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Helmets and Vision Zero Go Together Like Helmets and Vision Zero

May 5, 2016

What is Vision Zero?

Vision Zero is a set of defined principles that guide the effort to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. One of those principles is, of course, the moral imperative of ending this kind of suffering. Another is that crashes are preventable. Still another is that humans, being human, tend to make mistakes. But perhaps the biggest guiding principle is that the responsibility for reducing the severity and frequency of traffic crashes falls not on individual road users but on the people who design those roads and write the rules that govern them. While there may be ways in which one city’s approach to Vision Zero differs from another’s, this specific principle should always remain the same.

In one sense, Vision Zero is like a religion. Any organized spiritual movement is guided by a core set of tenets that define the behavior and beliefs of everyone from clergy members to the most causal layperson. Not that everyone has to adhere to every rule, of course. There are plenty of people who may identify as Jewish but who don’t keep kosher, for example. (I’m one of them!) But it’s quite easy to identify practices which might automatically disqualify a person from claiming membership in a particular faith. It would be hard for a person who goes to church and receives Communion to call himself a rabbi, no matter how many Woody Allen movies he’s seen.

Keep all that in mind as you read on.

VZhelmets1

This morning, the New York City Department of Transportation held an event on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library at which they debuted a Vision-Zero-branded bicycle helmet. You read that right: a Vision Zero helmet. Now consider the basic principles of Vision Zero and match them up against the capabilities of bicycle helmets and you can immediately see how absurd this is. Can helmets eliminate serious fatalities and injuries? Possibly, though the research is all over the map. Can helmets prevent crashes? Of course not, no more than a bullet-proof vest can prevent gunfire. Do helmets place the responsibility for reducing the severity and frequency of crashes on traffic engineers and policy makers? No way.

Before you race to the comments to explain how a helmet once saved your life, please understand that this post is not about whether you or I as individuals should wear helmets. It is about a simple fact:

Helmet promotion and Vision Zero are fundamentally incompatible.

Linking helmets to a Vision Zero effort, to use another religion analogy, is like arguing about the health benefits of the glazed ham, dinner rolls, and butter you’re about to eat at your Passover seder. In both cases, something big is being fundamentally ignored.

To be fair, DOT’s free helmet program isn’t bad all by itself. I picked up two helmets for my kids at a giveaway during Summer Streets a couple of years ago, and there are plenty of communities around the city where the events are also combined with bike skills classes, appearances by elected officials, and other things that help promote bicycling in NYC.

But Vision Zero helmets? Come on.

In early 2014, Matt Flegenheimer of the New York Times wrote a pair of articles in which he looked to Sweden, the country which originated the idea of Vision Zero, to help define it for Americans, who were typically used to hearing about the three E’s — education, enforcement, and engineering – in, as Flegenheimer put it, “roughly equal emphasis.”

…Swedish authorities have generally dismissed the effects of education or enforcement on pedestrian safety. They were critical of the blitz of jaywalking tickets during Mr. de Blasio’s early months in office and efforts by the New York Police Department to distribute cards with safety tips in areas with a recent history of fatal crashes.

Ylva Berg, the national coordinator of road safety for the Swedish Transport Administration, chafed at these kinds of campaigns. “It’s actually quite horrible,” she said. “Those being victimized in those crashes are those being told to do better.”

Promoting helmet use at the same time as an active Vision Zero campaign is, to use Berg’s words, “actually quite horrible.” It puts the onus on victims to protect themselves, instead of on traffic engineers to fix the system that’s killing people in the first place.

This month’s Momentum Magazine (big download, beware!) has a feature by Shaun Lopez-Murphy titled, “Are Bicycle Helmets Holding Us Back?” Here’s what Lopez-Murphy has to say:

When it comes to bicycle safety however, progress slows when the center of attention becomes the bicycle helmet. Much like whether or not a motorist in an accident was wearing a seatbelt, one of the first questions we ask when a bicyclist is involved in a crash is, “Were they wearing a helmet?” The media and police reflect the public’s pro-helmet sentiment by implying that its role in any major crash is highly significant.

Emphasis mine. This knee-jerk instinct by reporters and cops to ask whether or not a cyclist was wearing a helmet when he or she was killed is a cultural problem that the New York City Department of Transportation and City Hall ought to be trying to correct in every way possible. That can’t happen if DOT is stamping Vision Zero logos on helmets and sending pictures like the one below to the same media outlets that will report on the next cycling fatality.

vzhelmets

Today’s helmet promotion was all the more horrible when one considers that the past few weeks have been particularly bloody for people who get around by bicycle. Lauren Davis was killed by a turning driver on Classon Street in Brooklyn on April 15th. James Gregg was hit by an off-route semi truck driver on 6th Avenue in Brooklyn on April 20th. Heather Lough was hit by an allegedly distracted truck driver in the Bronx on April 27th and then died from her injuries on May 2nd. (There are conflicting reports as to whether she was walking or riding her bike when the driver hit her, but she did have the legal right of way.)

A witness who saw Davis before she was killed said the young woman had been wearing a helmet. In Lough’s case, her memorial page says, “She was wearing her helmet, followed the signs, and did everything right.” While the Daily News reported that “No bicycle helmet was found” at the scene of Gregg’s death, it’s highly unlikely it would have made a difference against a massive truck on a narrow residential street. Safe streets, not plastic hats, would have saved these people. Vision Zero tells us exactly that.

Want proof of how pernicious helmet promotion is, especially in the context of Vision Zero? Look no further than the Daily News’ coverage of today’s DOT Vision Zero helmet giveaway:

A few blocks away from the helmet giveaway, 33-year-old James Gregg died after he fell under the wheels of a truck driving alongside him at Sixth Ave. near Sterling Pl on April 20.

“We want to make sure as people cycle around the city that they do it safely,” Trottenberg said. “We know that there have recently been some tragedies and we certainly mourn those — and it certainly makes us want to redouble our efforts.”

In this coverage, there’s no mention that the truck driver who killed James Gregg shouldn’t have been on 6th Avenue in the first place. There isn’t even a mention of the fact that the truck was an 18-wheeler. Gregg simply “fell under the wheels of a truck driving alongside him” as if it was all going so pleasantly until that fall. All that readers can infer is that James Gregg probably wasn’t wearing a helmet. Why else would DOT be doing the helmet giveaway so close to where he was killed? And thus the hope of preventing the next tragedy — to be more specific: placing the onus on traffic engineers to prevent it — remains as elusive as ever.

Helmet promotions water down the core principles of Vision Zero to the point where they become worse than meaningless. They feed into a victim-blaming mentality that is anathema to what the entire philosophy is about. If culture eats policy for breakfast, what does it say that the very agency that has the most responsibility for ending traffic deaths in New York City served up a heaping pile of styrofoam this morning?

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10 Comments
  1. May 5, 2016 5:30 pm

    “Can helmets eliminate serious fatalities and injuries? Possibly, though the research is all over the map.”

    Methinks you concede too much. Thompson, Rivara & Thompson, the epidemiologists who co-authored the 1989 journal article that ignited helmet mania by grossly overstating injury mitigation from helmet use, effectively withdrew that finding eight years later, in an article in Injury Prevention, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1067791/pdf/injprev00002-0038.pdf, summarizing a study that fixed the flaws in their earlier work: I quote from their abstract:

    Results – There were 3854 injured cyclists in the three year period; 3390 (88%) completed questionnaires were returned. 51% wore helmets at the time of crash. Only 22.3% of patients had head injuries and 34% had facial injuries. Risk of serious injury was increased by collision with a motor vehicle (odds ratio (OR)=4.6), self reported speed > 15 mph (OR=1.2), young age (39 years (OR=2.1 and 2.2 respectively, compared with adults 20- 39 years). Risk for serious injury was not affected by helmet use (OR=0.9). Risk of neck injury was m- creased in those struck by motor Vehicles (OR=4.0), hospitalized for any injury (OR=2.0), and those who died (OR= 15.1), but neck injury was not affected by helmet use.

    Note the penultimate sentence: Risk for serious injury was not affected by helmet use. The Odds Ratio of 0.9 denotes a 10% reduction in serious injury associated with helmet use, and, that modest association wasn’t statistically significant.

    In short, helmet wearing confers only a slight risk-reduction benefit. Needless to say, livable-street design, enforcement of driving rules, and safety in numbers are far more effective in reducing cycling risks.

    • May 5, 2016 5:37 pm

      You are right, of course! It was more of a rhetorical tactic to fend off the helmet nannies and keep our eyes on the prize: street design.

  2. Joanna Smith permalink
    May 5, 2016 7:10 pm

    But more importantly, why is DOT Commissioner wearing those gloves? What does she know that we don’t?

  3. Ben S permalink
    May 6, 2016 10:25 am

    I think this comes across as fairly misleading. Nobody thinks that helmet giveaways are a big part of the city’s Vision Zero campaign. Giving out helmets makes cyclists safer (or, if you want to debate the science, at least makes people feel safer) and therefore makes people more confident as riders. The DOT is re-engineering streets all the time, and putting in protected bike lanes at faster rates than ever, and those are clearly more central roles in Vision Zero that are making a much larger difference. Helmets that say Vision Zero on them are not a major component, but until we have bike infrastructure on par with Amsterdam, there is always going to be an inherent risk in cycling in this city, and why not help to make it as safe as possible while also promoting your major safety campaign on an item that people associate with bike safety. No, giving out helmets isn’t solving the problems of dangerous driving behaviors, nor is it going to make cycling safe in the city, but it’s a positive thing, encourages more cycling (which does improve cycling safety), and gets the city’s message more publicity, so I don’t really see why giving out helmets would be antithetical to Vision zero. It’s more of a small sidebar

  4. Rusty wheels permalink
    May 6, 2016 10:55 am

    As someone who went to the Library yesterday and is very grateful for the helmet I received, I looked online for stories today about the giveaway and stumbled onto your page. I was stunned and need to respond.

    First off, the people in the photos are wearing gloves because it was freezing cold!

    But since I was there, can tell you this event was clearly not designed for super-serious cyclists like you. Instead, it is designed — like Vision Zero in general — for the majority of us for whom cycling is a rarer activity and who may spend more time and miles behind the wheel of a car. For us, a super-diverse group that represents Brooklyn, having a new Vision Zero helmet or seeing a news story about a new helmet giveaway (for example, the News12 story I saw this morning will be seen largely by drivers — unlike this blog, ) is a nice reminder that Vision Zero belongs to ALL of us. I know driving is more dangerous to others, so I am both driving AND biking more slowly and carefully since VZ started! In fact, while they fit the helmet on me, the DOT guy specifically said to me that Vision Zero is about stopping dangerous driving. Because of this helmet and because the weather is supposed to get warmer, I hope to be biking -more- and driving less.

    that’s a good thing, right? before you start flaming me, I hope you will recognize that attacking those who are more moderate about cycling will not win one more person to your cause.

  5. May 6, 2016 11:56 am

    I had thought that helmets depressed bicycle use because they offered potential riders another point of failure, e.g. “I can’t ride today, my helmet is sweaty.” But perhaps that is the pessimistic view, and as several of my fellow commenters suggest, helmets increase bicycle use because they offer potential riders a reminder to get on the bicycle in the first place. It’s worth considering.

    Also bear in mind that the words “Vision Zero” on the helmet are facing outward, so that the cyclist herself will not see them. They are for drivers and other street users to read!

  6. BBnet3000 permalink
    May 6, 2016 12:27 pm

    They’re also going to give out helmets with HANS and 5-point racing harnesses to drivers on Flatbush Avenue.

  7. TOM permalink
    May 6, 2016 9:59 pm

    “Like a religion”: Would that be Sunni or Shi’it? What with all the polemics, I’m confused.

  8. Doug G. permalink
    May 6, 2016 11:04 pm

    Bike Snob has a good point on this subject. The comments about why it’s okay for DOT to promote their Vision Zero helmets could apply to handing pedestrians reflective vests with the Vision Zero logo on them. It’s actually far more dangerous to be a pedestrian in New York, right? Wouldn’t bright vests help?

    I respect everyone’s opinion and really thank you for leaving them, but helmets and high-viz clothing simply aren’t what Vision Zero is about. (And, let me state for the record that I usually wear a helmet in NYC.)

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