Before I begin, I want to be clear: I’m not telling any bicyclist they shouldn’t wear a helmet. If you like wearing a helmet, I fully support you. However, if you are the type of person who scolds others for choosing not to wear one, then it may be time to reconsider the efficacy of your arguments.
I believe that the only real danger to the average cyclist is being hit by a car, and bike helmets are not designed to help you in that scenario. Now I’m no expert, but I do ride my bikes thousands of miles each year, in all weather—on city streets, country roads and everything in between. In all that time, the only injuries I’ve sustained have been the result of being struck by drivers.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Eric Richter, former brand manager at Giro, said it himself: “We do not design helmets specifically to reduce chances or severity of injury when impacts involve a car.” Bike helmets are really designed to protect against falls, not collisions. If you are on a mountain bike or competing in a race, then a helmet is clearly a good choice. But for those of us casually riding on city streets, the chance of falling on our heads is slim to none.
If we want to address the issue of how cars impact cyclists, there are far more effective ways to do that than simply advocating for helmets. A few examples that would significantly reduce the chances of injury:
- Protected bike lanes.
- Reducing the number of trucks and SUVs on the road.
- Safe riding tactics, like avoiding the “door zone.”
The clearest indicator that infrastructure is the solution can be seen in the rate of helmet use compared to the rate of fatalities by country.
You can see there isn’t a strong correlation between helmet use and fatalities, but if one exists it appears that lower helmet use correlates to reduced traffic fatalities. Now, obviously, taking your helmet off won’t magically make cars avoid you, but if you examine which countries perform the best on this chart, they are the ones with the most bike-friendly streets and the highest ridership.
More people on bikes is a good thing for our cities. I think we can all agree on that. But many people who could ride a bike still choose to drive. While there are many reasons for this, I think one of the biggest barriers is the perceived inconvenience of riding a bike.
The average person doesn’t want to dress for their commute; they want to dress for their destination. If they believe that they need a helmet, clip-in shoes and high-vis Lycra, they will simply choose to drive instead. I could likely write an entire separate article about this, but suffice it to say that I always bike in the same clothes that I would wear if I were walking or riding transit. If I had to bring special cycling gear everywhere I went, I would be far less likely to ride my bike at all.
I’ve also heard many people, including my own mother, say that wearing a helmet and messing up their hair is an absolute non-starter. Just the idea of arriving at your destination and needing to lug around a helmet with you everywhere you go is enough for most people to choose the simpler option: driving.
Lastly, I want to talk about what may be a sensitive topic for some people. I am not trying to offend anybody. I have many friends who are avid cyclists and wear all of the gear all of the time. But I think the general public has a real negative perception of cyclists partly because of what some cyclists wear. These people believe that cycling is a hobby, not a legitimate form of transportation, and that any bike-specific infrastructure is a waste of time, money and space.
As a year-round utility cyclist myself—and someone who doesn’t own a car—I think it is of utmost importance to demonstrate to the world that riding a bike is for everyone, not just middle-class, middle-aged men in Lycra. Wearing cycling gear makes it very easy for drivers to otherize us, because they can’t ever see themselves dressed like that.
Look no further than the rising popularity of electric scooters. I would argue that scooters are much less convenient and less safe than bikes, but I see “regular” people riding them all the time, almost always without helmets. There is no built-in bias against scooter riders in the same way there is against cyclists.
Telling someone that I am a cyclist feels slightly embarrassing in much the same way as saying you are vegan. Obviously there is nothing wrong with being either, but society tends to ascribe an entire personality onto those labels instead of taking them at face value. Conversely, nobody ever describes themselves as a “scooterist” because their preferred mode of transportation doesn’t define their entire personality. They are just seen as people trying to get to their destination. Drivers shouldn’t see us as “cyclists”; they should see us as “people riding bikes,” and dressing like “people” instead of “cyclists” goes a long way toward that goal.
Again, I am not telling anyone that they shouldn’t wear a helmet. But if you see someone riding a bike without one, instead of telling them they are being irresponsible, celebrate the fact that there is one less car on the road.