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Beyond Chicagoland

No, Tribune columnist Rex Huppke, helmet-shaming isn’t the way to keep cyclists safe

2:37 PM CDT on September 17, 2019

Rex Huppke

Update 9/17/19, 3:30 PM: Rex Huppke deserves some credit for responding to this post with what has to be the most cordial response *ever* to a Streetsblog Chicago deconstruction of a mainstream opinion piece on cycling. Huppke tweeted, "This is a smart and thoughtful response to my column on bike helmets, by @greenfieldjohn. We agree on much, particularly that America should be bike-friendly like our far more environmentally sane European friends. But even if [the United States becomes] sane, I think helmet use is important." 

The Chicago Tribune's full-time right-wing bloviator John Kass used to frequently write columns ridiculing cyclists as "Little Bike People," but have you noticed that he's been silent on bike issues for several years? That's thanks to cyclist Dustin Valenta, who survived grievous injuries after a motorist doored him on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.

Back in 2013, after the city of Chicago doubled the fine for dooring a cyclist, Kass wrote a column implying that drivers shouldn't be held responsible when they open car doors on people biking. In a statement to Streetsblog, Valenta explained why the columnist's position was wrongheaded. "For John Kass to simply view the fine for opening your door in the path of a cyclist as an inconvenience to drivers is willfully ignorant... if you are not acting responsibly, why shouldn’t you be fined the maximum penalty for endangering a life?"

We haven't heard a peep out of Kass about bikes since then.

Dooring survivor Dustin Valenta with his mother, Terry O'Bryan.
Dooring survivor Dustin Valenta with his mother, Terry O'Bryan.

However, I suppose somebody else at the Tribune had to step in to fill the bike-trolling void. Hence, today's "funny" column from Rex Huppke titled "Bicyclists should be shamed into wearing helmets."

"People who don’t wear bicycle helmets are about as ubiquitous as they are irresponsible," Huppke writes. "And they make me angry."

He then states that he's going to adopt the voice of his even-more-curmudgeonly future self Old Man Huppke. "Peddling [SIC] around with nothing to protect your noggin? That’s high-level stupidity... if a car or curb or tree or pothole decides it wants to play natural selection, guess who’s gonna lose? DID YOU GUESS?!? THE ANSWER IS: THE MORON WHO ISN’T A WEARING A HELMET!"

Hilarious, right?

The columnist then quotes Northwestern Memorial Hospital emergency room physician George Chiampas, who notes that it's common for Chicago motorists to injure people on bikes by striking them or dooring them, and sometimes people crash while riding fast on the Lakefront Trail. The doctor correctly notes that helmets can help prevent or mitigate brain or facial injuries in the event that a cyclist's head hits the pavement or another hard surface like a windshield. (Although for some reason Chiampas also mentions neck injuries, which typical bike helmets don't prevent, but actually make more likely.)

"But hey, what’s a little brain bleeding when you’re trying to keep your friends from thinking you’re one of those uncool helmet-wearing nerds, right?" Huppke writes.

Now, I'm certainly not anti-bike helmet myself. Protective headgear definitely makes sense for higher-risk types of cycling, like racing, mountain biking, or fast, aggressive urban cycling. And it's totally understandable that many Chicagoans feel the need to wear a helmet every time they get on a bike. After all, our city has an epidemic of reckless, intoxicated, and distracted driving, and it lacks a consistent network of bikeways that provide physical protection from motor vehicles.

Former Chicago transportation chief Gabe Klein. Photo: Jeff Elkins, Washingtonian magazine
Former Chicago transportation chief Gabe Klein. Photo: Jeff Elkins, Washingtonian magazine

But contrary to what Huppke asserts, I'd argue that you're not an irresponsible idiot if you choose not to wear a bike helmet for casual commuting at a moderate pace, particularly if you're generally sticking to low-traffic side streets and main streets with bike lanes. Former Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, certainly no wild-eyed bike militant, said as much in an interview with Washingtonian magazine.“I purposely don’t wear helmets now in photo shoots," Klein said. "When traveling at slow speeds in bike lanes, helmetless riding is quite safe."

In fact, while few people wear helmets when using bike-share services like Divvy, these systems have a better safety record than private bikes, according to an analysis by former U.S. transportation secretary Norman Mineta's safety institute. That's largely due to the fact that the heavy, stable public bikes with upright handlebars encourage an unhurried riding style.

Moreover, if we're actually interested in preventing serious and fatal bike injuries, research indicates that harping at cyclists to wear helmets isn't the best approach. A 2016 graphic by the Toole Design Group highlighted helmet use and cyclist fatality rates in the United States and several European countries. While the U.S. had the highest helmet use, at about 55 percent of cyclists, we also had the highest number of bike deaths per kilometer pedaled, and helmet use was roughly inversely proportional to cyclist safety.

bike helmet use is roughly inversely proportional to cyclist safety.
bike helmet use is roughly inversely proportional to cyclist safety.

That's due to the fact that in bike-friendly nations like the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany the focus is on preventing bike crashes, rather than mitigating them with chunks of plastic and styrofoam. This is done through street designs that provides car-free space for cyclists and discourages speeding by drivers. Tough DUI, distracted driving, and motorist liability laws prioritize the safety of vulnerable road users over the convenience of drivers. And universal bike education in schools fosters responsible cycling behavior, as well instilling the importance of driving safely around bike riders.

And the fact that so few people wear bike helmets in these countries is a feature, rather than a defect. Because cycling isn't viewed as a dangerous activity requiring special safety gear, but is instead seen as a no-fuss transportation mode like walking, more people do it.

The large amount of biking in these places creates a "safety in numbers" effect by making cyclists more visible to drivers. That's why a motorist in Amsterdam wouldn't dream of opening their car door without using the "Dutch Reach," a dooring prevention technique that became part of the Illinois driver curriculum last year. That strategy would have saved dooring survivor Dustin Valenta a lot of broken bones.

So if Rex Huppke really cares about the safety of people on bikes, he should spend less time "shaming bicyclists into wearing helmets," and more time shaming politicians into providing more infrastructure, enforcement, and education that prevents drivers from striking cyclists in the first place.

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