Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Helmet Laws and Helmet Use: One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other


I enjoyed this satirical essay I found via Phoenix Cycle Chic the other day. (Go ahead and read it. I'll wait).

The comments section really got me thinking about the hubbub around helmets and the timing turned out to be impeccable because Miss Sarah also wrote about it today. Those who find helmets superfluous pointed out that helmets may lead to a perception by the public that cycling is dangerous and some presented statistics that said that helmets didn't offer significant decreases in injury in crashes above 12 mph or with cars. Who said that we're going anywhere near that fast?! My top speed is 9 mph and that's on my naked, old 10-speed, Mr. Lavender.

And who said anything about cars? Cyclists don't get into that many accidents with cars. As hard as it it to find information on cycling injuries (as opposed to fatalities), I found data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that says 2% of all the people injured in traffic accidents were cyclists (cyclists also comprised 2% of traffic fatalities). Of course, this data only reflects reported incidents. I'm sure there are just as many stumbles and spills and abraded hands and knees caused by oblivious motorists who leave their pissed-off cyclist victims in the dust. Still, these cyclists live to ride again (especially if he/she is wearing a helmet). What's more, additional NHTSA data shows that 84% of nonoccupant traffic fatalities involved pedestrians while cyclists' numbers approached 14%. The long and short of it is: you should be most worried about getting in an accident with a car when you're in a car. Amongst the car-free, cyclists fare the best by far. I think these anti-helmet folks are the ones with the perception that cycling is more dangerous than it is in actuality. I also think that the data they're working with may measure incidents that occur predominantly amongst "sports and leisure" cyclists. "Utilitarian transport" cyclists who wear helmets may very well be guarding against the unseen pothole or the road that's full of debris or slick with reemerged motor oil during a hard rain. Simple precautions simply addressed with helmet use.

Now that we've dispensed with the morbid preoccupation of car-on-bike traffic accidents , there's the matter of mandatory helmet laws to attend to. I'm concerned about anything that discourages people from cycling. Apparently, Australia provides us with a case study revealing the negative effect of mandatory helmet laws on cyclist numbers/growth. Let's let learn from this. American politicians would probably just use mandatory helmet legislation to obscure all that they fail to do in furthering cycling and pedestrian infrastructure anyway. However, helmet use saves your brain and cyclists who choose to wear helmets don't scare off the ones who don't (as long as they're not alarmists like some of the anti-helmet folks). Mandatory seat belt laws, front and side airbags, rear view cameras, and "lane assist" systems that prevent you from drifting out of your lane or riding too closely to the car in front of you haven't sent motorists screaming and running for the hills. Perhaps helmets don't represent danger to would-be cyclists, but rather the ugly, oddly-configured helmets widely available in chain stores and bike shops represent the costume of lycra-clad, hydration pack-bearing, endurance athletes and they just don't want any part of it. Who knows and who cares? As long as there are bikes and asphalt for all of us, we can all find our way on the road--lycra or no lycra, helmet or no helmet.


spiderleggreen said...

Putting "helmet" in your title is sure to increase traffic, these days. Gets people's blood pumping. I liked the satrical essay, which might give you an idea of my thoughts on the issue.

While you are right that there is a lot of vitriolic commentary about this issue, I think that you dismiss the anti-helmet(or pro-free hair?) arguments too easily. They may sound shrill and pushy, but they're pushing up against a very big idea. That bikes are so dangerous that if you don't wear a helmet you're crazy. How times have I been asked if I wore a helmet, when my bike riding comes up?

Behind that question is a whole lot of ideas. Ideas, I've come to question. For me the helmet issue is a big distraction, from the real issue, which is the dominance of the deadly automobile. Dealing with that issue will have a much bigger impact on cycling safety than getting everybody wearing helmets, could ever hope to do. Plus, the impact of changing our car culture, will have benefits for society as a whole, not just individual cyclists.

I think you're right that people could be a little more civil about the subject. But as someone who doesn't think helmets are the answer, I'm going enjoy my right to disagree.

RidingPretty said...

This helmet thing gets absolutely crazy... yikes!

I so enjoyed hearing your POV. Very refreshing, really.

Now back into my design studio to work on some new HELMET designs. Oh this little bicycle-cycle chic world of bloggers, so easy to inflame with the helmet issue. Wish it wasn't so.
Thanks BronzeBombShell for this little comment field of yours. Thankful to let out a little of the frustrations I am feeling.

Filigree said...

One thing to keep in mind that for people who do not believe in wearing helmets, it's not just about helmets being not as important as getting people out there cycling. Some believe that there is not enough conclusive evidence showing that a helmet is actually better than no helmet, and that in some cases the opposite might be the case.

It has been shown that wearing a helmet leads to riskier cycling and less caution on the part of drivers due to a perceived lower risk. There is also the issue of helmet related injuries: wearing a helmet can cause the head to turn during a fall leading to greater head injuries than would have been sustained if not wearing one. All of these studies are available out there along with the pro-helmet studies, and it is up to the individual to decide how they wish to interpret the evidence.

I actually like how some of the helmets look that are being designed today, including Bern, Nutcase and Bell faction. So I resent it when helmet activists assume that my choice not to wear them has something to do with issues of fashion. I think they are fashionable all right, I am just not convinced that it is in my best interest to wear one.

The Bronze Bombshell said...

spideleggreen: "I'm going enjoy my right to disagree." Exactly. That's all I want in this helmet debate, but if nobody should wear a helmet lest it scare away potential cyclists then I'm not being afforded my right to disagree via my helmet-adorned head.

Riding Pretty: Too true. Does the Internet get people's blood pressure up or what?

Filigree: I'm not saying the ugliness of sporty bicycle helmets makes people not want to wear helmets, I'm saying that it's possible that the sportiness of widely available helmets puts people off cycling because it reaffirms the idea of cycling as a sport for super-fit, skinny guys in lycra. For this reason, I completely understand why some people don't like helmets. The diminishing numbers of cyclists in places that have enacted helmet laws are evidence that these measures are counterproductive and as such I understand why people oppose helmet laws. In that case, I oppose helmet laws.

If a cyclist chooses to ride without a helmet because he/she hasn't found any scientific data to compel him/her to do otherwise, that's another matter. It's a personal choice--a matter of taste--that affects that particular cyclist alone. It seems when a cyclist chooses to wear a helmet it is a threat to the utility cycling movement. Bikes everywhere will remain stationery because one has donned that evil thing upon one's head. Really?! I'm not telling anybody else what to do. I'm just making decisions about my safety for myself and I'm more than happy to allow other cyclists to do the same for themselves.

Filigree said...

Bronze Bombshell - I agree with the point you're making in your last paragraph. I do not like it when the anti-helmet people mock those who choose to wear helmets any more than I like it when the pro-helmet people ridicule those who choose not to wear them. I am a helmet libertarian.

spiderleggreen said...

I think I see your point. By advocating the idea that helmets discourage more people from riding bikes than are encouraged, people who do wear helmets, may get the idea that they are being discouraged from wearing one. I can see how they may think that, but since we are not talking about creating "no helmet" laws, they have only to say "Thanks for the info, but I'm wearing it". Beyond resisting the persuasive appeal, they aren't compelled to do anything. They can decide that it's in their indIvidual best interest to wear one.

I wish I could say the reverse is true, everywhere. But even though it's legal to not wear a helmet where I live, I can't ride in many bike events if I don't wear a helmet. With some events it's merely a liability issue, for their event. Insurance companies have the power to require this, even though it's legal to not wear a helmet. Other events do so because they are promoting helmet use. Which is their right, but if another event tried to ban the use of helmets because they felt that helmets reduce ridership, making biking more dangerous, they would likely be sued.

So the playing field isn't really level. The "helmets" have TV, the Law, the insurance companies and helmet manufacturers, behind them. What do the "enough about helmets!" have going for them? Teasing helmet wearers? Well, I'd like to think the common good.

Thanks for a lively debate!

Adrienne Johnson said...

I have had many people yell at me from cars "Wear a helmet stupid!". I have had other cyclists yell at me and call me names in front of my children for not wearing a helmet. I have been treated like a child and marginalized by many a cyclist for not wearing a helmet.

I have never had anyone yell at me to take my helmet off when I have worn one. It is more usual to have someone say "At least you are not one of those idiots who does not wear one".

So I have to agree with spider on this one. It is not a level playing field. It also clouds the conversation about the laws that could come from this debate. When the California state government puts lots of money into ads to get children to wear helmets but almost no money into creating safer more usable streets that would keep them from getting hurt in the first place, we have a problem that goes way beyond what you have on your head.

The Bronze Bombshell said...

Filigree: I like that, "helmet libertarian." I think I'll use that. Thanks.

spiderlegreen: You make an interesting point--one would think that insurance companies would do all they could to increase the number of cyclists because all that disease-preventing, pollution-reducing exercise costs them nothing. Then again, it's not like health insurance companies actually care about the health of the people they insure.

Adrienne Johnson: Considering the evidence that motorists drive less safely around a helmet-wearing cyclist, I'd say that that mouthy driver was just afraid of what a sympathetic figure you'd be in a court case--scratched, bruised, and sporting a neck brace--in the event that he hit you. Perhaps in a less litigious society, drivers would relax?

The other rude cyclists escape explanation. Are there an inordinate number of self-righteous folks among cyclists or something? I'm always bemused by people who offer their opinion like it's gospel truth.

I guess you have a point about being a target for abuse as a non-helmet wearer. Any measure of swimming against the current will irk certain people because it makes them question why they make the choices they make. Other cyclists may be stereotyping you as the "reckless cyclist" that allows drivers to gripe about us. Either way, they could open their minds and keep their mouths closed.

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