Why I Hate Helmet Promotion

I don’t hate helmets. But I do hate the way that they are aggressively promoted as the most important factor in safety for people on bicycles.

Why? Because of encounters like the one I had this morning. They happen weekly, daily and sometimes even more than once a day.

As I was on my way to work this morning, I was stopped at a red light with another person on bicycle also on his way to work. The gentleman looked at me and asked “No helmet? Are you afraid to mess up your hair?”

First of all, aside from passively aggressively chiding me for not wearing a helmet- what’s up with the sexist comment about my being afraid to mess up my hair? I wear hats all the time when it’s cold out. They mess up my hair. So does the wind and the rain. No big deal. I wonder if he would make the same comment to a man.

Secondly, I will assume that he probably thought I was ill informed on the subject of safety for people on bicycles. I explained to him that it wasn’t necessary nor was there a law requiring me to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle.  When he started touting that it was for my safety, I explained to him what constitutes real safety (infrastructure and people on bikes). He didn’t want to listen to me and continued with his own saga of falling off his bike and hitting his head. He of course told me that a helmet saved his head (at least he didn’t go as far as saying it saved his life). When I pointed out to him that no scientific evidence exists that bike helmets save lives, he brushed me off by saying that science didn’t matter. Great, such high hopes for rational thinking.

The gentleman was on a racing bike, clipped in and wearing training tights. Since he didn’t want to listen to anything I had to say, I mentioned to him that it was also possible to ride a  bike wearing normal clothing. He ‘agreed’ but said his choice was more comfortable. Great, please wear whatever makes you feel comfortable on your bike- but PLEASE DON’T EVER TELL ANOTHER PERSON ON A BIKE THEY NEED TO WEAR A HELMET.  Seriously folks, I am so sick of being admonished to wear a helmet. It’s my choice and it’s an informed one. I will never tell some one NOT to wear a helmet- as it’s their choice and however informed or not that decision is- if it makes them feel safer on a bike and keeps them on a bike I really want them to keep wearing one. If you really want to know why I don’t wear a helmet, then listen to me when I explain and don’t tune me out with your own biases.

It’s not just MAMILs that tell me to wear a helmet. I also get it from pedestrians, motorists (often leaning out car windows while not paying attention to their driving), and ‘well-meaning’ friends who don’t ride bikes (often this is coupled with questions about the safety of my riding a bike in heels too. Or a skirt. Or a fur coat.). This behavior is just rude. Seriously. Stop it.

Would I like to see more people choosing to go helmet free when riding for transportation? Absolutely. I want to see my city become safe enough for people on bicycles that they won’t feel the need to wear one. But in the meantime, I realize that incomplete streets make people feel unsafe and more people are going to choose helmets to make them feel safer.  It’s their choice and I respect that.

For those that believe they need to preach the magic infallibility of bicycle helmets to others-please keep it to yourself.  I also have another suggestion for you- visit the Netherlands or Denmark. Experience the true safety of Dutch and Danish style infrastructure -where bicycles are an ordinary part of life. A place where riding a bicycle is a relaxed and social thing. Try convincing the Dutch or Danish people on bikes that they ‘need’ helmets. Good luck.

All the helmets in the world won’t save us from poorly designed streets where the automobile is king and motorists can get away with murder almost daily. Preach for safer streets- not plastic hats.

About bikepeacenyc

Just another NYer who is happier when on a bike. Gezellig fietsen. Advocate for Liveable Complete Streets.
This entry was posted in advocacy, bikenyc, cycle chic, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Why I Hate Helmet Promotion

  1. This thinking may change over time, but it’s dependent on the infrastructure. If people are forced to ride in narrow and unpredictable spaces between rows of parked and moving vehicles, they’ll be afraid and naturally want to take precautions such as helmets to try to maintain their safety.

    The DOT’s marketing department seems to be following a sort of “becoming like Amsterdam” image campaign. One of the DOT’s latest promotional campaigns that came out a few years ago seemed to focus on 20-something year old women, with some (the ones walking their bikes) not wearing helmets. Their illustrations of planned infrastructure feature a mix of helmeted and helmet-less bicyclists enjoying themselves on traffic-free streets. Also, the latest “bike counts” cover featured the interesting visual of a helmet-less Mom on a Dutch bike ferrying her children in an unblocked bike lane.

    However, DOT’s planning department isn’t really installing the kind of infrastructure to make this happen. Its installation of bicycle infrastructure has slowed in the past few years and the majority of new construction has been “sharrows” and Class II lanes – neither which really encourage New Yorkers to ride like the Dutch or Danish. I hope that this phase is only temporary.

  2. bikepeacenyc says:

    Sean- Infrastructure is the most important factor in making people feel safe (But more people on bikes is equally important). It is not just the lack of infrastructure though. I also place significant part of the blame on the bicycle industry as a whole and how they market bicycles to people. For too long, there has been a greater focus on the ‘sport’ aspect or the ‘danger’ of riding a bike. There’s nothing wrong with racing or the sport aspect of riding a bicycle, but it does very little to promote transportation cycling. It’s like promoting NASCAR to get people to drive cars more.

    DOT is working hard to build out more “Dutch” style infrastructure. I’m not a fan of sharrows either- at least not on wide avenues with heavy speeding traffic. I think they can ‘work’ on crosstown streets but I also don’t believe they are a substitute for real safety, but rather a temporary compromise. Construction is just about to begin on the 1st Ave protected lane that will close the gap between 72-96th. This past year has also seen the extension of 1st Ave from 60th-72nd, 8th Ave to 59th (though it’s not protected above 56th) and 9th Ave to 59th St. Sometime this year, Columbus Ave will be extended north to 110th and south to 69th (protected). The end plan for Columbus is to be protected the whole route, but there is an ongoing construction project that will delay a permanent protected segment from 67th- 59th for about a year. As of now, it will be sharrows through the bow-tie intersection at Lincoln Center. There is also a protected lane planned for 2nd Ave from 69- 96th, but this is in limbo due to the ongoing 2nd Ave subway construction. This is an ongoing effort from DOT and those of us who are campaigning for safer streets and transportation equality. I am only pointing out the gains in Manhattan here, since this is where I live and work and therefore log the most miles getting from A to B daily.

    I will also point out, that some of the compromises are due to resistance from certain constituents on local community boards. While the tide is shifting, there always seem to be a few members who sit on the boards who have ‘unique’ thoughts about the changes that need to happen for our streets, or should I say- why they shouldn’t happen.

    With Citibike launching in May, this is going to be a tipping point for people on bicycles. As more people start to choose bicycles as a form of transportation, they are going to experience the difference between compete streets and incomplete streets. IMHO- demand for more protected bike lanes is only going to increase. We can’t just sit back and wait for changes to happen. It’s up to all of us to get involved- by riding, by going to CB meetings. contacting our elected officials, and keeping the conversation going. The fabulous Dutch infrastructure didn’t just happen overnight- I took 40 years to get to where they are at right now. And they’re still working to improve it.

  3. A helmet is extremely unlikely to help you if a truck, bus or car doesn’t see you and ploughs into/over you at speed.

    Helmets are only really any good (if at all) for you falling at low speed and hitting your head on a sharp edge such as a kerb. Quite useful if you are mountain biking, but of very dubious benefit on the road. Once people have learnt to ride a bike it is extremely rare that they just fall off. Generally it’s people that don’t ride that don’t get this.

    Given the above, and uneven pavements, it would make as much sense to make joggers wear helmets, but no one ever suggests it.

    There is a lot of evidence that helmet wearing puts would be cyclists off, along with the ridiculous notion that cyclists should dress in hi-viz , as it makes cycling look an inherently risky activity which it is not.

    I have recently taken to stop wearing a helmet, partly cos it’s so cold here and I keep wearing a hat, but also to make my riding a bike appear to be an activity someone can do dressed normally without undue risk.

  4. Ian Says says:

    Hi! I enjoy reading your blog, please keep it coming.

    I’m not sure conversation is always possible with a MAMIL in full plumage; just your luck, eh? I think it safe to presume this guy was looking for someone with whom he could assert his superiority: a woman, and out of uniform. You were handy, sad to say. Although your words to him were evidently in vain, perhaps you can take comfort knowing the last recorded roadside conversion of significance in history was likely Paul the Apostle, who fell from a horse as I recall, and who probably was not wearing a helmet when it happened.

    Give ’em hell.

  5. ridonrides says:

    i definitely sensed a condescending tone. as a male road bike rider, he felt the need to educate you on helmet wearing, because he has so much more cycling experience (eyeroll). i personally like wearing a helmet and feel weird without it. i don’t think it makes me a safer cyclist. some people even theorize that a helmet gives people a false sense of security (i don’t think that’s true, but that is an argument i’ve heard for not wearing a helmet).

  6. zac_in_ak says:

    I think in the current reality of urban cycling helmets to me are just like gloves something I put on to mitigate damage in case of a crash. Paying attention to other traffic and cars is more important but if I do it all I feel like the chances of injury are lower.

    • bikepeacenyc says:

      Zac_in_ak, whatever you choose to wear while pedaling is your choice. In regard to helmets, know that they are limited in the protection they offer. They are only designed with impacts of up to 15mph at best and are not designed for automobile impact. I reiterate, it’s your choice and if it makes you feel safer and keeps you on a bicycle, I would rather have that than see you give up riding all together. For the ‘pro and con’ background on helmets and their impact on safety, here is a link for you to peruse at your leisure



  7. Love this.

    I personally also have a problem with helmet promotion from organizations that should know better. Two UK cycle advocacy groups have decided to stop publicizing cycling events where helmets are compulsory. I think that’s great. The protection offered by helmets is limited, and it’s hard to recommend their use without overselling the benefits. To put it kindly, it’s like saying bottled water is healthier than tap water.

    Cambridge Cycling Campaign motion on helmets and hi-viz overwhelmingly backed by members. Road.cc

    • bikepeacenyc says:

      Erik- I agree with you wholeheartedly about organizations that are trying to encourage more people to choose bicycles for transportation- they need to drop the helmet promotion too. I knew of one of the UK groups that made the decision to stop promoting events where helmets were compulsory (I think it was a Scottish group). I think more advocacy groups should take this stance. Along with campaigning for safer and better roads that are inclusive of all users, we need to undo decades of the ‘culture of fear’ mentality too.

  8. Mike Klaas says:

    I ride in and around San Francisco every day without a helmet, and I frequently receive similar comments. Often from other bikers, and with a scornful tone that is usually reserved for committing an act that endangers others (like riding the wrong way in a bike lane).

    I’ve also gotten the hair comment several times, so when you get it is isn’t necessarily due to sexism (although it still might, of course).

  9. Chris says:

    You might like this.. Helmets for car drivers should be made compulsory now!! :) http://www.ecoprofile.com/thread-2613-Car-industry-talks-bike-helmets%2C-silent-on-car-helmets.html

  10. Brian says:

    What you don’t understand is that your “right” not to wear a helmet, is actually a kind of selfish act. You might not care about your safety, but what about someone who knocks you off your bike one day and you experience further injury, exaggerated by your simple choice not to protect yourself? Or what about the medical staff, or bystanders who have to pick what’s left of your brain matter off the sidewalk? What about those who care about you?

    Seriously dude; your reasons not to wear a helmet are just self righteous. You choose this because you can, not because it is right.

    • bikepeacenyc says:

      Brian- While your comment is your opinion, it is quite irrational. People on bicycles account for less than 1% of head injuries (fatal or not). If this is your rational as to why people on bicycles should wear helmets, then you should be advocating for all people to wear helmets all the time.

  11. Brian, the same could be said of any indulgence like drinking alcohol, not eating enough vegetables, or choosing the wrong career. In the end, life belongs to the individual, not the people that “care about you”.

    In any event, riding a bicycle is one the most sensible things you can do. Everyday cyclists live longer and have fewer sick days. This is because the exercise is so valuable, but also because the risks really aren’t very big. There have been studies on this, see wikipedia’s bicycle helmet article for links.

  12. Andy in Germany says:

    I don’t think it’s a sexist thing. I’m a beardy bloke and I get the same comments all the time, My ususal response is to suggest people look at the evidence and get back to me. This usually results in the same accusations as you found (and which appear in the comments) repeated with increasing volume before walking off predicting dire consequences. I’ve given several of these people the same invitation, so far no-one took me up on it…

  13. Tom Fuller says:

    Brian, your response is nothing more than an attempted guilt trip.

  14. Jym Dyer says:

    • I wear a helmet, but my usual riding partner does not. Whenever somebody asks here where her helmet is, she asks them, “Where’s yours?”

    It’s annoying to see this issue dogging the launch of every bike share. Cars cause far more head injuries, and motoring helmets exist, but you never hear them mentioned when somebody starts up a car “share” or ride “share” (even as the latter hinges on drivers with dodgy credentials who are dispatched via a phone app that they consult while on the road).

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