Advocates: Let’s Shift Focus From Pushing Bike Helmets to Preventing Crashes
[Last year the Chicago Reader launched a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]
The bike helmet debate stirs strong emotions. Many of us have heard stories of people who suffered traumatic brain injuries after being struck by a motorist while biking without a helmet. It’s also common to hear testimony from people who believe that wearing protective headgear made the difference between life or death during a crash.
For example, in December 2012, Justin Carver, a friend of a friend of mine, was biking home from his library job in the western suburbs. As he rode through a Berwyn intersection with the light, he was struck by a left-turning teenage driver who failed to yield, and who later tested positive for marijuana.
Carver, who was wearing a helmet, sustained damage to his frontal lobe as well as injuries to much of the left side of his body. Although he became a father a year ago, he still uses a wheelchair and has major cognitive challenges.
“I have to imagine the helmet lessened the impact,” Carver’s wife, Kim, told me shortly after the crash. “I believe that if he didn’t have his helmet on it could have been over instantly.”
On the other hand, there are many people—even mainstream American bike advocates—who say helmets aren’t necessary for all kinds of riding.
Gabe Klein, Chicago’s former transportation chief, caught flak last fall for being photographed for Washingtonian magazine in a D.C. bike lane, astride a Capital Bikeshare bike, bareheaded.
“I purposely don’t wear helmets now in photo shoots,” Klein said in a follow-up article. “I would never ride my fixed-gear [bicycle] in mixed traffic, my mountain bike off-road, or my racing bike without a helmet,” he continued, “but when traveling at slow speeds in bike lanes, helmetless riding is quite safe.”
Denmark-based Mikael Colville-Andersen, a polarizing figure who runs the transportation consulting firm Copenhagenize as well as the influential photo blog Copenhagen Cycle Chic, takes this position several steps further. Not only is special headgear is totally unnecessary for urban commuting, he argues, but helmet use sends a message that cycling is dangerous, and can discourage others from riding. He’s been known to brand the companies that sell helmets, and government and media figures who promote them, “fearmongers.”
Of course, it’s easy for Colville-Andersen to argue that helmets are superfluous when he lives in a city where bicycle infrastructure is first-rate, more than a third of all trips are made by bike, the rate of cycling injuries and fatalities is extremely low, and helmet use is rare.
The question of whether helmets are necessary for everyday commuting is far more complex in a city like Chicago. Here, less than 2 percent of trips to work are made by bicycle, protected bike lanes are still fairly uncommon, and we have an epidemic of aggressive and distracted driving, resulting in a comparatively high injury and fatality rates.
Between 2009 and 2013, an average of about six bicyclists a year were struck and killed by drivers in Chicago, according to Illinois Department of Transportation data. (Judging from news reports, there have been no deadly bike crashes so far this year, but bike fatalities are most common during the summer and fall, according to the IDOT figures. I’m crossing my fingers that this year’s good luck streak continues.)