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Should I Wear a Helmet Today?

9:15 AM PDT on May 20, 2009

bakfiets_naparstek.jpgThe Naparstek boys riding last year's Summer Streets event... wearing helmets.

Sarah's "Too Much Emphasis on Safety" post yesterday brings up the question in the headline above.

Canadian Broadcasting TV crew doing a documentary on biking is filming
me as I take my two sons to school on our Dutch cargo bike today. While
the kids always wear helmets, and I do too when I'm commuting or riding
longer distances, I often don't bother to wear one when I'm taking the
kids to school in the bakfiets (also known around our house as the Cadillac Bikescalade). 

are a few reasons why I tend to go helmetless. First, I'm a pretty
careful, slow-riding cyclist in general, and even more so when I'm
carrying kids. The ride to school is a short trip on residential
streets marked almost entirely with bike lanes in a neighborhood where
motorists are relatively respectful and aware of bikes. Walking across
a street at an intersection with two young kids in tow often feels more dangerous.

getting the kids out the door in the morning involves quite a bit of
schlepping and hassle as it is. My own helmet sometimes just gets lost
in the shuffle (as does my four-year-old's lunch). If the two-year-old
is whiny or we're running late I'm not turning back to get the helmet.
It's all about momentum.

Finally, I just don't like the way the helmet looks
when I'm riding the bakfiets. This is less and issue of fashion
(because lord knows I have no fashion sense) and more, I think, an
issue of public perception.

The first time I ever saw a cargo bike in action was on my U.S.-German Marshall fellowship trip to Copenhagen in 2006.
In Copenhagen I saw people using cargo bikes to cart their kids all
over the place. I rarely saw an adult wearing a helmet. It made an
impression on me. This lack of protective headgear -- or any special
bike gear, for that matter -- is one of the things that, to my eye,
made biking in Copenhagen seem so remarkably convenient, casual, safe
and part of regular daily life. It didn't matter what you're wearing.
In Copenhagen you just hop on a bike and go.

sheer sense of normalcy conveyed by streets filled with helmetless,
kid-toting Danish cyclists seemed to me to do more to encourage
bicycling and promote safety than any personal equipment or piece of
infrastructure I'd ever seen back home. And the numbers back that up.
Somehow, despite the lack of headgear, Danish, German and Dutch cyclist injury and fatality rates are a fraction of our own.

We know from the work of Peter Jacobsen
that one of the most surefire ways to make urban bike transportation
safer is to increase the number of cyclists on city streets. There are
a lot of proven and effective ways to encourage more people to get on
bikes. Compelling everyone to strap a styrofoam shell to their head is
not one of them -- at least not in the world cities with the safest streets for cyclists.

I'm still going to continue to wear a helmet on the vast majority of my
bike rides and I'd encourage every New York City cyclist to do the
same. While cyclists have achieved a real safety-in-numbers effect in
Copenhagen and are beginning to do so here, many New York City streets
are still dominated by aggressive nincompoops in overly large motor

Still, I'm leaning toward wearing a dignified hat on this morning's bike ride rather than a helmet.

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