Advocates: Let’s Shift Focus From Pushing Bike Helmets to Preventing Crashes

Biking on Clark Street in Andersonville last week. Photo: John Greenfield

[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.

Biking in a curb-protected bike lane on 31st Street earlier this spring. Photo: John Greenfield

“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.)

Read the rest of the article on the Reader website.


  • cameratomeyeye

    A few years ago I was riding home from work. It was winter and it was dark. I was coming up to a stop sign and didn’t see the patch of ice in front of me (the rest of the street was ice free). As I was braking I hit the patch of ice, lost control, fell and hit the back of my head REALLY REALLY hard on the street. Luckily, I was wearing a helmet. I felt a bit wobbly, and couldn’t ride the rest of the way so I walked home. I can’t imagine what would have happened had I not been wearing a helmet. There we no cars around, a car did not cause this. I can point to many other times where one thing or another has cause me to wipe out and it had nothing to do with cars. Anyone of those other times could have caused me to hit my head as well. I think it is irresponsible to lessen the promotion of wearing bike helmets. Of course we should focus on other ways to make cycling safe in the city, but in the meantime why not put a helmet on your head? Why take the risk? What’s the big deal? Everyone is free to do as they choose, and I don’t think a law is necessary here in Chicago. I do think it’s wrong to put the idea out there that they aren’t needed at all, or that somehow the 25 to 55 percent reduction in head injuries, makes it not worth it. This is not Copenhagen, and probably won’t be anytime soon (although I hope we move toward that)

  • rohmen

    I’m like a lot of people nowadays, probably. I wear a helmet when I’m commuting and riding in mixed traffic at higher speeds. I tend not to wear one when riding on a protected path. In other words, I tend to do what I think is best for my personal safety in the given environment.

    I take no issue with people citing facts for or against helmets, but thanks for at least identifying Colville-Andersen as a polarizing figure. I have problems respecting an argument that people should disregard what makes them feel safe (or should be demonized in any way) because it potentially discourages others from taking up riding. My jobs it to keep myself safe first, and then act as an advocate to get others on a bike 2nd—then again I’m not trying to profit off of selling a certain one-size-fits-all concept of riding through a marketing company.

    My comments equally apply to the pro-helmet zealots, who seemingly cannot manage to enjoy a ride without commenting on another person’s choices in safety gear.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I don’t get this. Black ice could theoretically occur in Copenhagen with no cars around, your tire could burst while riding in Copenhangen with no cars around, you could just plain lose your balance while riding with no cars around in Copenhagen. By your own example, it sounds like you’d still wear a helmet even if Chicago was Copenhagen.

    Except for the Copenhagenize guy (and I think even he’s being a bit performative and/or using hyperbole for effect), I know of no one in the “anti-helmet” world who’s position is that helmets aren’t needed at all and I don’t find it productive to boil down their argument to that point.

  • Obesa Adipose

    I wiped out on the lakefront path south of 57th St beach – sand can act like ball bearings – and my bike just flew out sideways from under me slamming me to the ground. My helmet suffered a crack on its side; I had to get a new one. I agree it’s not an either/or situation; I vote for both helmets and preventing crashes.

  • A few years ago I hit black ice and came down REALLY REALLY hard on my arm. In the ER, every single medical professional who saw me felt the need to say “Well, good thing you were wearing a helmet!” And I was like “Why? It didn’t help!”

  • planetshwoop

    What I find fascinating about the helmet debate is how little we actually know about the relative benefits and dangers. Almost all articles ive seen discuss the same studies and the arguments are put forth through personal beliefs and experiences. Since the liability damages are low, I think no one really has made a priority to collect data.

    I’m keen on a variety of injury prevention techniques: is the a good way to fall to reduce injury? Are there simple pads or bike designs to reduce groin injuries? When was the last time someone improved helmet design vs shaving 3grams from a pedal?

    So much attention is focused on helmets and safety and I think there’s more to consider.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    One thing that’s definitely true is people’s passions about the subject color their interpretations of the data. On the one hand, the Colville-Andersen camp goes to extremes to try to prove that helmets are next-to-useless in preventing head injuries, while common sense suggests that’s not true. On the other hand, the federal government kept citing a 1989 study that found helmets reduce the risk of head injuries by 85%, for decades, even though the study’s own authors debunked that figure in 1996:

  • al_langevin

    To suggest that people not wear bike helmets is just plain idiotic. I can’t even believe this is even being discussed.

    ““but when traveling at slow speeds in bike lanes, helmetless riding is quite safe.” This statement by Gabe Klein is also absurd. So kids will read this and suggest they don’t have to wear helmets either.

    Good grief people. Wear bike helmets and pay attention when riding. Assume that every driver or walker does not see you. If you think you’re too cool to wear a helmet, then that’s sad.

  • Unlike motorcyclists, the bodily damages to cyclists who are hit or doored by cars are almost exclusively below the neck. Helmets do zilch in the grand majority of car-on-bike accidents, at any speed, in any traffic conditions.

  • Frank Kotter

    You are right until you consider the fact that helmet use is often used as a red herring to distract from driver responsibility and multi modal infrastructure. If I am advocating for either, the last thing I want to be used as a litmus test against my goals is a helmet.

    Also, it has nothing to do with being cool. The comments of Gabe Klein are spot on. I travel to major metros for work. In cities where there are mandatory helmet laws like Melbourne, Vancouver and Seattle I am basically unable to do anything other than hail cabs. In NYC, Chicago London, Paris and Amsterdam, Most of my meetings are done with bike shares or in the case of Amsterdam, a rental from the hotel.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I think it would be interesting to compare what IS required in countries/cities that are widely considered bike friendly. I remember from my childhood in Germany that our bikes weren’t “street legal” unless they had a front light (I’m fuzzy on if rear lights were also required) and a bell/horn. Obviously childhood bias plays a role here, but I think lights/bells should be pushed waaay harder than helmets in the US as well.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Yes, wearing a helmet provides an additional measure of protection. But that statement proves too much. Helmets would also make pedestrians safer while walking, and make crashes more survivable even for motorists and auto passengers. But society recognizes the other considerations that pedestrians and drivers might have for choosing not to wear helmets, and respects their ability to weigh the risks for themselves.

  • Frank Kotter

    Wearing a bullet proof vest greatly reduces the risk of being killed by a gunshot. However, wearing one is an acceptance of a deeply flawed status quo. I’d prefer to find ways to have people not shoot other people.

  • Turner

    I kept waiting for that headline to pay off, but mostly just got the same Helmet Debate as always?

    It doesn’t matter if helmets are “necessary” or not.

    Bike advocates best serve the community by focusing on community-scale issues — infrastructure, regulation, planning and policy, zoning, governmental and organizational buy-in, neighborhood events and the education of the broader, non-cycling public about the challenges that cyclists face.

    Helmet-use is an intrinsically personal, individual concern that doesn’t meaningfully intersect with that larger social and political realm where we’re most useful. Let me be unambiguous about what I’m saying there: that doesn’t mean that helmets aren’t useful. It just means that advocates shouldn’t misuse their limited resources talking about them.

    (If nothing else, they’re a terrible distraction, since we apparently can’t use the word “helmet” without invoking the same stale, gridlocked, overwrought and totally-predictable conversation every. single. time.)

  • hopeyglass


  • rohmen

    Without a decent study related to bicycle accidents, and I haven’t really seen one (and John’s article seems to confirm the lack of any real reliable ones), this all becomes anecdotal.

    I have friends with stories of being doored, or running into road hazards, where their helmets cracked in half and they are convinced it made a difference between being largely okay and a vegetable. Without concrete analysis, who’s to say whether they’re right or wrong. That’s the problem

    It’s always going to be a cost benefit analysis, and I don’t judge people who skip helmets in mixed traffic. That said, to say helmets do zilch in the grand majority of car-on bikes accidents is a stretch I think.

  • BlueFairlane

    To ride on rohmen’s coattails, here’s a picture of my helmet after I was hit by a Prius some years back …

    Now, rohmen’s correct that this is just anecdote, and that it says nothing about how, exactly, the physical damage is most likely to be inflicted in most car-bike wrecks. In my example, I was moving along a line of stopped cars at a fairly slow pace (I’d just taken off from a light, and it was the end of a long day) when a left-turning Prius ducked through a gap in traffic to pull into the Bucktown library parking lot. The Prius’s front right bumper caught me in my front wheel, and I dove headfirst over the handlebars into the pavement. The helmet caught most of the impact, and my right shoulder took the rest. I had no lower body injury.

    My concern in relation to this discussion of helmets-vs-infrastructure (as if you can’t have both) is that my kind of wreck is what I would think people riding in a Clybourn-syle separated lane would be most likely to experience, as there is still cross-traffic at cross streets and parking lot entrances. Of course, there’s no more data on this point than there is on any other, but that’s my suspicion.

    I feel a helmet should be solely the choice of the person on the bike, and I’m not going to castigate anybody who makes a choice different than mine. But I do find it disturbing when advocates make grand pronouncements about the relative safety of one choice over another when no data exists to back it up.

  • rohmen

    My own anecdotal story happened while I was snowboarding. I am (or at least was) a pretty decent snowboarder. Never wore a helmet, had many falls where I never came close to hitting my head, but then got older and decided it wasn’t all that burdensome to wear one and started doing it.

    Skip to next winter and I’m in Park City. After a full day of riding, I suddenly wake up flat on the ground on what was a very, very easy run with a ski patrol guy sitting next to me. I say I’m okay, and he tells me I’ve already told him that 7 times. I have no clue to this day what happened, and I had a major concussion, even with a helmet on.

    Point being, no matter how skilled you are and how much you control for your environment, shit happens. I personally learned that day that when shit happens, I’d rather be protected than not. To each their own, however.

  • what_eva

    I forget, is this a red herring or a straw man? straw man.

  • what_eva

    Cyclists are moving much faster than pedestrians and that matters. motorists have a steel cage around them, that matters too. The reason that it’s a good idea (though I agree it shouldn’t necessarily be law) for helmets for cyclists (motorized and not) is that you are moving fast enough to get seriously hurt and you don’t have a cage to protect you.

  • ohsweetnothing

    As an aside, I’ve seen so many bike accidents and near misses in that stretch of Milwaukee heading NW between Damen and what is now Small Cheval. It’s nuts.

  • johnaustingreenfield


    John Greenfield312-560-3966Streetsblog ChicagoChicago Reader

    Subject: Re: Comment on Advocates: Let’ s Shift Focus From Pushing Bike Helmets to Preventing Crashes

  • Yes, that was… I want to say Neil Townsend. Do you remember… I want to say Mandy Annis, some years before that. Trib or some other rag ran the usual springtime “Bikes: Yes or No?” article (an unusually large number of people died that year IIRC) and mentioned the upcoming Ride of Silence. Some commentor had asked “Well, it wasn’t mentioned in the article, but was the young lady who died in that recent accident wearing a helmet?” And I think it was Elizabeth Adamczyk who replied “Yes, her fiance plans to carry her broken, bloodied helmet with him on the Ride of Silence.” I later saw photos of him doing just that and broke down weeping right at my desk at work—which for some reason confuses people when you don’t personally know the deceased, but that’s another matter.

    So anyway, now I wear a helmet all the time, but mostly because I don’t want that to be the thing people quibble about while they’re scraping my dismembered corpse off the pavement.

  • Bob Wilson

    This is an argument that will never end. I always wore a helmet while riding a motorcycle while many of my friends did not. None of them ever got hurt.
    Now I always wear a helmet while riding my bicycle. Many of friends do not. None of them ever got hurt.
    Two of my friends died from falling down from a standing position, no bicycle, just losing their balance.
    Me, it is my choice and I will continue to wear my helmet.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    For the record, I think riding a motorcycle without a helmet is pretty insane. There’s a huge difference between crashing at 10 mph and 50 mph.

  • ohsweetnothing

    Hey John, have you seen this yet? I’m working my way through it now, but could be a promising examination of this very issue…

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Actually, that article inspired my article. I spent a few paragraphs discussing it in my first draft, but it got cut for length.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I should’ve figured, hah.

  • skelter weeks

    “The bike helmet debate stirs strong emotions.”
    The bicycle helmet debate is essentially emotional. Logic plays only a small role.
    Ignorance of the facts of cycling creates fear of riding. This fear is then assuaged by the sense of safety a bike helmet gives them.
    A helmet has other emotional benefits. It makes one feel they’re a part of the ‘in’ group, and not that ‘other’/outsider group. Wearing a helmet also communicates to others that “I value my brain/health because I’m important” and thus feeds the ego. Then people cover these emotional reasons with a thin layer of logic to appear smart. They say “Helmets save lives” or “Helmets prevent injuries”, but all too quickly veer to emotional arguments such as “You don’t want to become a vegetable and spend your life in a nursing home, do you?”
    The fact is, riding a bike is just as safe (or just as risky) as driving or walking.
    The fact is, head injuries are extremely rare.
    The fact is, bicycle helmets do not prevent injuries. They only lessen the force of an impact, and thus the severity of the injury. One credible study said they reduce injuries by 15% to 45%. But that’s only if they’re properly fitted. And most helmets don’t reduce concussions. Plus, they increase neck injuries. Then there’s the threat of sub-concussive hits, which we’re just learning about (CTE). Because helmets protrude from the head, in some cases a helmeted head hits the ground whereas a non-helmeted head wouldn’t. Basically, any hit to the head is bad.
    Both the dangers of biking, and the benefits of helmets, are overblown.
    To those who want to ‘be safe’, well, why aren’t you wearing a helmet when you’re walking down the street, or at home, or driving a car? Because you ‘feel safe’ in those places. The facts say otherwise, You’re just as likely to be injured doing those things.

  • skelter weeks

    So you wear a helmet when you’re standing?
    If not, why not?
    Your ‘anecdotal evidence’ proves standing is dangerous!

  • skelter weeks

    Motorists have a “steel cage” to protect them, yet they still get head injuries. Why aren’t they wearing a helmet?!?

  • skelter weeks

    ‘Protected bike lanes’ separate bikes from cars on the street, but most injuries/crashes occur at intersections, which are not protected. ‘Protected bike lanes’ make people ‘feel safe’, which is the same reason they wear helmets. But feeling safe is not the same thing as being safe.
    Bike use will never go up as long as fear of biking is fed by helmets and other alleged ‘safety’ measures.

  • skelter weeks

    I was going probably 6 or 8 mph in a gas station parking lot when my thin road bike tire got caught in the small crack around the storage tanks. My bike stopped, but I kept going. My body was launched facefirst. But I didn’t hit my face. I put my hands out to stop me. The result? My left wrist was sore, and my right arm was sprained. So I ditched the bikes with the thin tires and got a hybrid with a wider tire. I also ride over train tracks at a 90 degree angle, avoid puddles (could be hiding deep potholes) and basically watch where I’m going at a speed fast enough to get me to my destination, but slow enough to be aware of my surroundings (10-12 MPH). So there are things you can do to stay safe. The physics of riding an upright bike at 10-12 MPH is that when it crashes or skids down, you fall with the bike, usually on your side. No headers over the handlebars or, as illustrated above, no launching yourself facefirst.

  • Bob Wilson

    Correct! Try dropping a watermelon from head height and see what happens. I am not making this up on my own, I have been reading about this argument for years.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Actually, in place like the Netherlands that have high biking rates and low injury/fatality rates, protected bike lane routes often do include protected intersections, and they’re starting to catch on in the U.S.:


Are Helmets Still Necessary for Bike Commuting in Chicago?

[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 […]