To Helmet or Not To Helmet

I was interviewed yesterday by Grand Rapids Press reporter Jim Harger about whether or not Grand Rapids should pass a mandatory bicycle helmet law requiring ALL bicyclists to wear helmets. I said I would not support this ordinance. (Edit: Here is the article. It turns out that Mr. Harger did not choose to quote me.)

Unknown to many, helmets can be a hot, controversial topic in the bicycling community.

Ken Kifer, a cycling advocate who was tragically killed by a drunk driver in 2003, lays out some of the main arguments for helmet use:

1) Bicycling accidents are frequent and unavoidable, and head injuries and death are likely to result from these accidents.

2) Many cyclists have attested that a helmet saved their lives and even have battered or broken helmets to prove it.

3) Scientific evaluations have been made of helmets which ensure that they will protect the head against almost all injures.

4) Researchers have determined that up to 88% of head injuries or deaths could be avoided by wearing a helmet. A drop in the number of cyclists killed each year is further proof that bicycle helmets work.

5) Any protection is better than none, there is no handicap involved in wearing a helmet, and no advantage comes from not wearing one. Statistics show that when bike riders are given a free choice of whether to wear helmets or not that most of them don’t.

He continues on with the reasons he does not believe those arguments are valid. See his article here.

There are many other sites opposing mandatory helmet laws as well, including the
League of Bicycling Voters, an Austin, TX group that formed to oppose a proposed mandatory helmet law in that city.

The bicycle helmet debate has extremely passionate and convincing advocates on both sides. There are two main websites that will be referenced by each side.
The pro-helmet side: Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute
The helmet skeptics: Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation

Each is packed with data and scientific studies that supposedly back up their point of view.

Who is right? As with many complex issues there is not a clear-cut answer.

A bicycle helmet is a tool for bicycle safety and can clearly help prevent some types of injuries in low-speed crashes. This is why I wear one nearly every time I ride a bicycle, and I encourage others to do so as well. However, it may be of little help in many bicycle/motor vehicle accidents that happen at higher speeds, which are the ones that typically result in serious injury and death.

Crash prevention is the best way to avoid these situations. We need widespread education of both drivers and cyclists on the causes of car/bike collisions and how to avoid them. We need “Complete Streets” that safely accommodate all road users. We will have to work together with local governments, educational institutions, and the bicycling community to implement these changes and others.

Doing these things will be a lot harder than passing a mandatory helmet ordinance, but it will be more effective in encouraging people to get out and ride, continuing to build a bicycle culture in Grand Rapids, and making our city a Bicycle Friendly Community.

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Author: Joshua Duggan

I love bicycling. I love Grand Rapids. Even though I'm not from here (I'm from Omaha, Nebraska), I've lived here over 10 years and Grand Rapids is my new home. I'm a commuter, endurance racer, mountain biker, bicycle tourist, tandem captain, fat biker, roadie, and gravel grinder who likes to ride his bike to an occasional brewery, taco stand, or ice cream shop.

5 thoughts on “To Helmet or Not To Helmet”

  1. I think that the press should publish your blog entry it is much more informative that Harger’s article.

    TB

  2. Great blog – I agree that it’s better than the article. I too oppose this legislation, from a personal liberty standpoint. The whole point of the constitution is to protect the rights of the MINORITY, a point many miss these days. We are not a democracy, contrary to public opinion, we are a republic, which protects (or should anyway) the right of boneheads like me to not wear those stupid looking helmets… šŸ™‚
    Keep up the good work, Joshua.

    NK

  3. When I live in the Netherlands for a couple of years it was interesting to see that NOBODY wears a helmet. I think we all know that the Netherlands is a biking culture, has separate bike lanes, and bikes have the right of way over ALL traffic (including pedestrians) on bike lanes.

    I am interested in the death stats per mile ridden in the Netherlands versus the US. I bet it’s quite a bit lower there than here – because people know what they are doing, and cars/bike are kept separated.

    From what I have observed, kids growing up today learn dangerous habits from watching others exhibiting dangerous habit on their bikes. The one that I see all to often is a adult riding against traffic on the street. Kids see this and think ‘Thats how we should ride…’ Additionally, I’m sure another high accident rate exists amongst kids riding on sidewalks that cross driveways. Not many people expect a kid, whipping down the sidewalk at 15 MPH when they back out of the driveway.

    There are a ton of other things we can do to increase bike safety, however, making me slap a piece of plastic covered styrofoam on my head is the least effective IMHO.

  4. A huge part of this is the practices of drivers — was just watching this Streetfilms video (http://www.streetfilms.org/cycle-chic-in-copenhagen-and-beyond/#more-36121), which posited that one of major the elements to Copenhagen safety is the unstated understanding between cars and cycles. Paraphrasing: “I’m not a driver and you’re a cyclist, I’m a driver *right now*, and will likely be a cyclist tomorrow because I chose that mode of transport.”

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