Over at the New York Times, Elisabeth Rosenthal fires up a debate over bicycle helmet use in the United States. She argues that in the United States riding your bike without a helmet is seen as somewhat of a vice, a bad habit akin to smoking. But she doesn’t think that’s should be the case. She argues that if U.S. cities want to attract more bikers they will need to do something that might seem a little backwards: stop promoting helmet use. She writes:
[M]any researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule.
“Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits,” says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.
He adds: “Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots more injuries during those activities.”
Of course, on your personal bicycle, it’s your choice, but the rub comes in cities where bikeshare is available. Often, there isn’t the option for a helmet. So in cities that want to make biking with a helmet mandatory (or already have) there’s a dilemma.
Rosenthal says that riding with a helmet can also present a negative perception of biking for would-be bikers, because the helmet symbolizes danger. Riding is seen as something done by the “urban warrior” instead of the everyday urbanite.
But is it fair to compare Copenhagen with American cities when it comes to cycling? Sure, many U.S. cities are adding bike lanes, even cycle tracks, and bikeshare. That’s helping get more people on bikes. But until these safe biking options are connected throughout the entire city, it won’t feel like a completely safe option.
Too much helmet wearing isn’t the problem. It’s too many roads, running through cities that allow cars to travel too fast and not enough safe lanes for bikers. Fix these urban design problems and then we can talk about the helmet’s impact on bike usage in cities.
To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets [New York Times]