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A Big Thanks To All You Helmet-less Cyclists

by Josh Lipton

I started out my career as a bike nerd with a very pro helmet attitude. But then I began hearing a variety of disarming anti-helmet arguments.

I struggled with these bizarre new concepts. What! helmet laws result in people riding bicycles less? What! helmets give the perception that cycling is dangerous? What! helmets don’t protect me from everything?bike-helmet-riding-the-fence I’m not sure when it happened but at some point, I got off my high horse and started straddling the fence. This fence I am on is a place where I support and encourage helmet-less riders all while continuing to wear a helmet myself. I’ve been riding this fence ever since and have gotten very comfortable.

If you’re an angry, chest-thumping helmet advocate, you should consider trying it out. Its nice.

Do you find yourself muttering “organ donor” when you see cyclists without helmets? If so, you could get that negative energy out of your life and realize helmet-less cyclists are your friends.

CBB contributor Tom Bowden shared this article on his facebook page, Why it makes sense to bike without a helmet this morning. The article draws some interesting conclusions from a variety of studies about helmets.

While I am skeptical about studies and how their data is crafted, the conclusions offer food-for-thought. And the biggest thought that surfaced for me after reading this was that not only should I encourage and support cyclists who choose to not wear helmets, I should thank them.

It may just be the case that cyclists that are not wearing helmets are making cycling safer for all of us. They are pioneers showing the world that cycling is safe and friendly.

So where does this leave me?

I guess I am scared, cautious and taking advantage of the situation. There I said it.

Somehow, I am ok with that though. I’m just going to keep straddling this fence cheering on our noble helmet-less missionaries while looking out for #1, cradling my brain-bucket in Styrofoam.

BOB Trailer x 2

19 Responses to “A Big Thanks To All You Helmet-less Cyclists”

  1. John M. Hammer says:

    “I support and encourage ADULT helmet-less riders all while continuing to wear a helmet myself.”

    I added the word in all-caps because that’s how I feel about it.

    Mandatory helmet laws for adults almost certainly reduce the number of people who choose to ride and the frequency with which they choose to ride. Adults ought to be able to make decisions like that for themselves. After all, we can throw ourselves out of airplanes at 10,000 feet with nothing but a bit of silk and thread if we so choose, can’t we?

    Children, however, are not able to make informed and rational decisions regarding their safety. In addition to needing to be saved from their own bad judgment, many children need to be saved from the bad judgment of their parents.

    I like NYC’s helmet law, which applies to anyone riding a bike under the age of 14. And at 51, I’ll continue to wear my helmet every time. Well, almost every time…

  2. Josh Lipton says:

    @John my opinions are definitely focused on adult cyclists, though I admit I should have stated this more clearly. Thanks for bringing this up.

  3. James says:

    I too straddle this fence. For years I wouldn’t wear a helmet. I grew up not wearing one and thus found them bulky and uncomfortable when I started commuting. Since then I’ve grown to appreciate them in certain riding aspects. I wear a helmet 98% of the time on road with traffic. Now bike trails? Forget about it. I can’t be bothered to wear one in my perceived less hazardous environment.

    Either way, yeah, it’s a personal choice that adults should make. And forcing youth will make it easier for them to make an informed choice when they are older.

  4. Tacita says:

    Thank you!!! I feel exactly the same, sitting on the fence. I have always thought there were positive elements in both sides of the camps!!!


  5. Tom in AZ says:

    My theory is that if you choose not to wear a helmet, you’re responsible for the outcome. It’s your choice. I choose to wear one 99% of the time and have had 2 crashes in the last three year where I would have been concussed, or worse, had I not been wearing my brain bucket. But I will never force that onto any other adult. Kids like you said are a different ball game. But yeah, riding without is a wonderful feeling!

  6. Heymo says:

    Hey Josh,

    I’m going back and forth with this issue – meaning I couldn’t agree more with your post 🙂

    Growing up in Berlin (Germany) I first wore a helmet all the time, but realized at some point that it felt more dangerous to wear a helmet in big city traffic than riding without. I think the reason was that a cyclist looks more armored, anonymous and aggressive to a driver with a helmet?

    Anyway, I tried riding without a helmet and felt safer – cars would leave me a lot more space and drove less aggressive. I think because I was perceived as more human, vulnerable and less threatening? Still not sure.

    Today I’m going back and forth. When I ride my race-bike I tend to wear a helmet, because I’m going faster and thik that I’m mostly a danger to myself 😉
    Also, while riding my race bike here in the US I always make sure to wear a cycling jersey in the colors of an american flag. Certain drivers might run over a cyclist without hesitation, but they wouldn’t run over a US flag 🙂

  7. Ted Johnson says:

    I’m yet another bicycle user who wears a helmet (because it makes a great accessory mounting platform) but is not in the least doctrinaire about it.

    I do feel less safe without a helmet, however, because I am so used to having my helmet mounted mirror optimally positioned. When my eye aims at that spot in my field of view, and the mirror isn’t there, I suddenly feel more vulnerable.

    The problem I have with Howie Chong’s article is that it is a confusing mix of relative and absolute numbers. I had to read it very carefully conclude that I agreed with it.

  8. Evan says:

    I don’t really know how I feel about bike helmet laws except that it wouldn’t effect me directly because I always wear a helmet. I do know that no man is an island! The argument that it only hurts the person that get’s injured is completely flawed. An injured person requires medical care, Who pays for that? We all do, that is how insurance/medicare works. The greater the payouts the bigger the premiums become! What about the person’s employer? They lose productivity and that is a direct impact on the lives of his coworkers and the company’s bottom line and even, potentially, the customers. What about the person’s loved ones and the emotional impact that even a small injury could have? What about dependents of the injured if he becomes incapacitated by a head injury?

    Just like safety glasses for people operating power tools wearing a helmet is simply the right thing to do.

  9. Mike says:

    My helmet saved my life last year. Even with it I sustained a skull fracture and broken neck. I’m not straddling the fence on this one, though I wouldn’t mandate use for adults.

    BTW, someone mentioned bike trails. Parks, certainly New York State parks, require helmet use.

    Ride all you like without a helmet. You may end up in a better place.

  10. Josh Lipton says:

    @Evan, sure no man is an island and that is exactly the point of considering whether helmet use is good for society at large. Howie Chong’s article cites evidence that suggests that helmet usage has the net effect of imperiling cyclists more than it helps them. Trusting the data behind these studies is another debate.

    What is clear to me is that the overall impact of the decision to use or not use a helmet is not so easy to judge.

    Like politics and religion, make a decision that suits you best, and amongst polite company your best bet is probably to keep it to yourself.

    BTW, this is not polite company 🙂

  11. Evan says:

    @ Josh, And yet you are very polite! There are always arguments and it seems to me that you are giving some very tentative stances the benefit of the doubt. I think, in fact, it is your politeness that gives you this on the fence position. BTW good thing you were wearing a helmet up there, one could take a nasty fall!

    If I was poodling along upright in a business suit in a dense, bike friendly, urban area or out on a dirt country road with almost no one around then I suppose I would be OK with not using a helmet. That is many miles from my world.
    Oddly enough, I actually had to be converted to wearing a helmet and, until 2001, did not use one (and I’m over 50)but I was not a “serious cyclist” at the time(if that’s what I am now?). What seems easy enough to me is to simply put one on and cover ones metaphorical butt. No it doesn’t protect you from every thing but we really never know because if you didn’t get a head injury you could say it might not have been the direct result of wearing a helmet. How can one really prove that?
    It seems to me that trusting the data behind these studies/ arguments is not another debate – it IS the debate! For instance:To think that it is necessary to make the general public think cycling is safe by riding around with the least amount of protection possible is to jump to conclusions. There are other ways to improve awareness other than pantomime. I think the article is a bit “self-misleading” even though it seems to make sense and be well intentioned it appears to be largely lacking at key points.

  12. Josh Lipton says:

    @evan my on the fence position, is not based on politeness. It is based on the observation that there may be real value to cyclists as a whole when many cyclists choose to not wear helmets. I am not claiming this as a truth, I am just open to that distinct possibility.

    At the same time I feel like I personally am generally better off when wearing a helmet. Again I won’t claim this as an absolute fact.

  13. The question is:

    Is the decision that suits you best the decision that suits you best?

    It has been proven (over and over again) that more riders decrease your personal risk to incident. ie safety in numbers . It has also been proven (over and over) that mandatory helmet laws decrease ridership numbers while having no effect on incident or head injury rates?

    What hasn’t been studied is how helmet use rates by the general public (mandatory or not) affects the perception how safe riding a bicycle is to those that do not ride.

    It is completely in the realm of possibility that areas with higher helmet usage rates give the impression that riding a bicycle is unsafe and thus keeps the “interested but concerned” (I hate that term btw) from riding their bicycles more often. And as such, you may actually be harming the “safety in numbers” principle to the point that you actually make yourself less safe by wearing the safety gear.

    I bring this up because with the sudden rise in popularity of bike share and public access to bike counters across the country (world) we are starting to get data that shows that riding a bicycle isn’t nearly as dangerous as was once perceived. Especially since bike share statistics (a largely unhelmeted demographic) are logging millions of miles with no fatalities and only a handful of injuries per year, and in many cities have likely been the catalyst to the rapid rise in popularity of riding bicycles within their borders.

    How bad can riding bicycle in NYC be when you see some grey haired lady riding a citibike down the street with her locks waving in the breeze? How bad can riding a bicycle in NYC be when you see a guy in full day-glo body armor riding down the street?

    Which image makes you want to ride?

  14. Dann says:

    A helmet has saved my noggin a few times. Twice in the past three years – both falls due to ice (one without studded tires).

    I’ve also been hit with flying rocks coming up from car tires, sometimes from as far away at 30 to 50 feet. Seeing the incoming projectiles, I’ve tilted my head and let the helmet take the blow.

    A helmet keeps me cool in summer due to the vents speeding up the channeled air onto the brain bucket. And, with the help of a helmet cover, keeps me warmer in winter by shedding rain and snow and keeping warmer air next to the head.

    I have used rear view mirrors stuck to my helmet, but have stopped using them for various reasons.

    I’ve taken to ride with some kind of eye protection as well. A few years ago on one ride home a very large Bombus (bumble bee) flew into by safety glasses. Within five blocks, a hummingbird hit me square in the lens of those same glasses! Either animal could have taken my eye out – just like a Red Ryder BB-gun!

  15. Bob says:

    My commute is a whopping 4 blocks, so I generally don’t wear a helmet when riding to work. On the other hand, I will often wear one when riding recreationally, even if it is mostly paths, because most of that riding at least starts with me riding through the downtown portion of my city where people are only starting to think about seeing bicyclists. I guess that puts me on the fence with my own usage.

  16. Thomas Bowden says:

    I want to address just one narrow aspect of the discussion. It is often said that the rider who goes helmetless is not only hurting hemself/herself, but also imposing costs on all of us if they are injured. Assuming this is true, it is also true of those who refuse to wear helmets when walking on sidewalks or up and down stairs in their homes, or of those who choose not to wear personal flotation devices when bathing alone in their tubs. And don’t get me started on helmetless barstool sitters.

    Yes I am being a little facetious, but the point is that in our society, we tolerate a wide range of risk preferences without attempting to directly impose marginal actuarial costs on those who push the boundaries here and there. You will and should find it difficult to get a good rate on your life insurance policy if you choose bungee jumping and wingsuit base jumping over, say, a neighborhood bocce league, but outside of the extremes, we are structured to let people live their lives largely as they see fit. With cycling, the personal and societal benefits are so overwhelming, with or without a helmet, that it would be the height of cognitive bias (the zero sirk fallacy, to be precise) to impose the costs of the relatively rare serious crash on the victim while failing to penalize the growing hordes of inactive slouches who drive our health care premiums ever higher just by doing little more than breathing.

  17. Another Mike... says:

    …whose helmet saved him. Just this summer. Hit by a car driver backing up insanely fast (such that hitting me from the side it caused me to break through their rear window).

    You just don’t know what’s going to come at you, or when, or where. I can’t take the same neutral attitude as you. Helmets save lives. When I see a cyclist without one, I can’t help but think about my experience and, if possible, urge them to put one on.

    We are extremely vulnerable to the massive machines many of us ride amongst. That vulnerability is magnified by the increasing inattentiveness of drivers generally – texting, talking on the phone, diddling with the phone, juggling their coffee, drunk, stoned, etc. I’m still unable to enjoy riding on the road, so I restrict myself to MUPs and trails with no chance of automobile interaction. All it takes is a driver momentarily losing focus, glancing away, blocked by a blind spot or any one of dozens of things that can go wrong.

    So what about the argument that helmets are unlikely to save you in the event of being hit by a car? Well I feel that I’m living proof they do. Yes, I had plenty of other injuries – lost a month of work and am still on PT. Sure, maybe the helmet didn’t save my life, but it certainly prevented a much more serious injury.

    All that said, I would not support mandatory helmet laws. They’re unenforceable and would most negatively affect that person who can barely afford the bike they depend on for transportation.

  18. Another Mike... says:

    So, Thomas, motorcyclists also should not be required to wear helmets? Cars should not be equipped with safety belts or air bags? Why stop there, who needs brakes? While we’re at it, shouldn’t the second amendment guarantee our right to own modest tactical nuclear devices? (100 round clips just deplete so fast that us rugged individualists can’t keep up with the tyrannical forces of the gummint.)

    Sorry, can’t help myself.

    Just sayin’, you build a slippery slope with your argument. I don’t advocate mandatory bicycle helmet laws primarily because they would be tantamount to a regressive tax. But to say that one who can afford it and flagrantly eschews a simple, low-cost safety device should not bear a premium to capture the social cost of their self-generated externality is, well, inconsistent with maximizing social utility.

  19. Island Dave says:

    I wear a helmet when riding an upright bicycle, tandem, triplet, mountain bike but when in my Velomobile,which is most of the time I don’t because or restricted head room. I’m basically in a full body helmet as it is.


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