Do Helmets Discourage Us From Biking?

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

By: Melissa Romero

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.