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Do Helmets Discourage Us From Biking?

An ongoing debate questions the validity of helmet promotion for health and safety.

While helmet use is often promoted for health and safety, others argue that laws requiring helmet-wear discourages many from biking. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

Back in May, we reported about a study’s findings that only one in five Capital Bikeshare cyclists wears a helmet. Somewhat surprisingly, readers’ reactions to the story were strong and swift. 

“Sorry, but this is bull-crap,” one commenter wrote. “Most riders are certainly not risking their lives by not wearing a helmet.”

“Personally, I think that they’re all but useless for competent cyclists,” wrote another.

There were a few more readers who expressed their distaste for helmet use while cycling, with some even arguing for pedestrian helmet use instead. As it turns out, they aren’t alone.

An op-ed by Elisabeth Rosenthal published in the New York Times this Sunday delved into the helmets-and-cycling debate, arguing that helmet promotion actually discourages people from biking. “That means more obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. And—Catch 22—a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network,” she wrote.

Another commenter to our May article made the same argument: “Helmets don’t offer that much protection in a high-speed collision with a car. Properly designed infrastructure and safe practices (by cyclists, pedestrians, and car drivers) are more important.”

Rosenthal pointed to safe and bike-friendly cities Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where adult cyclists are plentiful and helmets are pretty much nonexistent.

Others argue that the relatively low number of bicycle fatalities compared with pedestrian deaths per year show that if cyclists have to wear helmets, then there should be laws requiring motorists and pedestrians to do the same. Less than 2 percent of motor vehicle crash deaths are bicyclists, according to 2010 data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; pedestrian deaths, on the other hand, make up 13 percent. However, of the 2 percent of bicyclists killed that year, 70 percent of them were not wearing helmets. In addition, 71 percent of the bicyclists were killed in urban areas.

Still, while helmet use is strongly encouraged by organizations such as Capital Bikeshare and Washington Area Bicyclist Association, by law only teenagers are required to wear them in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

So once again, we’re turning to you, readers. Do you wear a helmet when you ride a bike? Or does helmet use discourage you from riding one? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

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  • glamoroustriathlete

    I was biking through the jungle one day when all of a sudden, I wondered why I couldn't advance and why was my neck hurting. It turned out I had rode full on into a low branch but since I was looking at the ground, making sure I didn't eat it, I didn't see it. I could have seriously hurt myself. As it were, I only got a little scratch from where my helmet pad dug into my head. That was it.

    Then on the street, I was riding along during the rain and was forced to cross a huge puddle/ the bottom of which was a huge pothole. I went tumbling as two huge buses went blazing by. Since I was wearing a cap underneath my helmet, it was a bit more elevated. Had I not been wearing the cap, my helmet would have prevented the raised bruise I had on my temple from when the handlebars turned and hit me square on the head.

    I can't stress how important it is to wear a helmet. No, it will not protect you in a car accident but so many things can happen and I'm not about to try and find out. It's saved me more than a couple of times. It's your call, people. I'll be wearing mine, thank you.

  • rhc

    Seems like a lot of risk just to not look dorky :-P Until biking infrastructure in more U.S. cities improves, people need to get over it and just slap something on their heads! 70% of bicyclists who were killed weren't wearing a helmet? I think the stats have spoken!

  • Geeda430

    Wear the dern helmet. No reporting on number of concussions and head injuries just incase you dont die when hit. Same ppl with poor bike ettiquiette ignoring signs, passing on right, ear phones in rush hour traffic so cant hear you say on your left are same whining about helmets. Dc is not yet bike friendly and not all cyclist have a clue. In fact most capitol bike share riders are disobeying rules of road and are likely causing more problems. Wear the helmet.

  • Elefaentchen

    I lived in Germany for many years and one key difference as to the bike lanes in Europe is that many are divided from the road with a median of some sort be they narrow cement islands, posts or as an extension of a sidewalk. A good example of this in DC are the bike lanes north and south on 15th St. That said, most of the bike lanes I took in Europe were not like many in America where you are essentially riding next to cars in a lane painted on the road. This makes a huge difference in terms of safety. I think the future of US urban development should take this into account.

    I do think though that a helmet requirement would discourage riding. For programs like Capitol Bike Share, a lot of that depends on spontaneous riding in which you might not have a helmet with you all the time, For example, you meet friends for food and decide you'd rather bike home or it's raining in the morning so you take the bus to work but then bike home because its sunny again.

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