Plastic Hats are Not the Magic Answer

Today it was announced that NYC Council Member David Greenfield  introduced a bill that would make helmet usage mandatory for people on bikes of all ages in NYC. Not a good idea.

Mandatory helmet laws don’t work. They decrease the number of people on bikes, and that leads to a decrease in safety. More people on bikes = better safety. It’s the safety in numbers effect.

Promotion of helmet usage over real safety is not the answer either. Yes, helmets can be beneficial in some situations. But their efficacy is greatly overrated. In terms of the safety of people on bikes, there are only two empirically proven efforts that do increase the safety of people on bikes. One is the aforementioned safety in numbers effect. As the number of people on bikes increases, awareness increases and injury/fatality rates decrease. It’s like going to a dangerous or unfamiliar neighborhood. If you go alone, you feel more vulnerable and you are more vulnerable. If you go with a bunch of friends, others are less likely to bully you. It works the same way on the roads.

The other effective method of safety is properly designed infrastructure that either physically separates people on bikes from more dangerous road users (motor traffic) or creates slow zones where the speed of motor traffic is reduced to a level that doesn’t threaten more vulnerable road users such as people on bikes, skateboards, push scooters and pedestrians.

Helmet laws and helmet promotion miss the point. They are a band-aid on a broken leg. Again, a helmet may help prevent a head injury in certain situations, but if a car or a truck slams into you travelling over 30 mph….you may as well be clutching your lucky rabbit’s foot.

With Citibike, NYC’s public bike sharing system set to launch this summer, the last thing we need is a mandatory helmet law. Bike share systems have been implemented throughout the world with great success. In most cases, that success was greater than initially anticipated. Save for two exceptions : the Australian cities of Melbourne and Brisbane. Why? Mandatory helmet laws.

I am not against helmets. If someone feels safer wearing one and that gets them on a bike and keeps them on a bike- great. Do it. But let’s not get distracted from the real issue at hand. Irresponsible and reckless people behind the wheel of a car are the greatest threat to a person on a bike’s safety (and pedestrians too for that matter). Helmets won’t stop a motor vehicle from hitting you and they are not the magic elixir that will save you. Protected bike lanes and slow zones will reduce that danger. We only have to look to the Netherlands and Denmark to see what truly works in terms of safety for people on two pedal powered wheels or on foot. These two countries have the highest rates of people on bikes, no mandatory helmet laws, low usage of helmets and the lowest rates of injuries or fatalities to people on bikes.

The argument that what the Dutch and the Danes have is not possible here is rot. It can happen and it is happening, albeit at a slower pace than most advocates would like to see. Thankfully, we are lucky to have DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan who sees the importance of the complete streets movement and that Mayor Bloomberg backs her efforts.

I had the honor of meeting Sadik-Khan at the NYC Bike Expo a few weeks ago (we were both participating in Momentum Magazine’s Be Chic Be NY fashion show). When I told her how grateful I was for all the new infrastructure that has been built in the last few years, she replied to me “We are so behind the rest of the world”.

Amen, sister.

End note-  Below are links to a few websites that I feel are particularly relevant to this matter and the overall bigger picture. Please take the time to read them and think critically about what is needed. In the meantime, I wish you happy and safe bike travels.

aviewfromthecyclepath (David Hembrow’s excellent blog on Dutch Cycling Infrastructure)

The European Cyclist’s Federation

Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation (comprehensive site with links to articles both pro and con regarding bicycle helmets)

Helmet Freedom

Amsterdamize: Bicycle Cultures are Man-Made

Copenhagenize– Helmets or Health

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About bikepeacenyc

Just another NYer who is happier when on a bike. Gezellig fietsen. Advocate for Liveable Complete Streets.
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9 Responses to Plastic Hats are Not the Magic Answer

  1. Quick typo correction: you missed a bunch of colons in the links (http// not http://) so they don’t open properly.

    And a quick shout out from Vancouver, where the Church of Sit Up Cycling is taking a satirical swipe at our own absurd hat law, via one of the law’s own exceptions (conflict with “an essential religious practice”). If – as I’m sure there are – there are any turban-toting Sikhs in NYC, perhaps you can have the same general exemption written in to your disastrous law? The Church welcomes all to her flock!

    • bikepeacenyc says:

      Thanks for the head’s up on the broken links…should all be working now.

      Hopefully, this won’t become a law here. Thankfully, it was stated in the news accounts that Bloomberg does NOT support the bill. And based on Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson’s tweets today, I think and hope that we are safe for now.

      I’m aware of the MHL issue in Vancouver. Sympathetic. Hopefully things will change for the positive for you soon.

  2. Michael says:

    As a kid I had a bkie accident, helmet saved my life. no traffic involved, so I intuitively want people on bikes to wear helmets, but I can see logic in your argument. However, as an occassional cyclist and driver, I think you’ve missed something above. You mention “Irresponsible and reckless people behind the wheel of a car are the greatest threat to a person on a bike’s safety”, but every day I see at least one irresponsible and dangerous person on a bike. (out of about 10 people on bikes per day in my town).

    THEY are the greatest threat to their own safety. Far more needs to be done to teach drivers about cyclists – AND CYCLISTS ABOUT DRIVERS. I think that responsibility for cycle safety needs to come from both cyclists and non cyclists. (much lke seatbelts in cars – I don’t wear one because I’m going to crash into something (“I *know* I’m not), I wear one because something may crash into me.

    The best thing that can be done to improve the safety of ALL cyclists though, as you say, is separating fast moving traffic from cycles.

    • I don’t know the exact figures for what causes bike accidents in New York City (and, as far as I can see, the NYPD don’t know them either) but in the UK, where I currently live, it certainly isn’t true to say that cyclists are the biggest danger to their own safety. In this blogpost – http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/it-may-be-fun-but-is-cycling-part-of.html – I refer to Transport for London research that attributed blame for around three-quarters of cycle-vehicle accidents to the motorist. That’s a pretty steady figure in all UK studies of the issue. Clearly, cyclists who cycle more carefully reduce their chances of being hit and badly hurt or killed. But there’s persistent evidence that it’s cars’ misbehavior that poses the real threat, rather than cyclists themselves.

      • bikepeacenyc says:

        Robert, I can’t find the relevant stats at the moment, but if I remember correctly, our numbers our similar here in NYC (re: reckless drivers)

      • Michael says:

        Thanks for the info – Like to crunch the numbers, so it’s good to get some rather than everything being based on ‘gut feelings’. Could you help share some links to them? Looking at the TFL info, it’s clear that a significant factor (where both cyclists and non cyclists are to blame, is not dissimilar to a significant contributing factor in many RTA’s. Failure to understand speed/path of other vehicle. A huge factor in accidents is where speeds of vehicles are significantly different, and this is where all road users need to be able to understand how other road users move, and see each other. A bike travelling through stationary traffic is visible in mirrors for a tiny amount time (- I know this, you may know this, but it seems that most drivers and cyclists don’t.) It’s a cause of many of the near misses i see.

        Another issue is ‘rationality’. People are not rational. A cyclist will be happy passing a car with much less space than they’d be happy having the car pass them. (issue of control), Obvious to say, but perhaps not obvious in practice to either party.

        And the only way we can get people to understand this is through experience.

        Finally, re: plastic hats.. I come back to rationality. As both a driver and cyclist I *know* I’m not going to crash into anything. (A common feeling in people of my demographic and psychographic). So why should I wear a helmet – or indeed a seatbelt? The reason people wear seatbelts isn’t for when they crash, it’s for when an idiot crashes into them – and I think the argument for wearing a plastic hat has to be similar. I haven’t (yet) found any evidence that the improvements in car safety have led to more dangerous behaviour in driving, so can we argue that having cyclists better protected (helmets etc) leads to more aggressive driving behaviour? Not without evidence.

        With such an emotive subject, we have to use facts to back assertions (I try to, but know I don’t always succeed).

        NOw I’m off to read Robert’s post on police and protection of cyclists, while I mull over police and cyclist regulation enforcement – will the reasons be similar, and how can we change both?

      • bikepeacenyc says:

        Michael, regarding seat belts and helmets:

        http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1135.html

        As for people on bikes or people on cars passing one another, yes, both need to be aware. But below I have linked to a study on motorists behavior towards passing helmet vs non helmet riders…otherwise known as “The Mary Poppin Effect”

        http://www.drianwalker.com/overtaking/overtakingprobrief.pdf

      • Michael says:

        Interesting figs on the helmet / wig wearing test – I’d like to see more of this done, as the methodology could be improved upon, and it needs a fa greater sample size. However, as an initial test, it is thought provoking. When driving, I do tend to give (even) more space to cyclists that look as if they’re not in control of their vehicle. I wonder how scientifically I judge this.

  3. I’m just about to move to New York and, while I wear a helmet, it does seem way beside the point to make helmets mandatory when so little is done to enforce even the existing laws that could keep cyclists safe. The problem remains that police forces in many parts of the world (and it seems that the NYPD is particularly bad in this respect) don’t see cyclists as part of the community they’re meant to be protecting.
    I’ve just blogged about my views on why that seems to happen here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/cops-pedallers-and-why-theyre-picking.html

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