[This article also ran in Checkerboard City, John Greenfield's weekly column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]
Last summer when I visited Copenhagen, I hung out with with Mikael Colville-Andersen, one of the world’s most influential and controversial bicycle advocates, in his lush back yard while his kids practiced soccer and picked flowers. Colville-Andersen heads the consulting firm Copenhagenize, advising politicians, planners and advocates on ways to copy the success of the bike-friendly Danish capital, but he’s probably better known for his wildly popular photo blog, Copenhagen Cycle Chic.
Among the many topics we discussed was his attitude toward bike helmets. He thinks they’re totally unnecessary for urban commuting, and he believes that promoting helmet use is actually counterproductive to making cycling safer. In northern European bicycle meccas like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, more than a third of all trips are made by bike, almost nobody wears a helmet, and yet injury rates are much lower than in the United States, where lots of people wear helmets.
One reason crashes are relatively rare in these cities is the safety-in-numbers factor. There are so many cyclists in these places that drivers are always looking out for them, and wouldn’t dream of making a right turn or opening a car door without first checking that the coast is clear. And part of the reason there are so many people on bikes is because cycling feels so safe that strapping a Styrofoam and plastic shell on your head really does seem superfluous.
Colville-Andersen doesn’t have a problem with folks choosing to wear helmets if it makes them feel safer. But he argues that, in the long run, cycling with no helmet is a lot better for your health than not biking at all. “In Europe … we want to get more people onto bikes,” he says. “You really sense that in America the general focus is getting people into helmets.”
It’s easy for Colville-Andersen to say that helmets are unnecessary when he lives in a pedaler’s paradise. Copenhagen cyclists never have to share the road with high-speed traffic. Virtually all major streets have raised bicycle lanes, elevated a few inches above the roadway, and neighborhood streets are designed so that cars must travel at a mellow speed.
Things are different here in Chicago and other North American cities where biking is relatively rare and fast, reckless, distracted and/or drunk driving is common. Ask Dustin Valenta, who was doored by one motorist in Wicker Park last February, then run over by a second who fled the scene. Miraculously, he survived, but he suffered a cracked skull and vertebrae, broken shoulder blades and pelvis, twenty-three fractured ribs and a punctured lung.
Or talk to Justin Carver, who’s making an amazing recovery from serious brain damage, after being “left-hooked” in Berwyn last December by a teenage driver who tested positive for marijuana. Their cases are a sobering reminder that even if you’re doing everything right on a bike, you could be the victim of someone else’s dangerous behavior, suggesting that it’s a good idea to wear a helmet while biking Chicago-area streets.