More to Bicycle Safety than Helmets, Redux

By Kenneth Moyle
Published June 30, 2011

Two days ago, a child was struck by a car on a city street - the second time an accident involving a child on a bike and car was reported in less than one week. The boy was in critical condition on the day of the accident and we can only hope and pray that the young fellow will pull through.

The Spectator, in the second sentence of their report, tells us that "the boy ... was not wearing a helmet". We are told nothing about his injuries or the impact, nor of the possible relevance of his not wearing a helmet.

The article also quotes Hamilton Police Sgt. Terri-Lynn Collings:

"It is the parents' responsibility to ensure that any child under 16 is wearing a bicycle helmet," she said, adding police believe everyone who rides a bike should wear one.

Last week, when a child ran into a car (and was more-or-less okay), we were similarly told that the child wasn't wearing a helmet, though there was no indication that he had head injuries.

For some twenty years now, we have been hearing the loud and persistent (and in some cases legislated) mantra: "wear a bike helmet!" It seems that we have come to feel that wearing a helmet is the beginning and ending of cycling safety.

So when a cyclist is in an accident, the first thing we ask is: "was he wearing a helmet?" If he wasn't? Well, as absurd as it sounds at first blush, I believe we have been conditioned to conclude, "I guess it's his own fault, then."

If the police and the media are serious about cycling and cycling safety, they need to stop telling us about helmets unless it seems likely that not wearing a helmet contributed to an injury.

Otherwise, they are just perpetuating the *all that matters is that you wear a helmet* myth and implying that a helmet would have made a difference - and allowing us to draw the inevitable conclusion when the cyclist wasn't doing that sole, important thing.

Kenneth Moyle is an analyst at McMaster University, sometime photographer and occasional writer. He has come to love Hamilton. His website is


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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2011 at 16:08:44

And heaven help you if you were listening to an iPod.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2011 at 17:04:42

In all of the discussions about safety...pedestrian, cyclist, driver...we seem to be straining against things, some seen, some unseen, some forgotten. Because of the basic starting point of 'The RTH Philosophy', that of walkability, of humane, urban living, because of the vision that some/many/most here seem sincere about moving towards, often I sense that there are background truths that just...get...ignored. And what's frustrating to me is that I get the feeling that the same mindset that vehicular-centric people have ('That's just the way it is, don't bother trying to tell me how to behave/order my life/live my life') gets adopted by those on the other side of the fence.

The world has changed a lot in the past thirty years. We're far more detached from it. At least when we're walking through it. Walkmans...cell phones...iPods... People purposefully and willfully detach themselves from their own environment. And given that it's an inherently dangerous world out there (and will remain so as long as the car-centric paradigm prevails, and those who mandate priorities continue to weight things as they have in Hamilton for the past five decades), it seems folly to me for people to take this approach. And yet they do. Constantly. They abrogate their responsibility, and then effect high dudgeon when things go awry.

It's folly to ride a bike without a helmet, regardless of my age. (And while I'm at it, as a former bike technician/salesperson, the number of times I've seen people with their chin straps adjusted other words, rendering the efficacy of the helmet null and enough to elicit a permanent cringe.)

It's folly for me to ride a bike and believe that in doing so, I've got special powers that allow me to bend traffic laws, have things all my way...and invoke the 'Drivers are all asshats anyway!' response.

It's folly to me to ride a skateboard in the street. (But then, I'm not a teenager, I don't subconsciously regard myself as immortal, and my brain is fully developed, so I'm a little more sensible about risk-taking.)

It's folly for me not to take seriously the inherent dangers of venturing into the street...even at crosswalks.

And yet there seems to be this general tendency that I'm compelled to connect with the great scourge of the 21st century -entitlement- that renders so many people foolish. Or, folly-rich.

This morning I almost got hit...on the a driver coming out of his apartment building parking lot. Mostly because, as many drivers are guilty of, he didn't check for pedestrian traffic. Didn't even give a glance my way.

Yesterday I sat and watched an adult cyclist travelling down a sidewalk, clearly wanting to take advantage of unfettered and unobstructed 'pedestrian' status, who had an altercation with someone entering traffic...because like it or not, cyclist movement registers entirely differently on the road than it does on the sidewalk. Naturally, the cyclist believed that they were in the right. (They weren't.)

Until we migrate farther along the continuum that involves the safety and welfare of pedestrians, cyclists, automobiles and trucks, we need to leave behind our arrogance and use our grey matter a little more diligently. After all, being 'right' is no accomplishment if it also involves being dead.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2011 at 18:33:56 in reply to Comment 65441

Well written. I agree with your points and only wish that I could have expressed myself so well.

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By FatalFourWay (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2011 at 18:03:14

I bet a few of you smug bloggers could be put in a Sharp Shooter if you disagree with this:

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2011 at 21:03:34 in reply to Comment 65448

What that video doesn't tell you is the number (millions?) of similar fall victims who don't wear helmets and still walk away without a having stroke. If you live your life in fear of the most unlikely of catastrophes, you may as well live in a bubble. It is statistically more likely to get a head injury falling in the shower. Do you wear a shower helmet?

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted July 03, 2011 at 10:16:33 in reply to Comment 65456

99.9% of the time you don't need a seatbelt either.

The problem is that if you do fall, your head is essentially whipped towards the ground when your shoulder hits.

For the minor discomfort of wearing a lid I'll take the protection it offers.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted July 04, 2011 at 12:15:15 in reply to Comment 65491

Seatbelts have been proven to help rather than hinder in almost every collision situation. There was some backlash against seatbelts initially, by people who were concerned about being trapped in a burning car, but studies and real world data have shown that the benefit of seatbelt use vastly outweighs the slight possibility of being in a situation where it is a drawback.

The bike helmet story is much less straightforward. The tests under which helmets are certified are very simple straight-on-the-noggin bumps. Glancing blows, neck twisting, and whiplash style impacts (the kind that you use as an example in your own words above) are NOT tested, and independent tests have shown that a helmet could worsen concussions in many types of falls.

Beyond that, helmet manufacturers explicitly warn that the devices are NOT meant to reduce injury in collisions involving other vehicles. In other words, they are designed, tested, and certified solely to protect you from falling straight into the ground at low speed with no other vehicle involved.

The simple fact is that helmets are a red herring when it comes to cyclist safety when riding at normal speeds in mixed traffic.

Beyond the chance of a helmet actually causing physical injury (and I freely admit that it is just a chance), there is a huge social detriment to the stigma of helmet use - and this is not just a chance, it is real. And it is made much worse when helmet use is mandated by the government.

First, helmet use perpetuates the false idea that cycling itself is inherently dangerous. In reality, it is no more dangerous than walking or taking a shower, and is much safer than driving. The real danger for cyclists is CARS.

Rather than mandating helmet use for cyclists, we should be pushing for safer streets for cyclists (and by extension, pedestrians). This could be as simple as changing the laws, but should be accompanied by physical changes to our roads as well.

Rather than putting the onus on cyclists to wear protective gear to prevent injury from the inevitable collision, we should be passing laws that put more responsibility on drivers in avoiding the collisions to begin with. The current approach is akin to mandatory bullet proof vest laws in lieu of gun control laws. It simply makes no sense.

Here are some simple ideas that would be virtually free:

  • increase sentences for drivers at fault in collisions with cyclists - this can include larger fines, license suspensions and even jail time.

  • higher fines for driving infractions in the presence of cyclists (similar to "speed fines doubled in construction zones with workers present" or "community safety zone, fines increased". all infracions should be doubled when a car is within a certain distance of a cyclist.

  • a minimum passing distance law - 3 feet for passing cyclists.

All of these are easy, law based solutions that do not require changing physical infrastructure nor special gear requirements for vulnerable road users.

Keep in mind also, that cars come with seatbelts (and headlights, and horns, etc). For cyclists, every step toward safety is at additional retail cost. Bike helmets are BIG BUSINESS. Would you pay $70 for a styrofoam cooler? Where does tha majority of that $70 go to when you purchase a styrofoam hat from a bike shop which contains the same material as a helmet? How much of this is R&D and how much is profit? Why does no one ask these questions?

Blind faith in bike helmets is dangerous.

Be careful out there!

Comment edited by seancb on 2011-07-04 12:19:14

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By TnT (registered) | Posted July 06, 2011 at 00:27:26 in reply to Comment 65511

You think maybe Mr Hart suffered a stroke because he took too many piledrivers in the ring and not from a little fall from his bike.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 04, 2011 at 23:48:42 in reply to Comment 65511

Thank you for that.

More hate, more blame, and another complete lack of actual solutions.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted July 03, 2011 at 20:04:50 in reply to Comment 65491

99.9% of the time you don't need a seatbelt either. The problem is that if you do fall, your head is essentially whipped towards the ground when your shoulder hits.

I disagree with importance of the second part of the statement above, having fallen of my bike several times and never having come close to hitting my head - but that's not really the issue here.

I'm not arguing that helmets are useless or should not be worn. I'm arguing that the emphasis on helmets is a distraction at best and, in fact, a misdirection of effort and attention.

We should be trying to make cycling safer and more popular, not just saying "wear your helmet!" and then gauging the level of responsibility of cyclists based on their helmetedness.

There are many things I would want to know about a driver other than "does she wear a seatbelt?" before I would say that she is safe driver. Similarly, we often assume that a helmet makes for a good and safe cyclist. But I insist that a helmet is sixth or seventh thing you would ask about a cyclist in order to gauge his safety to himself and others.

Comment edited by moylek on 2011-07-03 21:50:50

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted July 04, 2011 at 11:50:34 in reply to Comment 65497

I've never fallen myself and needed a helmet, but I have enough friends who have that I never question the need for one.

That being said, I fully agree that wearing a helmet doesn't by definition make you a safe rider, nor does not wearing a helmet make you a dangerous rider.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted June 30, 2011 at 22:28:03 in reply to Comment 65456

*Checks if his bike helmet is waterproof.*

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 30, 2011 at 23:14:27

A bike helmet might save your life. Or it might not - there's a hundred ways to die on a bike ride that a helmet won't protect you from. Similarly, riding without a helmet won't necessarily mean your death (I've seen it!). If you're riding safely and people around you driving/walking/cycling safely, it shouldn't be necessary. Unfortunately, sometimes it is.

Our streets are not safe. This has nothing to do with cyclists, and wouldn't change even if every single cyclist set out with a helmet tomorrow. This has, in part, to do with the behaviour of drivers, as well as the layout of our streets. Everyone is at risk, from people on skateboards to mobility scooters. Until this is addressed, we won't be safe, no matter how much armour we wear.

As far as my own judgement of driver failure goes, I like to apply the "stroller test". If an accident or near-accident happens when the other party (car, bike, skater, pedestrian, myself etc) is doing something totally unexpected or unwise, that's one thing. But what if it had been a parent with a stroller in a totally expected place/situation? Would they have been able to stop in time? If not, then they were not driving safely. Sadly, all too often, I see people fail this test.

As far as cycling goes - we have a responsibility too. I have no problem admitting that. Ride on the road, signal your turns, and be as predictable as you can. And just as the fact that you're on a bike doesn't make you "wrong" (as drivers so often scream), it doesn't make you automatically "right" either.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted July 04, 2011 at 16:54:30 in reply to Comment 65463

And just as the fact that you're on a bike doesn't make you "wrong" (as drivers so often scream), it doesn't make you automatically "right" either.

I think Ryan should give out 'RTH Saliency Awards'. This one would be one of my nominations for June.

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By FatalFourWay (anonymous) | Posted July 04, 2011 at 21:52:03

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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