Were They Wearing a Helmet?

On Sunday, an 82 year-old man was biking in Columbia Heights when a motorist hit the bicyclist with his car, killing the bicyclist.

Soon after, the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition tweeted the article and shared their condolences to the family.

Soon after, State Representative Phyllis Kahn responded to the tweet. One would expect her to offer condolences to the family as well, but that’s not what she did. Instead, she asked some questions:

She didn’t come out and say it, but the questions she asked make her assumption clear: the bicyclist did something bad and died because he wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Maybe there was something in the article that clued her into who was responsible? Go ahead and read it, but I couldn’t find anything. Maybe people on bikes are at fault in the majority of accidents with people driving cars? Nope, the numbers are about equal for both.

Do Cyclists Bear the Burden of Guilt?

Unfortunately, this line of thinking is all too common. One of the many false stereotypes about bikers is that they don’t obey the rules of the road. So, whether it be in local news, comment sections, or in everyday conversation, when a there is a car-on-bike accident, people will generally assume the person biking was at fault. They will also usually wonder if the person was wearing a helmet, no matter how hard the bicyclist was hit. After all, if someone in a car is hit hard enough, they’ll still die even while wearing a seatbelt.

And why would these attitudes change when our own elected officials, especially one whose vision includes shifting people into sustainable modes of transportation, are ready to blame bicyclists without a shred of information? Why would governments pass laws to make biking safer? Why would police departments enforce those laws? And if those things don’t happen, why would I feel safe biking?

As an individual who voted to put Representative Kahn into office, I hope there will be a day in the near future when people will just think of bicyclists the same way they think of cars: someone trying to get somewhere else.

[Featured Image: “Broken Bicycle” by Sondra Stewart, Copyright ©2006 Sondra Stewart, Distributed under CC BY-SA 2.0]

Tyler Schow

About Tyler Schow

Tyler Schow studies Communications at the University of Minnesota and is currently Communications Intern at the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition. The views expressed here are mine alone and do not represent those of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.

44 thoughts on “Were They Wearing a Helmet?

  1. Cobo

    It used to be if you hit kid with a car you where a horrible person.

    Now your a horrible person if you let your kid play near the street, and it isn’t the drivers fault if someone gets hurt.

    why did this attitude change?

    1. Rosa

      More and more I think it’s a result of the very understandable urge to keep our kids safe and to teach young drivers defensive driving. When you teach kids cars are dangerous and it’s their job to avoid them – something you almost have to do, dealing with individual kids you love and want to be safe – you end up with grownups who think the job of pedestrians is to stay out of the way of cars.

      And part of the defensive driving pitch, the thing that is supposed to make people pay attention and follow defensive driving rules, is the idea that YOU are a good driver and everyone else is an incompetent idiot. So every driver thinks they’re great at it.

    2. Joseph Finley

      Right…sounds somewhat like the old line “Was she wearing something provocative?”

      Whether or not she is an advocate for bike riders her insensitivity says much about her and it is not the first time she has found her foot in her mouth.

  2. Ben

    I’m the furthest thing from a Phyllis Kahn defender but I think you’re reading too much into her tweet. Generally she’s extraordinarily insensitive and has a history of saying extraordinarily insensitive things but I think her asking questions is her (insensitive) way of expressing concern, trying to determine what happened.

    Whatever Phyllis is or isn’t, she is an advocate for cyclists and bicycling generally.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Instead of saying “extraordinarily insensitive,” why not just say that she has a strong opinion based on her own experience? Many people have personal anecdotes about how helmets have saved their lives. I find its best to take all of these people at their word.

    2. Julie Kosbab

      From a policy perspective, there are different responses if it’s a truly unsafe roadway, versus unsafe behavior by a cyclist or motorist. Fault does matter when looking at this. Even with protected lanes, multiple MN statutes say vehicles, bikes and pedestrians must obey the signal. All the engineering possible can’t fix ignoring that one.

    3. Stacy

      That’s interesting. I interpreted the tweet as trying to determine the reasoning of the severity of the accident.
      The right-of-way question is asking if the driver was at fault. The helmet questions the severity of the impact.
      Both questions are looking at ways to prevent such a severe collision in future.

  3. Melody HoffmannMelody

    I wrote about this too, when Marcus Nalls was killed by a drunk driver. (https://streets.mn/2014/02/06/safecyclistdead/)
    The media reports all focused on Marcus’s own safety protocol. Why isn’t the focus on the driver? Were they speeding? On their phone? Why is the focus always on the bicyclist’s actions? We are the ones LEAST in control when dealing with automotives. We are often at their mercy.

    I don’t know if you are “reading too much into it” but the tweet certainly signifies how we continue to focus on the bicyclist and NOT the driver when crashes like this happen. Notice, too, how it is always the car that does the hitting and not the driver. The DRIVER hit the bicyclist with their car. The car does not miraculously just hit things. There is a person involved, too.

    Thanks for documenting yet another case of “blame the biker”

    1. Wayne

      Victim blaming is normal behavior when the victim is an ‘other.’ Since most people still drive and even with the vaunted ‘most bicycle friendly’ status cyclists are still a relatively small minority here, most people see anyone on a bike from the perspective of a driver and can’t make that empathetic connection to them. They don’t know what it’s like to get buzzed and nearly killed by bad (or just plain hostile) drivers on a regular basis and only know cyclists as annoyances in their way, so bam–blame the victim. Media reports rarely humanize the victim to the point where they might be granted personhood in the reader’s mind.

      It’s awful but I don’t know if there’s really anything you can do to get around the nasty vicious nature of human beings to do this sort of thing. It’s just one more reason to hate humanity.

  4. Cynthia McArthur

    In a time when we want to assign blame before condolences are shared, let’s remember that life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. Most accidents, mishaps, crashes, falls, mistakes can result in injury or death in a blink of an eye and with a second to react differently, the outcome would change. The first line of response must be compassion and sharing comforting words of grief. Rep Kahn has been a long time bike advocate and the little I know of her, her words should be taken in the vein of concern about the environment around this tragic crash because if there is a way to do something different or have more knowledge about something, for others, it will be a good thing. Let’s focus on the family and sharing our sadness that one of our fellow bicyclists died doing something he loved…

  5. Hokan

    The article says that the death append Tuesday. The police and coroner didn’t inform the news for several days. (I wonder why).

    What the article didn’t say, is that a witness reported that the cyclist ran a red light.

  6. Monte Castleman

    I think part of this is we’ve been conditioned to equate bicycle helmets = seat belts. Yes, there’s talk around work if there’s a bicycle crash “was the rider wearing a helmet”, but if there was someone hurt in a car crash it’s also “was the motorist wearing a seatbelt”. I of course think this isn’t an apt comparison but the thinking is out there; that a helmet is absolutely required to ride a bicycle and it’s reckless to do so without one. It’s been promoted by helmet manufacturers and bicycle shops looking to cash in (as the idea that you need specialized bicycle clothing too) as well as safety advocates. So you can’t really fault people for having a knee-jerk reaction like they do.

    1. Julie Kosbab

      On the other hand, head injuries are shit. Ask the average NFL player about that. Does it not make sense to take protective action?

      The LAB bicycle curriculum is very strong on bike helmets, as is the health insurance industry and public health experts. It’s non-invasive and an easy form of protection.

      1. Hokan

        The LAB (League of American Bicyclists) does support helmet use. They place helmets in the 5th layer of the 5-layer safety model … the least important layer. More important are: controlling ones bike; following the rules; using lane position to influence other drivers toward positive behavior, and; emergency avoidance maneuvers.

        The League does support helmet use, but acknowledge that other things are more important.

        1. Thomas Mercier

          If you’re ever interested in finding out if helmet use is important. Spend a little time with folks with traumatic brain injuries.
          It might not statistically be the most beneficial to your overall safety compared to following basic norms meant to reduce risk but like Julie said, it’s a small cost with a potentially huge return even if the risk is low. A good form of insurance if you ask me.

          1. Hokan

            The studies show that helmets do help reduce the severity of a variety of head injuries.

            Brain injuries — concussions — not so much.

            I agree that helmet use is good. It’s just not as good as some people seem to think.

  7. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    If helmets are relevant for bike deaths by vehicle, we need to ask if pedestrians killed by drivers are wearing helmets too. #consistency.

      1. Alex

        How does it help a pedestrian hit by a car if the driver is wearing a seat belt? Why isn’t there a “helmets for the elderly” campaign? (you seem to know enough about head injuries that the most common victims are elderly people who simply fall in their home)

    1. Rosa

      I have a friend who was hit by a cab turning left, just after she’d paid and gotten out.

      She was asked if she was wearing a helmet (she’s also a cyclist. But not at that moment) and then I believe several people told her she should wear brighter-colored clothes for safety.

    2. mplsjaromir

      Requiring automobile passengers to wear helmets would save far more lives than requiring bicyclists.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Sadly not. Foam bicycle helmets appear largely ineffective in preventing TBI (traumatic brain injury) or lessening concussions and other injuries. Their only benefit is likely in reducing abrasions and minor lumps. Head injuries as a percent of all bicycle injuries is approximately 30% in The Netherlands (no helmets), the U.S. (high helmet use), and Australia and Canada (where mandatory helmet laws make for near 100% use). If helmets were effective then The Netherlands should be much higher than the U.S. that should be much higher than Australia and Canada.

  8. Phil

    I swear at a recent feel good event about biking in Minneapolis within the past year or so, Phyllis Khan wanted a hand at the mic and actually had the nerve to say something on the order of: “I support biking and all that, but there are a lot of stupid bicyclists breaking rules out there and I hope they get what’s coming to them. They deserve to get hit!”

    No joke. It’s a fuzzy memory now, but she really said something along those lines.

      1. Wayne

        I’ve been pretty over cranky old Khan for a while, but this really cements it for me. FRESH BLOOD PLEASE.

        1. Peter Bajurny

          I’ve continued to vote for Khan (and in fact caucused for her) for the past… four? election cycles. Her opposition has always been hot garbage, and generally not realizing what it takes to unseat someone who’s planted her ass in a seat for 40 years. I still think she’s a mostly positive voice on a lot of issues that I care about. That’s part of the reason I egged her on on Twitter. I know she can do better.

          And now I don’t live in 60B so I can’t vote for her anymore.

          1. Wayne

            I think the fact she hasn’t had a decent challenger is the only reason she’s still keeping that seat lukewarm.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      LIke anyone, there’s good and bad things. Phyllis is the one that’s introduced the Idaho stop law for years, which is a great policy that would do a lot to “decriminalize” bicycling all over the city.

      So, you take the good with the bad. Who hasn’t said something insensitive sometimes?

      1. brad

        It’s relatively easy to introduce bills. The question is, could someone new actually get the Idaho stop law PASSED?

  9. Eddy M.

    It is a tragic story. I do not read that much into Kahn’s writing. I believe her questioning is rather a holistic view of the event, an examination of the entire accident. As many of us are aware, In regard to helmets, they offer a cyclist a statistically measurable protective effect from a head injury. But, helmets are really a small form of insurance. They do not help much in preventing neck injuries. Helmets are generally designed to prevent massive head trauma like preventing cracking open a skull. They provide minimal protection against conclusions.

    Unfortunately, accidents happen.

  10. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Phyllis is quite a dedicated cyclist. Maybe she’s thinking of introducing a bill to require helmets.

    Of course the right of way question could apply to either party, and there are right of way problems that could be addressed by the legislature affecting questions that may arise in connection with bicycle accidents that happen on sidewalks and in pedestrian crosswalks. I’m in favor of a state-wide speed limit on sidwalks (and by users of crosswalks) for all parties including pedestrians, runners, and those on rider-propelled vehicles including bicycles, skateboards, skates, etc.

      1. David MarkleDavid Markle

        (Answers to Mr. Angell:) “Sidewalk” as used in Minn Statutes. Speed? I think 6 mph would work.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Wouldn’t you want to vary it depending on conditions, just like roads? In Bloomington where most bicycles use the sidewalk and there’s very few pedestrians (I encountered two in an hour of riding today) 15 mph would be safe.

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