Do Bike Helmets Do More Harm Than Good?

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Every time I learn of another tragic Brooklyn cycling accident, I think, “I really need to strap on the helmet—every time.” Especially when there’s a hit-and-run mere blocks from my front door. The nearer the threat the realer it feels. Similarly, each Ghost Bike I come across is another bright white smack upside the head.

But maybe I’m paranoid? And maybe my fear perpetuates the danger?

That’s what Elisabeth Reosenthal seems to suggest in an article in the Times last weekend. Particularly, she focuses on how helmets interfere with city bike-sharing programs. Helmets, she argues, promote an “unjustified sense of danger.” The idea goes something like this: helmets = (unjust) fear = less cycling = lack of infrastructure = danger.

But riding in New York can be scary. Between gaping potholes and rain-slick roads, rush-hour traffic and parked-car doors relentlessly swinging into bike lanes, and pedestrians who wander across the street with eyes glued to their phones, it’s a minor miracle any of us get around unscathed—especially for those who abhor helmet-hair. That’s how it feels sometimes, anyway.

Rosenthal extols successful European Bike Shares (Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen) where seemingly everyone rides safe and sound without headgear. In the U.S., she says, “Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke.”

Hopefully, the NYC Bike Share program launching next spring will inspire new cyclists and kickstart more bike paths or even—dare I hope?—cycling highways like they have in Europe. Until then, I’ll take the helmet ‘do. For the most part, anyway.

3 Comment

  • Biking’s not going to be safe in this city until (a) bike lanes are separated by more than a painted line on the street from vehicular traffic, (b) the traffic laws are changed to give cyclists the right of way at every intersection (meaning cars can’t turn right or left in front of cyclists going through an intersection), and (c) the NYPD starts ticketing cars that endanger cyclists.

  • I can fully agree with Greg on this one. As a biker who has biked in New York City for 3 years and Amsterdam for 1, the reason places like Amsterdam are so safe is because cyclists have so much more legal, cultural and infrastructural protection than in New York.

  • Any objective look at accident and mortality statistics from anywhere in the world shows that cycling is no more dangerous than many other mundane tasks such as stepping into a shower or crossing a street, but “safety experts” and lawmakers constantly vilifying cycling without a helmet in some countries has led to the unfortunate situation where cycling is actually considered to be a dangerous activity and to many, some kind of extreme sport in which the participants are somehow deemed to be reckless and less deserving of road space and respect from the general (majority motoring) public.

    Consequently, these unfortunate countries suffer from lower cycling rates, higher rates of motor vehicle congestion, reduced levels of overall health and a much higher toll of death and injury to cyclists per mile/kilometre of travel when compared to countries where helmet free cycling is accepted as a normal mode of transport.

    Although one would assume with so many people claiming helmets are critical to saving lives that cycling would be a far safer transport option in those countries with a strong or compulsory helmet wearing culture, yet the reality is that the more cyclists wear helmets, the more dangerous the activity actually becomes for all cyclists.