Helmet on Your Head or Egg on Your Face

Picture_13.pngMatthew Modine doesn't don certain ritual headgear while he rides
Matthew Modine has been getting a lot of negative attention recently for his stance on wearing a helmet while he cycles: i.e., he doesn't wear a helmet while he cycles (it would have to be a large helmet to fit that copious coif). A profile of his Bicycle for a Day in New York Mag spins off track into a diatribe about his perspective on gravity and head trauma, while closing with an objectification of his posterior that would never fly were he not a dude.  But hey, its New York Rag, what can you expect?

Unfortunately Treehugger and Ecorazzi get in on the game, making the argument that only reckless people don't use a helmet while riding a bike, which isn't far from the argument made by motorists that only reckless people ride bikes. Fortunately the cooler heads at Copenhagenize dissect the arguments in "Get Yer Pitchforks! It's a Bike Helmet Witchhunt!," an article that explores a very interesting angle of helmet-mania: Americans are so helmet-conscious in part because the helmet manufacturers are American, they have lobbyists everywhere, and cycling was pitched in part by these same manufactures as a sport, not a transportation mode. Love the Emerging Bicycle Culture tag too:

The difference between North America and other Emerging Bicycle Cultures is remarkable. I covered the rebirth of the bicycle in Paris last year and I was recently speaking in Riga and Moscow. Helmets don't even feature on the radar. In Spain, France, Italy it's the same.  Even in an established bike culture like Japan in general and Tokyo in particular, there are hardly any helmets among everyday cyclists, as you can see right here.

All the people involved thus far in this discussion are homo sapiens who have developed the ability to judge personal risk for themselves. At that level, we're all equal.

So why is it so different in North America? The question of lack of helmets has little to do with infrastructure. It is a cultural and, most importantly, economic issue. There are 100 million daily cyclists in the EU according to the European Cyclists Federation. Easily half don’t have dedicated infrastructure and yet they don’t wear helmets.

The reason is quite simple. All the main helmet manufacturers are American. When they started suddenly promoting helmets in the late 1980’s, they targeted their local market and aimed helmets at those who cycled there; namely sports enthusiasts and hobby cyclists. The helmet was yet another piece of ‘necessary gear’ to be sold. The manufacturers capitalized on their branding of cycling as a fast-paced, sweaty sport.

As resident San Francisco bare-header Andy Thornley noted (and he made clear this is not the position of his employer, the SFBC, which doesn't have a position), this matter "has the tendency to get distracted into a discussion that has become religious. It's a matter of faith, because there are so many nuances to it. Ultimately there isn't a single clear set of facts that say you should or you shouldn't."

Thornley added that helmets are not tested for many types of impact, but are effective only if you land directly on the top of your head at a particular speed. He added that most helmet arguments make the assumption that you've been hit, when most of one's energy should be spent on preventing instances where the very specific protection they provide is necessary.

"Helmet wearing is about your fourth layer of defense; first, make every practice to not get hit by a car. Riding predictably, riding respectfully, being visible, wearing clothes that are visible. The helmet ends up being effective only if you get hit by a car."

Thornley also gave us this very interesting thought exercise about perceived dangers on a couple pages on a website he maintains precisely for these questions (good resources for studies and links):

Here's a little exercise for pedestrian advocates: Do you think a mandatory helmet law for pedestrians would be a good thing? All the data I've seen for urban trips indicates that a pedestrian is more likely than a bicyclist to incur a traumatic head injury. Even if it would only help in a minor percentage of collisions, why wouldn't you walk around with a helmet strapped to your head, if it could help you in that case?

I'm guessing you wouldn't support this because it would make everyday walking look more dangerous than it actually is, and would codify a concession of massive public policy failure, and generally relocate the responsibility for traffic danger and crash survival on the most vulnerable party. You'd probably also object to such a law because it made one single measure of personal armor the focus of all personal safety practice, and distract from more effective measures such as looking both ways and waiting till the signal light was green before crossing the street.

So full disclosure: I wear a helmet almost every time I ride, though I used to go sans for the first few years I lived in New York City. One day a friend of mine found out I rode without a helmet and guilt-tripped me into wearing one more often. Two weeks later I got hit by a double-lane right hook in the middle of Times Square and flew over the hood of the car, landing on my back and smacking my head on impact. I cringe to think what would have happened if I weren't wearing the helmet.

So I do like Thornley suggested, I ride with a helmet when it makes me feel safe, which is almost every time I get on my bike. Of course, if every day were like Mission Sunday Streets, I would ride now like I (and most everyone) rode then, with the wind gently blowing through my hair.