Monday, January 7, 2013

Concern Trolling and Bike Helmets

Today I was reading details on a local news blog about an incident where a motorist struck a bicyclist not far from my home, when I saw a comment likening wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle to wearing a seatbelt while riding in a car. So I got to thinking, what do seatbelts do? Seatbelts are a taken for granted safety device that saves lives. But there was a time when wearing a seatbelt was seen as evidence of reckless driving, like you only strapped yourself in because you planned to drive dangerously. In her 2006 book Injury: The Politics of Product Design and Safety Law in the United States, anthropologist Sarah Jain reported that, "one gentleman [she] interviewed told [her] that in the late 1960s his girlfriend's parents treated him with suspicion when they found out that he had installed seatbelts" (p.173). Our ideas about what things do can change over time.

What are helmets supposed to do? Here are some ideas I've heard about what helmets do:
1. They protect bicyclists when biking on shared streets because bicyclists are unpredictable and will dart in front of motorists who might unwittingly hit them
2. They protect bicyclists from head injury when they crash alone, which is much more common than incidents with motorists
3. They keep the helmet industry going
4. They perpetuate the idea that biking is unsafe
5. They make politicians look like they've done something effective when imposing a mandatory helmet law
6. They keep people off bikes because people don't want this to happen:

Clearly we think helmets can do things beyond act as a physical barrier between a head and a hard surface. We give a lot of agency to what is basically a foam hat! Because their meaning is contested, helmets are a very touchy subject. I have witnessed exchanges between bike academics over the question of helmet laws that devolved into schoolyard taunts, and once saw a suggestion that a pro-helmet figure be burned in effigy. There are valid points on both sides.

I've developed my own perspective on helmets from riding a bike for the last seven years and visiting cities as a bike researcher for the last five. As with many other aspects of bicycling, context matters when considering helmets. If I am going to bike at low speeds on neighborhood streets or on some off-street path, falling off my bike would be about the same as falling while walking.* And, as I have heard helmet critics point out, we're not going to try to get pedestrians to wear helmets, are we?

When I was in Copenhagen and Amsterdam this summer, I could see why wearing helmets there didn't seem important. People biked slowly, and had to pay attention to the many other street users. When I biked in Dublin, I wore a helmet because I felt wobbly with the different orientation of streets, and I wished I had one when I biked in London for the same reason. Where I live, in hilly Seattle, I would feel unsafe without a helmet to protect my brain when I'm flying downhill at speed. (I'm also so accustomed to wearing a helmet that to go without makes me feel naked, so the city's helmet ordinance is a moot point for me.) As for the helmet protecting me against motorists, if wearing a special hat makes your body feel safer when two tons of engine-powered metal are cutting close to your flesh, I'll have what you're having. I pay very close attention to the spaces where I ride, doing as much as I can to compensate for the undeniable fact that many road users are just plain not paying attention. My helmet doesn't solve that problem.

We all count on each other to stay alive when we're traveling, regardless of our transport mode. If we stay alert, and treat city streets like bustling places where different kinds of users are going to pop up, bicycling, walking, and driving will be safer for everyone. What do you think matters more when a kid is biking: wearing a helmet or being around motorists who notice what's going on outside their windows? If our streets are unsafe, that's our collective problem, and not something each bicyclist can fix by wearing a foam hat.

And yet, over and over, helmets come up when a motorist hits a bicyclist, like in the news I read today. How often are the people who tsk tsk over helmets bicyclists themselves? "Concern trolling" is an internet phrase that can mean pretending to care about someone's welfare, but really criticizing their conduct. That's what comes to my mind when I hear people who don't bike talk about helmets. It seems to me that concern trolling about helmets is a veiled statement that the speaker doesn't think bicyclists belong on the street anyway. It would be better if you were gone, they imply, but if you must impose your privileged, entitled presence on roads made for driving, at least wear a helmet. Or if you don't wear a helmet and you get hit by a car, well it's your fault, this line of logic seems to go, as this recent post on a mainstream ladyblog noted. Motorists shouldn't be blamed for hurting somebody that didn't belong there in the first place. That sounds really icky. Google's not driving your car yet folks, you are. While nobody wants to hit others, choosing to drive and yet expecting no other road users to appear is very dangerous.

As for the anti-helmet crowd, I think that part of the resistance comes from bicyclists who know that helmets are not going to change the fact that motorists don't want us in the street. A friend reported recently that while riding the bus he overheard one young man congratulate another for finally biking without a helmet. People seem to think that not wearing a helmet is a grand statement about bikes being "normal." But as bicyclists we often interact with motorists who are not used to sharing roads with nonmotorized transport modes, and some of these motorists make it clear that they don't want to see us as normal at all. We've got bigger fish to fry, and the helmet is a red herring.

*I have a friend who was biking on a quiet street without a helmet, when a little kid walking down the street asked his mom why that guy didn't have to wear a helmet. I bet that lady wished my friend had been wearing his stupid helmet so she didn't have to answer smartypants questions about it.


  1. Regarding seat belts as an indicator of reckless driving, here's a different view: Back about 50 years ago, my first wife insisted that I install after-market seat belts in the 1950 Plymouth we had at that time. When that car failed, I relocated the belts to the next car in this series of "beaters" that got us around in those days. None of these vehicles were the sort that would inspire recklessness. Then, in 1968, I was in a collision that totaled the 1957 DKW wagon I was driving at the time. The only damage to me was a scratched knee. Ever since then, I've been a true believer in seat belts. Back around 1981, my younger daughter and a college friend were about to run errands in her 1966 Buick (which had factory-installed belts). She fastened her belt, and waited. When her friend wondered what she was waiting for, she said, "You haven't put on your safety belt." "Oh, is there an interlock?" "Yes, right up here" and pointed to her head.

  2. Interesting piece. I confess I've gotten a bit lazy about wearing my helmet lately. Wearing a helmet clearly should not grant vehicles a license to act recklessly around bicycles, nor should failure to wear a helmet absolve a vehicle of responsibility for causing a collision with a bicycle. Alternately, a biker wearing a helmet shouldn't act as if he or she is invincible and ride recklessly. Quick legal note: depending on what state a person lives in, a biker's failure to wear a helmet could decrease the amount he or she can recover for injuries from a motorist found at fault for injuring a biker. So be careful out there.

  3. I like having a helmet on as a holder for my lights (front and rear), and my mirror. It also keeps my head warm in this winter riding weather.. And oh yeah, I've fallen a couple of times and hit my head/helmet and not had any head injuries.

    On the other side of the coin, I love those newspaper articles about being hit by a dump truck, but not wearing a helmet. Show me a helmet that can withstand a dump truck hit..

    1. This summer I learned that in Dublin that they saw a decrease in bicyclist deaths when the city installed a tunnel that routed heavy trucks out of the city center. I've had that on my mind many times since when I've seen large trucks around town.

    2. ... and all the collisions that oversized construction trucks have been involved in! I don't know if we need to build a tunnel for heavy trucks, and there's lots of construction going on near the city center, but it might help to establish limited routes for oversized trucks that aren't capable of making normal traffic maneuvers safely. It should be part of the permit process for building: what sort of vehicles will be used, what routes they will take from the freeway to the site, and the impact particularly on pedestrians and cyclists.

  4. I've hit my helmut on a sign and the street and walked away from both. I had a loose fitting helmut and got doored and bruised my forehead badly in the fall. I ran a stop sign and got creamed by a taxi (I avoided losing my leg) and went flying through the air and tumbled on the concrete,no helmut. If I'd done a header I wouldn't be here.
    Vancouver is naturally hilly with long stretches between lights. If I stay in heavy pedestrian areas I go slow. But no one in Vancouver rides in the heavy pedestrian areas so we go fast. An accident happens in a split second and the impact on your head can be anywhere from pain (minor concussion) to major damage. I walked away from the the taxi crash but I could just as easily have been laid up for life. Forget the rest of the crash and who's responsible a helmut can save your head and your head doesn't heal as easily as a broken arm etc.

  5. I agree that the bicycle helmet is a red herring. Far too much attention and priority are placed on helmets, all at the expense of other, far more effective ways of keeping cyclists safe.

    I'm also amazed at how so many people feel the bicycle helmet can do what it is not designed to do or that the results of a study examining cyclists who have simple falls can somehow be applied to cyclists who have collisions with motor vehicles.

    The effect of helmet promotion has been to publicize an incorrect and damaging impression of cycling as a dangerous activity. Cycling is now considered a risky activity by too many people and has suffered as a result.

  6. Cycling IS dangerous WHEN driving near traffic, or at high speeds in certain conditions. Cycling has suffered? Are you kidding?

  7. The perception of danger associated with cycling is artificially inflated by cyclists who are overly concerned with their own personal experiences of riding a bicycle. Our own community in many cases is responsible for this reality, I believe that the motivation is equal parts group dynamic as members of the bike majority attempt to regulate minority members who do not conform to their idea of a bicyclist, i.e don't wear a helmet.

  8. I live in a state with one of the most oppressive, and enforced, compulsory helmet laws (CHLs)- Victoria, Australia (fine is currently $176 for not wearing a helmet). It really takes the joy out of the whole urban cycling thing, knowing you can lose that amount of money popping down to the shops to buy a newspaper, lidless. There are, understandably, anti-helmet activist groups in Australia and they are gearing up for a bigger campaign. But what strikes me is that the Federal CHLs came in in 1990 and there has really been no policy shifts or social protest since then - people have just stopped cycling, been fined, or worn a helmet. It is a driving culture just like the US, and the CHLs were a sloppy, easy law to allow the government of the day to say it was doing something about safety without upsetting motorists. As I said, cycling around in VIC is soured for many people - it is the presence of the CHL laws, rather than the bigger campaign to increase bike numbers and safety, that occupies many of us. But we have to work on multiple fronts. PS I agree the personal experience is not a good guide - my first 40 years largely without a helmet in the UK, Denmark, West Africa and the US colours my view. But also look at what Prof Chris Rissel is saying (Univ of Sydney) based on epidemiological data.