The Great Bike Helmet Debate

There are a few conversations about bikes that inevitably get repeated over and over again without anything getting resolved. Why won’t bikers stop at stop signs? Why are cyclists in the road when there’s a perfectly good path right next to the road? The most recent question to rear it’s head in the local papers is whether or not cyclists should be required to wear helmets.

Scofflaw Obama sans helmet. But notice the kids still wear them.

This time around, the debate started when reporter Sharyn Jackson wrote a lifestyle piece about Minneapolis Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Shaun Murphy. The article mentioned, mostly in passing, that Murphy doesn’t wear a helmet because “he doesn’t want the activity to appear dangerous or scary.”

This started a firestorm of follow-up articles, including one by columnist Jon Tevlin, which included a mention that following Jacksons previous article, “…Murphy was told by supervisors that he now has to wear a helmet on the job.” Other follow-up articles included this one full of data from high-school student Seth Colbert-Pollack, and these letters to the editor. I’m sure there are others as well. And of course, while Jackson’s article seems to be the one sparking all the interest this time around, we should note that the Minnesota Daily also ran an article back in May that generally outlined both sides of the debate as well.

Obama with a helmet.

To sum things up [albeit a bit flippantly], the arguments in favor of mandatory helmet laws are generally as follows:

  • If you don’t wear one, you’ll get hurt.
  • Head injuries are bad, mmkay?
  • If you get hurt, the rest of us end up paying your medical bills.
  • I know a guy who hit his head and is/isn’t ok because he was/wasn’t wearing a helmet.
  • Helmets are low-cost, high-benefit

And the arguments against mandatory helmet laws are generally:

  • It’s my head let me do what I want with it
  • I don’t feel like it.
  • They look dumb & make me sweat.
  • Cycling isn’t dangerous so quit making it look dangerous.
  • If I get hit by a car, a styrofoam hat isn’t going to help much anyway.
  • Helmet laws will deter people from cycling, and having more cyclists on the street will make things safer than helmets ever will.
  • There are other ways we can improve safety.
For the record, I rarely wear a helmet while I cycle. You can read why on my personal blog here.

I like making predictions for the future that I can’t really justify, so here’s another one for you:

Mandatory helmet laws are inevitable. I can’t tell you when it will happen. It could be a dozen years from now, or a couple dozen, but I think it will happen. A lot of states already have mandatory helmet laws for riders under a certain age, and some cities (and other agencies) already require helmets for riders of all ages.

Recall that a bill was introduced in the MN state legislature by Phyllis Kahn and Scott Dibble last year that would require cyclists under the age of 16 to wear helmets. It didn’t pass, but it might next time.

Here’s why I think the helmeteers will win this one:

  • The idea that helmets make cycling safer is simple and appeals to logic (whether true or not). The idea that cyclists may be safer overall without helmet laws is not immediately obvious. Convincing a decision-maker of the latter would require them to put serious thought and effort into formulating an opinion.
  • Stories about someone who was killed or injured and wasn’t wearing a helmet will go a long way towards turning public opinion. These are painful and emotional stories, and can have a powerful impact on public opinion.
  • The tide is already turning. There is very little precedent (in any arena) for removing requirements mandating safety equipment. There is plenty of precedent for new safety equipment requirements.
  • Non-cyclists generally don’t care about the issue, and will likely think mandatory helmet laws are a good thing –  because who doesn’t want things to be safer, right?
  • Cyclists are not all in agreement on this issue. Some of the most adamant supporters of helmet laws are avid cyclists.
  • Some of the most likely opponents of the law, people well entrenched in bicycle planning or advocacy, will not be permitted to voice their opinions by their employers out of fear that their personal opinions will reflect poorly on the organization overall (see Shaun Murphy).
  • The most influential local agencies clearly encourage helmet use. The City of Minneapolis is the local heavy-hitter in bike policy, and they’ve established a clear trajectory towards increasing helmet use (they require Murphy to wear a helmet, their police officers give away free helmets to kids – see Bike Cops for Kids, the bicycle plan has stated a clear objective to increase helmet use (page 128)). Of course there is a big difference between encouraging use and mandating use…
  • Liability is a big issue in local governments today. One major lawsuit victory against some negligent agency and we could see a wave of agencies trying to protect themselves.
  • The only people who will really be upset by mandatory helmet laws is a very small portion of existing cyclists – most likely the cyclists who are mischaracterized as scofflaws, vagabonds, or hipsters anyway.
  • The political crowd typically supportive of efforts to preserve individuals ability to choose possibly-risky behavior without government interference, who I will broadly refer to as tea-partiers or right-wingers, have a history of being antagonistic towards the cycling community.
  • The current population of adult cyclists were raised primarily before bike helmets became popular, myself included. I can’t recall any of my friends wearing helmets growing up. Or even owning helmets. Tomorrow’s population of adult cyclists will have grown up in a culture where helmet-use among kids is widely supported and encouraged.

Of course, if there’s hope for my fellow non-helmeteers out there, its the growing popularity of bike-sharing systems, and the problems mandatory helmet laws pose for these systems. The success of bike-sharing relies on individuals being able to conveniently choose to ride a bicycle without planning ahead or bringing personal equipment. Requiring people to bring their own helmets to ride public bikes would severely hamper the system, and share-able helmets aren’t a popular solution.

Time will tell, I guess, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money in favor of mandatory helmet laws. How about you?

Reuben Collins

About Reuben Collins

Reuben lives in South Minneapolis with his wife and kids. He authors the cycling blog and tweets at @reubencollins. In his spare time, he enjoys renovating his 1939 tudor home and riding bicycles.