If cyclists were meant to wear helmets, would they have been born with thicker skulls?

By Kathryn Robinson May 20, 2011 Published in the June 2011 issue of Seattle Met

IT WAS APRIL in Seattle—freezing, pouring—and my daughter and I idled in our car at a busy intersection. Up the hill to our right a dude came hurtling toward us on a bike. Flying.

And not wearing a helmet.

“Brainless,” I muttered. Partly I was appropriating this as a Teachable Moment. Mostly I was ranting, at a practice I see more of every day.

One day on my bus ride home I counted: 17 cyclists, eight helmeted. The next day: eight cyclists, five helmeted. Cascade Bicycle Club counts, too, regularly, and its statistics show the percentage of Seattle riders wearing helmets is steadily increasing. That’s great. But with the total number of cyclists also increasing—again, great: for the planet, for the community, for individual health—we might both be right.

It does not take a physicist to see that unprotected human flesh barreling along in heavy motorized traffic on sumptuously potholed city streets in a famously hilly and rain-slicked urban grid spells limited brain capacity—present and sure to come. Toss in Seattle’s drivers—unaccustomed to sharing the road and unsure they’re required to. (Uh, they are.) Add to that an environmental politics currently inflamed by viaduct wars and a two-wheeling mayor. Not the best time for cyclists to be reducing their safety protections.

But get this: Apparently the helmet question does require a physicist. Whole websites now argue that helmets make cycling more dangerous—by adding injurable surface area around the head, compromising vision, and creating a false sense of security.

One Danish cycling promoter belittles our country’s “almost pornographic obsession with safety equipment.” Languishing as a couch potato, he observes, poses far greater health risk than cycling without a helmet. The moment bike helmets are mandated, he says, cycling gets perceived as dangerous and inconvenient—and citizens stop cycling. Bad for planet. Bad for community. Bad for individual health.

This he declares from Copenhagen, a city of dedicated bike lanes, respect for two-wheeled transportation, and a complete absence of hills. I’m not sure I want safety advice from someone trying to make cycling seem safer. Biking perceived as dangerous? Biking is dangerous.

One Danish cycling promoter belittles our country’s “almost pornographic obsession with safety equipment.”

On his desk at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, Dr. Fred Rivara keeps a shattered bike helmet to remind him of that. In the ’90s Rivara led a study, which concluded that bike helmets decrease the risk of head injury by 85 percent. “The guy wearing that helmet escaped without injury,” he marvels. Rivara believes that the helmets-are-the-problem camp hasn’t provided credible data to back up its claims. His research, along with evidence documented in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, explains why the World Health Organization recommends that cities mandate bike helmets for all riders. In 2003 Seattle declared helmetless riding against the law.

Rivara wonders if the law itself might explain the numbers of bareheaded bikers he sees around the city, particularly in youth hot spots like the U District and Capitol Hill. My friend Ed, a daily bike commuter who has taken to wearing a helmet since he, well…grew up, calls these renegades “testosterone monkeys.” “They’re exactly like I was as a punk,” he says. “They don’t want to be told what to do.” Mention safety concerns and they’ll argue how in control they are—never mind that the drivers of heavy machinery alongside them may not be. They’ll moan about the Nanny State even as they swallow propaganda by ideologues who pronounce helmets the enemy of the environment.

In other words—they’re young.

The unhelmeted kid on that rainy April day stopped alongside us at a light. He rode a fixed-gear bike (aka no brakes) and earphone wires dangled down his neck. Geez. “I am going to tell him to put on a helmet,” I informed my daughter, whose stricken look told me she was prepared to chew her way out through the floorboards.

I didn’t—not because of my mortified child, now in a fetal curl, but because I figured he’d be even less safe when flipping me off. This idiot was someone’s kid, after all—not unlike my own. Perhaps my annoyance at him was rooted in distress that he stood as an example for future bike commuters like her.

Or maybe it was that there may be no future bike commuters if the roads are filled with cyclists like him. Never mind the increasing numbers who ride with respect for the risks. A certain breed of car driver looks at empty-headed cyclists like this guy and concludes that cyclists are stupid and dangerous.

Could promoting helmet use really be any worse for the future of cycling than that?

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