« MDOT Secretary Announces Resignation | Main | Tuesday Afternoon Commute - Bike Month »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I agree that the fear mongering and stats used to scare people away from bike shares can be ridiculous. That being said, CaBi locations tend to be in high traffic, crowded areas. It seems a little irresponsible to imply that wearing a helmet is unnecessary (though I realize at the very end you do encourage it). The argument here is almost like those who fight the merits of environmental care, simply because the fear driven stats often used by environmental activists have so many holes in them. In the end, it just makes sense to care about the environment. In the same way, stats or not, it just makes sense to wear a helmet, especially riding in the areas that CaBi services.
Also, one thing we rarely talk about is drivers. Helmets can help protect drivers as much as they do riders (assuming that the statistics supporting helmet use are true). If a rider is struck by a car (whoever’s fault it may be), I do think that drivers want protection that the injury won’t be unnecessarily devastating. It is the same way that seatbelt laws not only save the passenger, but protect someone causing a wreck from hurting the struck passenger more than necessary. As cyclists, I think it’s important to make drivers comfortable with us sharing the road, part of which is being properly protected from an accident causing a catastrophic injury.

Oh, for Christ's sake, just put on a helmet.

I'm not just implying it, I'm saying it. Wearing a helmet is unnecessary.

It is, however, likely to be a nice addition. It's hard to say how much it helps, and that is the real issue with all of this.

But if bike sharing gets more people on bikes and they use helmets at only a slightly lower rate than the average cyclist - the health benefits will greatly exceed the costs. I fear this kind of talk makes people not ride bike share because they don't have a helmet available, and that alone may not be a good enough reason.

As for helping drivers I'm not sure that I buy that. Bike helmets are meant to protect people from slow speed falls, not from being hit by a car. I'm very skeptical of the benefits that a helmet provides in a car crash - though, if I knew I were going to be hit by a car and I could choose to wear a helmet, I would.

@whatever: for christ's sake you can put on a helmet if you would like but I will continue minding my own business and will choose when it's appropriate for me to wear a helmet and when it isn't.

Do you wear a helmet when you walk across the street?

Washcycle isn't promoting NOT wearing a helmet, it's protecting our right to choose whether a helmet is appropriate for ourselves. Or conversely, whether we are allowed by the government to use a bike as a mode of transportation if a helmet isn't handy.

Head injury accounts for about a third of all bicycle injuries and about three-quarters of bicycle related deaths, so these are some pretty shocking numbers

To follow up on @Chris' comment, I wonder what percentage of all (reported) pedestrian injuries are made up of head injuries. Also, how many pedestrian-related deaths are due to head injuries.

Same with auto-fatalities.

These "shocking numbers" tell us very little in the absence of knowing how common such injuries/fatalities are, and how effective helmet use is.

Of course, whenever we see a bicyclist without a helmet, it gives us an opportunity to advance the "scofflaw cyclist" meme on the one hand, and gives us a frission of cheap moral superiority on the other.

What's not to like?

Oh, for Christ's sake, just put on a helmet.

I used to mountain bike with a guy who either wore, or didn't wear a helmet depending on the terrain, company, and his mood.

I asked him once, "What do you say when you're riding and people ask 'Where's your helmet?" And he said, "I generally tell 'em to go fuck themselves."

The helmet-patrolling is basically an unsavory intrusion into other folks' business, and reflects very poorly on the self-appointed patroller's character.

That's all fair. I wish I could find the Bicycle Times article from last year that addressed this, specifically the theory that not wearing a helmet might be safer(cars provide more distance if the rider doesn't have a helmet in some studies). I guess my point was simply that they might help, they might not help, but ultimately it is probably in a rider's best interest to wear one just-in-case it does turn out to help. One thing is most likely for sure: they don't hurt.

I completely agree that the bike share benefits are worth it, helmets or not. Interesting that earlier this year, Arlington County gave out CaBi helmets for free to each household to help overcome some of these fears.

My car comments were not really about high speed wrecks, but more the in the city traffic type wrecks, especially turning and lane switching. Fair point though that they are mostly for the low speed, not to help if a car hits you (and then inevitably gets in no trouble).

Anyways, great post and interesting thoughts on the bike share.

One other helmet observation: I'll occasionally go mountain biking and forget my helmet. This will sometimes draw comments from folks on the ride about how INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS and IRRESPONSIBLE it is to ride without a helmet, since mountain biking is an INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS sport.

Meanwhile, statistically speaking, I'm much, much more likely to be seriously injured driving home to get my helmet, and driving back to the trailhead than I am just skipping the helmet.

Such rational arguments rarely make much headway, though. I've found that American adults really, really love a chance to tell another adult off about anything.

Chris and everyone else:

You're right. Don't wear a helmet if you don't want to.

Just stop whining about the numbers. Do you feel guilty or dumb when studies come out that support helmet use? No? Then ignore them. What do you care? Unless there is a mandatory helmet law being considered, why do all the numbers and studies matter so much to you? Do you need stats to validate your decision that badly?


"Washcycle isn't promoting NOT wearing a helmet"

On that point, I disagree. I think he's doing just that. But only he can say.

@whatever: Tell that to cyclists in Seattle where they don't allow adults to use a bicycle unless they're wearing a helmet. Several other jurisdictions have the same laws in effect (link to a pro-helmet org's list: http://www.helmets.org/mandator.htm)

I have no problem with the promotion of helmet use or studies to that effect, though I am skeptical of the benefits for ordinary low-speed biking.

I am, however, adamantly opposed to banning bicycling without a helmet for adults.

First comes the manufactured consensus. Then when "everyone agrees" the passage of a helmet law is a no-brainer.

Why is it that folks fighting to restrict gun ownership can't just ignore stats showing that guns are completely safe and have only positive effects. After all, there's no legislation currently pending.

Why do abortion rights activists always have to object to manufactured statistics that show every woman who ever had an abortion is deeply traumatized for life, and that abortion causes breast cancer. After all, there's no legislation pending.

Because there's *always* legislation pending.

Just stop whining about the numbers.

One last thing: where's the whining?

When cycling infrastructure is safe and reasonably protected from cars and buses and trucks (and their inattentive, aggressive and/or speeding drivers), there's little need for a helmet. Commuters don't use helmets in Holland. They don't have high-speed crashes and they don't get run into by cars. They don't need helmets because speeds are moderate and roads are safe. That said, I wear a helmet. I like the extra visibility it provides, it holds my lights, and I dented one up good last year (riding faster than normal commuting speed though).

We're adults now and not in middle school. No one cares if you think you're too cool. Wear a helmet!

It's part symbol, part talisman.

To my loved ones, it's a symbol that I prioritize safety. If I am willing to strap a sometimes uncomfortable thing to my head for safety, I'm unlikely to do unsafe things in general.

I plain feel safer with it on. Every time I get on my bike, I put it on, and then I feel confident that I will arrive home safely. It's a bit of psychic insurance.


"One thing is most likely for sure: they don't hurt."

Depends on your definition of "hurt", since many studies have shown that helmet laws are strongly correlated to a decrease in cycling after implementation, leading many doctors to conclude that helmet laws should be repealed, since the health benefits from cycling outweigh the risks of not wearing a helmet.


Just stop whining about the numbers. Do you feel guilty or dumb when studies come out that support helmet use? No? Then ignore them. What do you care?

I think the point is one of advocacy. It's not me personally. This study/article feeds into the scofflaw cyclist thing - even though it's not illegal, and the idea that cyclists must not care about their safety or they'd wear helmets. Also it may lead some to think that cycling is dangerous and bike sharing especially so. And these things need to be pushed back against as an advocacy point.

I'm not promoting not wearing a helmet. I generally wear one, and I think you're probably better off wearing one, but mostly it is your decision and I think there are many rational reasons for deciding not to wear one.

Just wear a ding-dang helmet.

As a side benefit, they conceal thinning or graying hair.

Thereby allowing attention to flow naturally to your shapely legs, courtesy of your cycling lifestyle.

All because you wear a helmet.

If I'm on a group ride, and usually when I'm mountain biking, I wear a helmet. If I'm taking a CaBi or doing a solo training ride, I usually don't.

As summer comes on, I'm actually safer wearing a cycling cap over a helmet. It keeps the sweat out of my eyes. And I've found it's safer to be able to see than it is to wear head protection.


Just don't wear a helmet! I don't want you running into me on the W&OD cause you're blinded by sweat and won't properly manage your perspiration with a cap because you've got a ridiculous totem on your head!

Gloves and cycling cap, people! Show you take your own safety seriously!


This article is specifically about bikeshare systems which are in urban environments where the large majority of bike accidents involve cars and helmets do absolutely nothing to prevent cyclists from being hit by cars. If you see salmoning cyclists filtering through oncoming traffic with head phones in and no lights on their bike, and wearing a helmet...I liken that to driving a 2 door sedan through Monster Jam with your seat belt on.

I have this super absorbent headband that I wear under my helmet. It does the trick, but my wife does not allow it to come upstairs - ever.

@rollresistance :

I've only ever seen one story about the helmet / helmetless passing distance being examined, but it wasn't a study and the difference was pretty small. The guy was a techie tinkerer who had some spare proximity sensors (like cars have for parking assistance) and he hooked them up to a data recorder on his bike for a while. On average, when wearing a helmet the passing vehicles were about 3" closer than without.

This was 5-6 years ago. Ever since then it's been cited in other stories as "a study" or "studies have said", and it's been accepted into conventional wisdom as "shown" or "proven", but as far as I know nobody has repeated the observations or tried to figure out what motivated them.

@oboe: I couldn't agree more. I'm not some sort of anti-helmet crusader who thinks they are an evil device. And I generally do wear one when I leave the house on my bike.

But if I'm at work and don't have a helmet handy, should I be prohibited from riding a Capital Bikeshare home? Sure, wear the "ding dang" helmet if you've got it handy, but don't ban cycling without it. It has nothing to do with being too cool, and everything to do with the practicality of bring an unweildy device of limited benefit with you everywhere you go.

Do bullet proof vests make you safer in case a bullet hits you? Sure, but you don't wear one walking around the city just in case a stray bullet comes along. Same for a car hitting you. Because other than a car breaking the law and hitting you there's very little chance that a law-abiding cyclist will fall of his bike and sustain a head injury.

I'm with DaveS on the proximity thing. It is a mountain made from a Higgs boson.

Whether or not helmets are useful, the statement about accident and death rates is completely sensationalist and misleading. A casual reader might think that thousands of CaBi users are getting killed or seriously injured every month when that's hardly the case.

The stats about head injuries may even be true, but the overall numbers are so small as to make it largely irrelevant. There have been only a couple serious injuries on CaBi that I've heard of. In one case, a helmet would not have helped. So a helmet might have helped in a few cases out of the 1 million bike trips in the first year of operation.

I think helmets are useful, but I don't think it's a cause for alarm to see a CaBi rider not wearing one. The bikes are heavy and slow, which helps to make CaBi safer than other bikes. There is a lot more time for response and reaction at slow speeds, both on the part of the cyclist and nearby drivers.

I always wear a helmet when riding one of my own bikes. But sometimes I don't wear a helmet on short CaBi trips.

@mm I mostly meant that helmets probably do not hurt the safety of the rider, but I certainly understand your point that it does affect attitudes toward riding.

@DaveS, you were correct about the study. The articles though goes further.

In fact, if anyone is interested, Bicycle Times did two great articles on each side of this issue. The articles are as follows:

"Pull Your Head Out of Your ...Helmet?" - Issue 012, 8.01.11

"Butting Helmets: An Argument in Favor of Advocating Helmet Use" - Issue 014, 12.01.11

I think all the conversation here highlights what a difficult subject this is, and how bike advocates don't always agree. I think there are two really valid sides to this story. One is that helmets likely provide some level of additional safety to the individual rider. The other side is that helmets likely make cycling seem more dangerous than it really is, and therefore decreases participation in a health benefit activity.

We can't just say they do things in Europe one way, and so it'll work here. Things aren't the same, speeds aren't the same, and cultural attitudes are not the same. A car striking a cycling does not have to be a high speed accident. Saying that city riding means you get tagged at 60 mph just doesn't make sense. Often this would be a low speed collision.

Okay, fair enough. What are the rational reasons for not wearing a helmet? Cost-benefit analysis please.

Costs: Helmets are uncomfortable and managing them is inconvenient. They can make a hot day hotter and in some types of crashes they might make situations worse rather than better. They can get snagged on branches and I actually saw someone knocked down by that. They are usually not free, and need to be replaced pretty regularly.

Benefits: If you are in a crash of fall, and you will hit your head and you will not die from other injuries, then a helmet may protect your head, but whether that is true and how much it is true is undetermined.

How one balances those it something of an individual assessment.

Wearing helmets is important for our ongoing research into whether wearing helmets is important.

What are the rational reasons for not wearing a helmet?

I sweat like a pig whenever the temperature gets over 80 and I'm doing anything over a cruising pace. I've tried just about everything, and nothing stops a torrent of salty perspiration from draining into my eyes, all down my sunglasses, etc, etc...

Nothing except a cycling cap, which channels the sweat down the bill. But wearing a cap under a helmet interferes with air flow, so I've got the problem of overheating as well.

As far as CaBi goes--or utility cycling in general--the benefits of not wearing a helmet are that you can grab a bike whenever and wherever you are. You don't have to walk around with a large piece of plastic and Styrofoam everywhere you go.

Wearing helmets is important for our ongoing research into whether wearing helmets is important.

I have a similar concern in that research into helmet efficacy might show that helmets are not particularly effective, which would lead to fewer people using them, which would put many people in danger, since we know helmets protect people from certain death when participating in extremely dangerous behavior like riding a CaBi to the corner store.


Anecdote is not data, but: My wife was hit by a car illegally passing stopped traffic in the shoulder. She left a helmet-shaped hole in the windshield.

Since that day, we always wear helmets. I encourage other cyclists, too, saying it's not because they're bad riders, but because there are so many bad drivers (and so many more than "when I was a kid").

and so many more than "when I was a kid"

I'm all for people doing whatever they will to make themselves feel safe, but just wanted to say, a lot of things that seem worse than "when I was a kid" are actually considerably better.

My gut feeling is that pedestrians and cyclists being struck by cars (per mile traveled) is probably lower than it was in the 70s. (Not to date you. ;) )

How about this for a cost:

Mandating helmet use -- or promoting it so aggressively that it may as well be mandated, which is how I would describe the situation here in the U.S. -- stigmatizes bicycling as the most dangerous activity the average person will ever undertake. The only everyday activity so dangerous that you'd be crazy -- suicidal! -- to do it without wearing a helmet. Which in turn drives down bike ridership, which in turn drives down demand for dedicated bike facilities AND ensures that most of the population never rides a bike and doesn't know or care how to drive safely around bikes. Which in turn makes us all less safe in the end.

So if someone is on the fence and decides to plop a helmet on his head because "it can't hurt" . . . actually it can.


That's just it - nobody is talking about helmet LAWS here. Just helmet safety. Why get all upset about claims that helmets are safe if you aren't being forced to wear it?

FWIW, I'm with HoneyBadger on this one: emphasizing helmets makes biking appear unsafe when, in fact, the health benefits outweigh the dangers ten to one (I can dig up the reference for that if need be).

Personally, I tell people who want to cut back on car use to take many small steps to make it easier to run errands by bicycle. These include getting a bike specifically for errands, with fenders (less worry about protecting clothing), a chain guard (no need to strap down a pantsleg), good baskets (quicker than panniers), built in lights (one less thing to worry about losing)... You get the idea. Not futzing around with a helmet is one of those many small things that makes car-free or car-lite living easier to contemplate.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that some things, like adding a lot of bike lanes, dramatically decrease injury and fatality rates. Given that there are effective steps that can be taken to save lives, it is extremely frustrating that the media persist in babbling about bicycle helmets. Based on the evidence, it's like prescribing band-aids for heart disease. They can't hurt, so why not wear them all the time?

And one more thing... Helmets are required at all Department of Defense facilities. I consider this a barrier, albeit a small one, to following through on the President's directive that federal agencies take more steps to encourage people to bicycle to work.

In addition to what has been said, I'm in general against misinformation. It drives me insane how lazy so many people (journalists, doctors, public safety officials...) are on this and how that 1989 study's results keep being reported even though the same authors repeated the experiment in 1990, addressing some of the concerns, and came up with a lower set of numbers. No wonder climate deniers don't trust the scientific community. I think part of it is just that people want to make the point that helmets are useful, and they find that stat and they just report it - after all the AMA, USDOT, etc... reported it - it must be true. Sigh....even the gods themselves battle in vain against publishing bias.

NASA requires them too.


Safety equipment "stigmatizes"? Maybe it simply...leads to use of safety equipment.

Your argument resembles that of car makers who opposed adding seat belts to cars because they were afraid it would make their product seem unsafe.

On climate deniers and such:

The problem you cite is with journalists, not scientists.

I continue to be amazed by Honeybadger's logic:

"So if someone is on the fence and decides to plop a helmet on his head because "it can't hurt" . . . actually it can."

It can? Someone will see a helmet and run scared from cycling forever?

No, but someone will see thousands of people wearing helmets and think that it might be too dangerous for them, and so...never try.

Safety equipment "stigmatizes"? Maybe it simply...leads to use of safety equipment.

As others have written, there's a lot of evidence that when helmets are required, cycling rates go down.


Lower rates of cycling result in--among other things--decreased safety for cyclists. So, yes, "helmet Nazis" do more to put people's lives at risk than folks who support the right to go bareheaded.

The issue is nothing at all like opposition to seatbelt use, which has actually been proven to save lives, and which has not been shown to have any effect on rates of driving.

Any idea on how to make this a question on jeopardy?

Safety equipment "stigmatizes"? Maybe it simply...leads to use of safety equipment.

just wanted to pull this quote from the article from The Washingtonian:

Even though the program has encouraged car-free living and provides a healthy alternative to taking the Metro or driving, most riders are risking their lives by not wearing a helmet..

And, yes, this is exactly the sort of horseshit we're complaining about. Cycling is about as safe as anything else you're going to do, so, no, you're not "risking your life" by riding a bike--with or without a helmet. At least not any more than you are crossing a roadway on foot in the suburbs.

I have no idea what you're complaining about. Most riders are in fact risking their lives by not carrying the most potent good luck charm or other talisman they can lay their hands on.

I might point out that we are entering thunderstorm season and you are essentially putting a piece of conductive metal between your legs. There's simply no point in further tempting the gods.

I might point out that we are entering thunderstorm season and you are essentially putting a piece of conductive metal between your legs. There's simply no point in further tempting the gods.

Actually, riding without a helmet is more akin to leaving the house when there are clouds in the sky. After all, being struck by lightning is incredibly rare, and you can do a lot to avoid it, but...better safe than sorry.

Leading an inactive lifestyle is one of the greatest killers in America today. Making ridiculously alarming statements like "most riders are risking their lives by not wearing a helmet" is pretty irresponsible. Worse, it's alarmism dressed up as reasonableness.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Banner design by creativecouchdesigns.com

City Paper's Best Local Bike Blog 2009


 Subscribe in a reader