The Mom mentality of protecting you from the world. Are helmets the same?
Should you wear a bike helmet every time you ride or not? The helmet debates have been ranging in the cycling community for years and seem to be as entrenched and as bitter as the Israelis and the Arabs. One side says helmets save lives and make us safer. The other says the science behind the safety of helmets is dubious and point to mandatory helmet laws as a cause for reducing the number of people cycling, either by creating the idea that cycling is dangerous or simply creating an equipment barrier to entry. Personally, I usually wear a helmet but have to conceded that in the countries with majority culture acceptance of bicycles as transportation helmets are a rarity yet there is no epidemic of brain injury.
Recently, Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us),recently hosted a guest post on his blog from British researcher Ian Walker . Walker made waves a few years ago with a research study that looked at interaction of cars and cyclists on the roads of England (as European countries go, a much more car dominated country like the U.S.) His findings were shocking in that he found cars tended to give less room to and behave less carefully around cyclists wearing helmets. In his guest post, he expands on this by looking at probabilities when thinking about what really makes you safest on the road and in life. After questioning the ability of a helmet to save your life in a crash involving 2 tons of steel at high speed, he makes the simple point that your chances of dying from a bicycle accident are infinitesimally small compared to the more than 50-50 chance you will die from heart disease and cancer. Yet the focus of our fear is on the unlikely here and now instead of the very likely off in the future.
Walker muses on the idea that from the cyclists point of view avoiding an accident is far more important that what you are wearing. This is a far different way of looking at safety than with the automobile where you have lots of material designed to protect you. In a car, crashes at 20-30 mph are not that uncommon and most people survive these with little in the form of personal injury. Yet that same crash with a bicycle can be fatal. Walker suggests that when you wear a helmet, it gives you a sense of safety that means you take more risks. Add to that the research he did about how motorists react to you, and you could be looking at a greater chance of being involved in a crash simply by strapping that lid on.
The focus on bicycle safety in this country has been on wrapping the rider in protective garb for the inevitable crash (a policy that sells an awful lot of widgets by the way.) Go down the aisle of children’s bike equipment, and you’ll see gloves, knee pads, and elbow pads sold with most helmets. As a species, these physical totems give us comfort when confronting the fear in front of us. In the most American of sentiments, “If I just have the stuff, I’ll be OK.” It’s psychologically easier to hand over our fear to an object than confront it and make a rational choice.
As one local bike advocate likes to say, “Stop assigning magical qualities to styrofoam.” While our current helmet-focused safety policy makes us feel good and helps the balance sheets of some companies, it is doing little to actually put more people on bikes and get them where they need to go safely. Good infrastructure, not the latest helmet, is what we need. Bike paths and bike priority streets will do far more to reduce injury and death. When you elevate the bicycle to an equal footing in importance on the road to the automobile that will change the way motorists view the bicycle. Plus more people will use bicycles to get from A to B increasing the likelihood that that driver is also a cyclists. All of these things reduce the likelihood of crash.
As Walker says, avoiding the crash is the most important part of avoiding injury and death. Kind of a simple concept. Think we can get it?