To Helmet or not to Helmet?

One of the powerful impressions I brought home from Amsterdam was that no one wears a bicycle helmet.

The message that sends is that cycling is a safe activity.

Does our culture’s insistence on helmets send the opposite message? Should I stop wearing my helmet to symbolize my conviction that cycling is a safe mode of transportation for everyday use? I know one Metro Councilor who has taken this approach (and another who wears his helmet assiduously).

On the other hand, we don’t have the infrastructure or culture that the Netherlands has.

Not one who leaps to judgement, I decided to experiment. On my bike/bus commute to work, I left the helmet home for a couple of trips.

My first reaction is that this let me wear a hat instead, which was much more helpful with current weather.

And most of the time I felt pretty comfortable.

But on the stretch of my commute that takes me down Barbur Blvd, I felt a little exposed, particularly on one rainy, dark late afternoon when I knew I wasn’t as visible to the drivers (yes, I have lights).

So here’s my tenative conclusion: when I’m just riding around the central city or on neighborhood streets, I’m going to give myself permission to leave the helmet at home.

If my trip is going to involve mingling with arterial traffic however, I’m going to wear my helmet.

What do you think, should I have my head examined?


18 responses to “To Helmet or not to Helmet?”

  1. While it is nice to have a goal of becoming as bicycle-friendly as the Netherlands, the truth is we are not. Just wear the helmet. The odds are that if it turns out it was a mistake not to wear it, you probably won’t get the chance to learn from it. All it takes is one spill on your head, and you’re dead.

  2. “If my trip is going to involve mingling with arterial traffic however, I’m going to wear my helmet.”

    In southwest, most decent bicycling options are on main arterials. Consequently, most bicyclists in southwest wear helmets.

    On the the inner east side, I see many people who don’t wear helmets and it probably isn’t all that unsafe.

  3. I wear my warm hat under my helmet.

    Helmet-wearing is an interesting excercise in risk taking — risk taking which has been studied by game theorists, psychologists, economists, etc. Often our society misestimates actual danger and risk, due to media hype, etc.

    It’s interesting that the PR around bike helmet wearing has taken off (media reports often mention whether cyclists were wearing helmets), but not other modes. For example, we’d save a lot more lives if pedestrians, drivers, and car passengers wore helmets instead of (ok, in addition to) bicyclists.

    On the other hand, the odds of surviving a bicycle crash are increased dramatically if you’re wearing a helmet. Talking with emergency room doctors, nurses, and friends, there are plenty of anecdotes about people being harmed, or not, because of helmet use.

    That said, I bet the best thing you can do is be aware and ride defensively, often avoiding the crash in the first place.

  4. I’ll echo the ‘ride defensively’ part. The scary part of my experience in the rain on Barbur – specifically the two short bridges where the bike lane goes away – is that I knew I had no defensive options in those stetches.

  5. My wife, a German who used to ride a bike all over Frankfurt, refuses to wear a helmet…”you Americans overdue everything!”, etc. But she pretty much keeps to neighborhood streets in NE Portland when on her bike…no arterials.
    As I kid I rode a bike all over SW Portland….Multnomah to Hillsdale to Lewis & Clark College…as well as on some long trips down the coast and to Canada…no helmet.
    The first helmet I ever wore was for my first downhill ski race…luckily I crashed.
    But I wear a helmet now…why push my luck. I wear a seat belt too when behind the wheel. When the day comes that I can ride a bike from NE Portland to Swan Island without risk of “playing tag” with a car or worse, then I’ll be happy to relax and cast off the helmut. Let’s get the bike network built, signed, recognized and honored, then we can talk about helmets.

  6. I’m generally not too worried about colliding with a car while riding my bike. But I’m with Lenny, why take a chance? Alexei Kivalev was a top pro bike racer until a few years ago when he took a low speed tumble after bumping into a fellow rider. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, landed on his head and died.

    Cycling is a safe activity, I feel. But there’s a certain degree of vulnerablity present while you’re riding, cars or no cars.

  7. Well, when my roomate was killed on his bicycle in graduate school, the crash happened one block from home on a residential street. He didn’t have a helmet on. There is a certain level of wonderment within me today that asks whether he would still be alive if he had a helmet on.

    I like the new rain cover I got for my helmet this year. It’s got reflectors all the way around it, is made of Gore-Tex that is incredible breathable. It keeps my head warm and dry and was $20.

  8. I’ve been wearing a helmet since I began riding seriously in the early 1970s. I was probably the only person in my Junior High who regularly wore a helmet (an early MSR). My willingness to overlook the subsequent teasing was the result of couple of head-plants in races and a rather nasty head-butt I gave one 1971 VW Beetle when he turned in front of me. I still think helmets are a good idea.

    Plus, for adults to go helmet-less sets a bad example for kids under the age of 16 who are legally required to wear one.

  9. I think we should all be wearing helmets and if I wasn’t so chickensh*t I’d suggest it to my fellow cyclists as we passed each other on the street.

    I’m sure I’m not alone in having stories of friends who have been hit by cars. Luckily, my stories are of friends who are alive because of helmets. My friend Kristin had a guy run over her on her bike. I saw the tire marks on her back a month after the crash. She credits her helmet with being alive. The good folks at OHSU told one of the volunteers that I work with that he’s alive because of his helmet.

    I don’t mean to sound like a ‘this is your brain on drugs’ PSA, but if you believe that we should be forced to wear seat belts, I don’t see how you can argue that we shouldn’t legally be required to wear helmets on our bikes.

    Thanks to the crash maps that Greg Raisman at PDOT has compiled, statistically it would seem that Chris would be relatively safe not wearing his helmet on neighborhood rides. Then again, I ride by the bike art installation/memorial at SE 36th and Salmon where the cyclist was killed, which is a pretty residential street, and I’m always reminded to be a bit more careful.

    Plus we all look super sexy in bike helmets. Lycra is tame by comparison.

  10. i think of my helmet as a sun hat with a strap to keep it from blowing off, or when covered as a rain and wind (and sun) hat. it’s a handy place to put a blinkie, and bright colors on that big high-placed foam block let me slack off on the whole grease-stained fluorescent wardrobe approach. i do believe that visibility is overall more important to staying alive than the pathetic amount of impact protection actually afforded by helmets in collisions with arterial-speed vehicles. so you don’t have to kowtow to the dubious fear-addled talismanic thing about helmets saving your skull from trucks: you can take the gentler “more visible all-weather hat” line. i do leave off the helmet sometimes for close errands, and i ride with even more caution than usual then. i think that puts me out ahead of an even slightly overconfident helmet wearer.

  11. “We don’t have the infrastructure or culture that the Netherlands has.”

    And we don’t have a big, flat country or socialized medicine, either. Any kind of hat is of some help. I like to wear sunglasses, too, in case a low hanging branch comes my way. If a bicycle should have two wheels then I should have two eyes.

  12. I wear a helmet because I believe that they help. However, I have seen a study that looks at the rate of fatalities per bicycle accident that suggests that this might not be the case. If helmets help lessen catastrophic injury in the event of a crash, then you would expect that the fatality rate would go down as helmet use became more widespread. This is not, in fact, the case. Helmet use has increased dramatically in the last 15 years, but the fatality rate per accident has as well. Furthermore, in countries that have mandated helmet use (such as Australia), bicycle ridership has dramatically decreased.

    There are several possible explanations for the correlation between helmet use and the increased fatality rate. One is that improperly worn helmets present a strangulation risk. Another is that, consciously or not, people are more willing to take additional risks when they feel they are protected by their helmets. A third possibility is that the last 15 years has also seen a rise in average vehicle height and weight due to the popularity of SUV’s. There is enough contrary thought on the subject, though, that I prefer to let individuals make their own decisions on the matter.

  13. Horray for ‘come-as-your-are’ bicycling!
    I appreciate Chris’ cultural observations and tentative personal conclusion. I personally dont wear a helmet, and I do understand that this is a dangerous undertaking in our car culture. I hold nothing against those who want to wear one. But please dont shout at me/legislate helmet wearing.

    I lived/worked in Amsterdam for a year, and for the Dutch getting on ones bike is even more simple and routine than putting your shoes on in the morning. This perspective to bikes is what makes Holland such a great bike culture. Putting on a helmet to bicycle in Holland would be like putting on a helmet to drive in the United States.

    And why dont people put on a helmet when they drive? Isn’t driving the biggest killer in the US? I bet if people wore a helmet when they drove, auto related fatalities would decrease. Im not kidding. But that would be seen as rediculous, wouldn’t it? You know what, I think I’ll start wearing a helmet when I get in a car to communicate the real dangers within our culture.

    The cultural lens in which the Dutch view the bicycle is so fantastic and ubiquitous. Every type of person rides their bike as they are: women in dresses, men in business suits, lawyers, doctors, tailors, homeless. The bikes are so simple there too. Here people get all decked out just to ride a couple miles to work. This is fine, but I think its important for Portland to have a paradigm shift in their lens on bikes if we are ever to be a great bicycling city such as Groningen. I’d love to see people here jump on their bikes in every type of attire.

    Indeed it has been this spirit that constitutes the driving force behind Portlands creative bicycle culture. And it is this culture that has been probably the biggest contributor to bike visibility/power in Portland.

    For bicycles to be the simple transportation tools that they are, people should see just themselves (& their own uniqueness) as the only requirement. Neon jump suit, helmet, spandex, etc., not required.

    Go head and wear your helmet, but please dont make it a law or it will kill bicycling – like it seems to have in Australia. Just think of legislation forcing creative artists and bike mutant chunk 666-ers to wear helmets. What a type-A top-down nightmare! (no offense to those respective groups)

    Anyhow, just my two long-winded cents here. I’d like to see more humanity when I walk out the door. Art cars and people on bicycles. Comon’ who doesnt know who Dingo Dizmal, Reverand Phil, & Extremo the clown are, amoung many others? Im no exentric, but I ride as I am. Often Americas streets are like watching a monotonous conveyer belt on a Ford assembly line. Ug.

  14. I too spent time riding a bicycle in Amsterdam and other parts of the Netherlands this year. My wife and I spent 2 weeks on a Bike & Barge Holland Tour We had a wonderful time–sans helmets…

    We did get some comments from our American counterparts about our alleged neglegence for safety since we had three kids waiting for us back in Portland. However, we felt liberated and not at all out of place without our helmets. It reminded me of the countless miles I spent riding around my hometown as a boy on my bmx bike, then on my “12 speed” with my lawnmower-hauling utility trailer behind.

    Yes, the culture is different there. I do wear my seatbelt and I do wear my helmet on my commute to work. …and we are less likely to die if in an accident while wearing a helmet, but I strongly agree with nate’s post above: “But please dont shout at me/legislate helmet wearing.” Thats the last thing we need is more laws like the seatbelt law.

  15. Observed in San Francisco (Weds, 11/23):

    –Ten bicyclists riding on Market St – one wore a helmet.
    –13 bicyclists riding on the Golden Gate Bridge – all wore helmets.

    My take: the Market St bicyclists use their bikes for transportation. They’re urban, streetsmart, and don’t feel the need to wear protective gear.

    The Golden Gate bicyclists use their bikes for recreation or sport. Some may be highly skilled, but they prefer protective gear.

  16. I think cycling *is* a safe mode of transportation for everyday use. How often in my last few years of bicycle commuting have I really had use for a helmet? Only once or twice. You know, not all that much more often than I’ve really had use for a seatbelt while in a car.

    But head injuries are very, very expensive. Wearing a helmet and buckling a seatbelt is cheap. And since there’s not a spare brain waiting for me in the organ bank, well, I’ll be cheap.

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