As a child, my bicycle meant freedom: the freedom to get where I wanted to go quickly, and the freedom to roam, to explore, to savor. Nowhere in my childhood mostly spent on two wheels was there a helmet.
It wasn’t until I was an adult, living in a large city and relying on my bike to travel to and from work, that I even thought of helmets. At the time, there was talk of making bike helmets mandatory for children. My mountain biking friends wore helmets. So I joined them, despite hating it. I began to opt more frequently for transit rather than arrive at work with flat, sweaty hair. When I did ride, I missed the feeling of freedom I’d had as a kid. But I was safer, right?
Maybe. But maybe not.
Howie Chong, a Yale student and environmentalist, recently outlined the trajectory of helmet use and increased risk to cyclists on his blog and drew some rather surprising conclusions.
For one thing, Chong points out that there are a number of other activities, from walking to driving, that put us at even greater risk for head trauma and yet we don’t wear helmets when engaged in those activities.
It’s not that head injuries aren’t serious and that we shouldn’t aim to reduce our risk of experiencing them. It’s that, somehow, cycling has been singled out as putting us at high risk for injury when more than a few studies show that we’re actually less likely to suffer head injury as a cyclist than walking, riding in a car or driving a motorcycle.
What’s more, writes Chong, our helmet use might be increasing our risk of injury. Another study – this one out of the University of Bath – reveals drivers give less space to helmeted cyclists than non-helmeted cyclists, thereby increasing the likelihood of collision. What’s more, helmeted cyclists are riskier riders than those who ride without.
Ryan Craven is an urban cyclist and community activist whose work is aimed at making our urban spaces more bike-friendly. He’s read Chong’s argument and, as a non-helmeted cyclist himself, believes Chong has made some salient points.
He’s not unaware of the risks. Going without a helmet, says Craven, means that he chooses the safest route to get where he’s going. He rides a cruiser bike, which means, he says, he’s more visible than some cyclists.
But his main reason, he says, for going without a helmet is to “normalize” cycling. “We promote cycling like we promote cigarettes, by focusing on the hazards,” he says. “I don’t want to support the idea that cycling is unsafe.”
Craven wants to see North America develop a bike culture, much like parts of Europe and Scandinavia (where, he points out, many riders are without helmets) and he thinks helmets are a deterrent to many who might otherwise rely on bikes for transport.
He argues that the way to ensure cyclists are safe is to boost the numbers of cyclists. The more cyclists, the more motorists will learn to share the road. “The health benefits of more people cycling outweigh the risks of head injury,” says Craven.
I’ve taken his philosophy to my own riding and have relegated my helmet to a shelf in my garage. I still wear it when I’m riding on busy streets but not when I ride the bike trails near my home. I’m more inclined to ride when it just feels good.
It feels like childhood.
Note: Please use your judgement when deciding whether to wear a bicycle helmet.