rental shop had helmets available, although since it catered to so many American and British tourists, I’m sure it must have.  Nevertheless, I didn’t wear a helmet.  When in Rome, right?

When I’m home in Brooklyn and ride anywhere in New York, I wear a helmet.  Always.  The same holds true when I get on a bike in Boston, despite that city’s huge measures to improve cycling conditions.  In San Francisco, a biking town if there ever was one, my last ride took me over the Golden Gate Bridge, to Tiburon and, after a ferry ride back, to the Mission for lunch.  I wore my helmet for every mile of that ride and might have forgotten to take it off had the chin strap not allowed me to open my mouth up wide enough to eat my burrito.

I think much of the debate on helmet use, at least when that debate happens online and is available to cyclists from all over the world, fails to consider local context.  Riders in Amsterdam and Copenhagen post to message boards in the U.S. and say that there’s no need to wear a helmet ever.  New Yorkers or Chicagoans tell their European counterparts that a flagrant disregard for safety will leave them dead or in a vegetative state if they so much as ride over a bottle cap or twig.  And then there are those all over the map who see helmets, or at least calls for helmet laws, as an infringement on their rights as freethinking adults.  Fair enough.  (For the record, I’m against laws mandating helmet use for adults, but am in favor of widespread, voluntary helmet use.)

Forgive this heavy-handed analogy, but I think it applies.

During the uber-PC days in which I went to college, I once argued with a girlfriend about the philosophy that women should be able to wear what they want, when they want, where they want.  Yes, I agreed, a woman should be able to put on any item of clothing and go wherever she wants without fear of being assaulted.  In theory that’s a fine world to work towards, but in practice it’s not a great idea.  That’s simply not the reality of the world in which we live.  My girlfriend, who was saw sexism in so many things that she stopped using third-person pronouns, would not have it and kept insisting that it didn’t matter what a woman wore.  I teased out what I still see as the more nuanced position: no woman is ever asking to be assaulted, of course, but there are common-sense measures she can take to lessen the odds that she will be.  There may be neighborhoods where a woman can wear whatever she wants without so much as a cat call or whistle directed her way, but there are certainly places where a woman shouldn’t walk no matter what she’s wearing.

Here’s a shorter, lighter example: stealing is wrong, so I should be able to count wads of cash while waiting for the subway.  But it’s not something too many people would advise I actually do.  I can stand on the Biblical and legally supported principle against theft, but my principled stand may result in me getting home a few dollars poorer.

I think the same idea holds true with helmets.  No rider is asking to be killed if he doesn’t wear a helmet, but he should understand that it’s a real risk in New York.  In principle the streets should be safe enough so helmet use is not necessary, but that’s not the reality of biking in New York right now.

Anyone who tells me that in Amsterdam they don’t wear helmets has to understand that I don’t ride in Amsterdam.  I ride in New York.  And New York, despite all of the safety improvements, new bike lanes, and the growth of cycling overall, is still a dangerous place in which to ride.  Drivers are not used to seeing bikes and few are trained to look for them.  Cars speed on every available surface, sometimes going twice the limit on the city’s wider avenues.  Pedestrians step out between cars and cross against lights.  Roads, and especially bike lanes, are horribly maintained.  Most bike lanes are set too close to cars, making being doored a significant risk.  Even bike lanes set against the curb instead of along parked cars are often blocked by taxis and delivery trucks.  Bike riders themselves don’t understand the rules of the road, contributing their own brand of danger by riding the wrong way in bike lanes or without lights at night.  Amsterdam isn’t perfect either–I had to dodge my fair share of pedestrians and be mindful of not getting my front tire caught in streetcar rails–but it’s much closer to perfect than New York is.

Perhaps a scientist has measured the exact point at which a city’s rate of helmet use reaches its apex and begins to decrease as ridership goes up, lending credence to the argument that helmets send the wrong message about safety, but New York is a long way from that point.  My friends who don’t ride rarely mention helmets as a barrier to entry.  They are afraid of cars.  Helmets don’t remind them that cycling is dangerous.  Cars do.  (Also, most surveys in the city show that the lack of a secure place to park a bike outweighs most safety concerns.  It’s the number one reason given when people are asked they don’t commute to work by bike.)

Like that late night college argument or my imagined bankroll on the subway, the helmet argument in New York is one of balancing principles with practicality.  Context is everything.  I will work towards the city I want to ride in and, for now, ride in the city I live in.  Unfortunately, that means it’s a good idea to wear a helmet, except for when I’m in Amsterdam.

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