Helmets and Vision Zero Go Together Like Helmets and Vision Zero
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.
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.
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?