Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Cyclist Was Not Wearing a Helmet!

Should helmet use be mandatory? I often see the debate online.

But the fact is, helmet use is already criminalized in almost every country on the face of the Earth, not by law but by the media. How often do we see news reports of cyclist deaths which state, in condemning tones: "The cyclist was not wearing a helmet"? Such articles seem to suggest that death or serious injury are appropriate penalties for such a 'crime'.

Since this is the case, any cyclist who refuses to wear a helmet should be aware that, no matter how innocent, competent and law-abiding he is on a bicycle, if he gets injured or killed in a collision on the road, he will be deemed guilty in the court of public opinion. It doesn't matter whether the driver who hit him was drunk, texting, talking on his cellphone, high on drugs, etc.: cyclists who don't wear helmets deserve death.

Sadly, that's the main reason I always wear a helmet. It has little to do with safety, and everything to do with PR. If I ever get killed on my bike, I do not want the newspapers to suggest that the death sentence was appropriate.

So I advise every cyclist to wear a helmet. Make sure it's comfortable, make sure it's cheap. Safety comes a distant third, because let's face it - the chances of sustaining a life-threatening head injury when you take your bike out for a ride are a couple of million to one against, and if you do happen to be in an accident, the jury is still out on whether a helmet even does much to help. It probably does, but it would for a car driver too, and how many of them wear helmets? Car accidents are more likely than cyclist accidents to involve head injuries, but how often do we see news reports of motorist deaths that say "The driver was not wearing a helmet"? Never.

So wear a helmet. In an accident it will undoubtedly save your reputation even though it might not save your life.


  1. Wearing a helmet because of fear for your reputation is no more logical than others' fear of riding a bike because of fear of death! In fact, the odds justifying your argument are even worse!

    At the top of each blog page, you quote: "If American bicycle advocacy leaders had championed the civil rights movement, the "Dream" would have been reserved seating in the back of the bus." Yet on the helmet issue, you advise cyclists to sit quietly at the back of the bus, to protect their reputation in case the racists choose to beat them up.

    I ride responsibly and safely without a helmet, because I'm determined to show that biking is normal. And I know there's only a one-in-many-millions chance that either of us will need to protect our dead reputations.

  2. If you die, once the news reports insinuate that you caused your death by not wearing a helmet, your family might disagree with your decision. Once you're dead, you may not care how you're characterized in the press, but I guarantee your loved ones will.

    Perception is not always about logic. It's usually about emotion. That's why people fear the road. Logically, the road is the safest place to cycle, yet fearful cyclists avoid it. Perception is what makes police and reporters focus on the helmet as 'causing a crash' - it's not logical, but it's how the real world works.

    Logic leads me to wear the helmet based on its comfort, its cheapness and its possible (though miniscule) positive effects. Other people's bias also makes it logical for me to wear it, because in the very unlikely event that I get killed on the road, my family will have enough to deal with without having to be frustrated by stupid reporters telling them that I should have been helmeted.

    If wearing the helmet was any kind of burden, you might have a point. But putting it on takes a second, and in my case it holds my mirror, which IS an important safety factor for me.

  3. Your logic doesn't wash. If you really wore a helmet because it's comfortable, cheap, and has possible miniscule protective effects, you would wear it when you were not biking. It doesn't get more expensive when you're walking, driving or climbing ladders, and because of lack of exertion, its less uncomfortable than when biking, and those activities are at least as productive of head injuries.

    And you said, correctly, that the odds of dying on the bike are millions to one against. It follows that the odds of dying on the bike plus having your dead reputation ruined are even worse.

    I think you're fooling yourself about your motivations. Your own math and logic make that clear. And whatever your motivations, they cause you to abet the injustices levied on cyclists whose logic is actually better, and who thus choose to ride without the foam talisman.

    1. You're not understanding my point.

      I wear a helmet because if I don't and I get killed or injured, I'll be blamed in the media, just as Gene Hackman was when he got knocked off his bike the other day. If I'm not wearing one when I fall down the stairs, or when I'm in a car, no media will ever report "he was not wearing a helmet".

      I say that people should ensure a helmet is comfortable. I say it has potential protective effects - but I don't argue that those are 'reasons' to wear a helmet - they are merely reasons to be okay with wearing one. As I say in the article, safety has very little to do with it. Comfort is only an issue if you decide to wear one.

      I think you are falling under the misapprehension that I'm an advocate for helmet use for reasons of safety. I am not. I am an advocate for helmet use for reasons of PR. There is a huge difference.

    2. Let me be clear:

      The risk of being killed on a bicycle on any commute is about 1 in 3,000,000. The chances of being criticized for riding without a helmet on a commute are probably about 1 in 1. If I get criticized for not wearing a helmet, it makes me and every other cyclist less safe because people will find it easier to demonize us. This is why I wear a helmet.