Most of the time I ride a bike, I wear a helmet. But not always. Here’s why.

On my most memorable ride this year, a 70 km highway ride up the highest paved mountain pass in Canada, I wore a helmet. On my recent mountain bike trip into the Rockies of southern B.C. , I wore a helmet.  But in my last video, in which I rolled through the streets of Calgary’s new protected bike lanes, I did not.

That raised a few eyebrows, at least in the comments of the video on Facebook and YouTube, some of which you can see below.

There was enough of a conversation about the issue that I feel the need to offer some explanation.  As someone who rides a lot, I’ve put much thought into the helmet question.

I’m not going to rehash the helmet debate. It’s an endless, and at this point rather fruitless, conversation. If you want to understand the reasons against wearing a helmet, I recommend reading this piece by Peter Walker and watching this Ted Talk by Mikael Colville-Andersen.

In a nutshell: I wear a helmet in situations in which I feel the risk of being struck by a car or the risk of crashing is great.

That means if I’m winter commuting on busy thoroughfares, I wear one. If I’m highway riding, or mountain biking, I wear one. Because I live in a city that is just getting started in building safe bike infrastructure, that means I often wear a helmet in the city.

But, most importantly to the video that sparked this post: if I’m riding on safe bike lanes that have a physical barrier between myself and vehicles, I don’t feel the need for a helmet.

This, I understand, can be difficult for people. “But you can fall off your bike anwhere, anytime,” I hear. “You can’t predict when you might crash.” This, to me, speaks to our irrational assessment of risk. There’s good science that says your chances of being killed on the roads are about equal for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists (Clarification: The rates vary depending on how the rates are measured, but in a nutshell, motorists have slightly lower fatality rates, cyclists and pedestrians are about equal, and all of them are far lower than motorcyclists. Check it out). In my city, for example, one pedestrian is struck by a car every day, on average. In the last decade, there were 3,834 pedestrian-involved collisions, resulting in 3,317 injuries and 95 fatalities. For comparison’s sake, between 2004-2008, of the 2,174 people who died in traffic collisions in Calgary: 1.4 per cent were bicyclists, 6.9 per cent were motorcyclists, 10.4 per cent were pedestrians, and 76.2 per cent were drivers or passengers.

In other words, you are hella more likely to be struck by a car by simply walking the streets than riding a bike on them*. Yet only cycling is perceived as dangerous enough to require a helmet. It makes no sense, yet helmet use has gone from the fringes to orthodoxy in a generation. It’s now so ingrained in many people that it’s unfathomable that someone would choose to ride without a helmet. Yet the idea of wearing a helmet as a pedestrian is so absurd as to be laughable. The most dangerous thing you will do in your day, statistically speaking, is drive a car, yet where is the helmet debate there? Such a suggestion would get you laughed out of the room. Yet, if we were to require helmets while driving, we would almost assuredly save more lives than if we require them on bikes.

This illogical helmet fundamentalism creates a false perception that cycling is inherently dangerous, which discourages people from riding. That discouragement is harmful. It means my city is not enjoying all of the benefits of a more robust bike culture, including the increased safety and health benefits that come when more people ride. Part of the reason that I chose not to wear a helmet in that video (other than the fact that I felt completely safe while riding the city’s separated bike lanes): I’m trying to combat that unnecessary culture of fear around cycling.

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That’s me on a lazy roll through my city’s bike paths.

 

The other thing that bothers me about this whole debate is the way it distracts from the real issues around bicycle safety. While the data about the macro safety implications of bike helmets remain sketchy (and I’m lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that hasn’t fallen for the false promise of a mandatory helmet law), it’s beyond debate that building a strong network of protected bike lanes creates a safer environment for people on bikes. If you really care about bike safety, this is where you should focus your efforts.

So if you choose to wear a helmet, I completely understand and support that decision. If it gets you on a bike, it’s a wonderful thing. I will continue to wear one for many of my rides. But if you spot me, or anybody else, riding without one, all I ask is that you stop before trying to shame them and give some thought to the real issues around bike safety that impact all of us.

* I just want to clarify this. The likelihood of death is about the same for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians, according to a study by UBC. In my city, more people are struck walking than cycling in raw numbers, but that doesn’t mean the proportional rate of collisions is the same. 


Upate: A nice reaction to this piece came from Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter, including some fascinating information about perceptions that was new to me. It’s worth a look.


Also published on Medium.

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41 Comments

  1. BuzEaston

    I nice the irrational belief based on feelings. “In a nutshell: I wear a helmet in situations in which I feel the risk of being struck by a car or the risk of crashing is great.” reasoning is better than relying on emotions.

    I crashed on a paved bike trail that was over a mile from the nearest road with cars. I hit my head on the pavement. Fortunately, I was not injured. I was wearing a helmet. 21 m.p.h. on impact. There is little question that without a helmet, I would have been in the hospital.

    • Yes, I concede the point about my choices being as based on feeling in that context, but I’ve really tried to keep the larger issue about stats and data. Your anecdote sounds horrifying and I’m glad you were not injured (in that context, I’d like to think I would have chosen to wear a helmet too), but it’s an anecdote. There’s not a lot of data that says mass helmet use has made a huge difference in public safety, especially when compared to things like separated infrastructure. I’m mostly just trying to get people beyond the idea that bike safety begins and ends with helmets. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      • Robert Lopez

        I’ve have had four incidents that a helmet would have saved me from the worst of it. Unfornately, for me, the first two happened in the 90’s before helmets were any good. I was knocked unconscious both times. When I got back on my bike a decade later, I always wear a helmet. That decision asaved me twice. Not one of those incidents involved motor vehicles . I think this is a interesting topic but I doubt your statistics. If you are wearing a helmet and walk away from an incident, where does that reporting go?

        • Glad you made it through your incidents ok. Could you not make the same argument about pedestrians? If we required them to wear helmets, would there not be all kinds of anecdotes about how helmets saved people? Yet, we don’t question whether they should wear helmets. Beyond those stats I quoted, I’ve yet to see a study that conclusively finds that mass helmet use has a major impact on public safety. Here’s one way to think about it: if you ask an ER doctor, who sees head injuries, if helmets work, of course they’ll say yes. If you ask a public health doctor, who sees the health consequences of inactivity and the fear of active transportation and the obesity crisis on a mass scale, they might have a different answer. It’s a tough issue, no doubt. Thanks for the comment.

        • Bryan

          I’ve had two crashes while not wearing a helmet where I was thrown head first over the handlebars. I did not hit my head.

          A helmet makes your head a larger target that is more likely to get hit in a crash.

    • Tony Franklin

      Sorry but your belief that your helmet saved you is utterly without foundation and is simply anecdotal ‘evidence’. We already know that helmet wearers take more risk than non helnet wearers, we already know that a helmet substantially increases the circumference of a helmet, we already know that the maximum amount of energy that a helmet can absorb in ideal/specific conditions is approx 70joules (ask a materials expert as that is the figure stated as testimony in court and uncontested). Materials experts have already stated (in a court of law) that a reduction of 70joules would not be enough to prevent serious head or brain inury, again uncontested.
      We already know many helmets split/break BEFORE being able to reach this 70joule figure as the inside of the helmets are uncompressed fully thus failing in their job to reach the max test spec in the lab yet cyclists state a broken/split/helmet saved their lives.
      Not just anecdotally but statistically speaking this is absolutely false, otherwise the death and serious injury toll of people on bikes before helnets became a thing would have being at catastrophic levels … except they weren’t.
      Not unsurprisingly competition riding sees more crashes and injuries AND deaths since the introduction of compulsary helmets(check the death stats pre and post helmet in the pro ranks)
      The bottom line is that helmets are an utter failure, wearing helmets at higher speed/higher risk cycling is worse than useless it actually causes greater harm.
      As a non helmet wearer since I took up cycling 30+ years ago and done 185, 000-200, 000 miles in everything from mountain biking/downhill, high speed descending off mountain passes to touring, weekend warrior and high density urban commuting I’ve seen and done pretty much every type of cycling. Going by the way most helmet advocates talk about them and their supposed protective abilities I should have died a thousabd deaths by now. As per the vast majority I’m very much still alive, the difference between me and most helnet wearers is that I completely understand risk, those that would benefit the most from not wearing helmets are children and those at the higher risk end of cycling.
      Greater risk taking because you think you’re protected and indeed those around you means more incidents, more incidents that a helmet cannot physically prevent serious inhury (the skull takes the majority of the forces and a helmet won’t prevent serious tbi) children take greater risks helmetted because they don’t find tgeir boundaries even worse than adults so ebd up in more ibcidents than none helmet wearing children.
      Think about it and understabd why.
      Lastly, helmet wearing brings about victim blaming, even when obe dies wearing a helmet helmetless riders are blamed for their own death despite not doing anything wrong, the blind faith in helmets, and that’s exactly what it is, has had and is continuing to have a massive detrimental affect on cycling as a whole and for all types.

      • Great points, and I think you are absolutely right about victim blaming. Your points about risk are also very interesting — as a society, and may be as a species, we are very poor at assessing risk. Thanks for the great information.

    • Kalen

      Speed is a big factor in whether a helmet is helpful I think.
      In your example you said 21mph on impact. I agree, if you’re going that fast, a helmet is going to come highly recommended!

      The speed limit on the pathways ridden in this video is 12mph. The way he is riding can’t be more than 10mph. In such a situation as this I would feel perfectly safe not wearing a helmet, and being more concerned about – for example – my wrist in a crash. Earlier this week I witnessed a crash between pathway riders – one speeding without a helmet, one doing the 12mph speed limit with a helmet. The first one did not hurt his head, but broke his wrist. The second did hit his head and was OK, but also hit his tail bone and had a lot of muscle soreness in his back and leg.

      So something to consider would be that at any time someone going over the speed limit could crash into you. You would have to assess that risk on an individual basis.

  2. BuzEaston

    Sorry. “notice,” not “nice.”

  3. Devin

    Think it’s also worth pointing out that in the event of a crash with a car, a helmet probably isn’t going to help — they’re not designed to withstand that anywhere near that kind of force.

  4. Shelley

    It shouldn’t be about either helmets OR separated bike infrastructure. I too would have likely had a permanent brain injury (or worse) had I not been wearing my helmet the day I was in a separate bike lane but proceeding across an intersection with the right of way…when an inexperienced teen driver, attempting to stop at a stop sign hit the accelerator instead of the break. I was hit at relatively slow speed, but still flipped over the hood of her vehicle and head first into a curb. As with all times where we are not alone on the road or paths (other bikes, vehicles, pedestrians), we can never be sure of the predictability or road experience of others. The day I was hit, I had set out without a helmet, knowing that I’d be riding in what I thought was a pretty safe context. A weird voice inside said, “go back, get your helmet.” So incredibly glad I listened, as the accident happened less than 30 minutes later. You seem like a thoughtful, intelligent person. Heed my inner voice and what I think is a valuable anecdote, even if it would slip throught margin of error of large scale stats. No shaming involved from my end – just a desire to keep more lovely and reflective people like you around. Peace.

  5. Chris

    I wear a helmet all the time. Apart from my safety I am a high profile member of our community and believe leading by example is important.

    • Schrödinger's Cat

      You wear a helmet *all* the time – even when walking (similar risk to when cycling) or when using stairs (greater risk)? Or are you singling out cycling as more dangerous than those things, despite the facts?

    • Tony franklin

      I’m not ‘high’ profile but everyone in my community knows me as the guy who rides a bike everywhere (kids knock on my door to help fix their bikes) and I do puncture fixing/minor repair sessions some summers. I believe in educating kids and parents on how to ride safely and ensure their bikes are safe to ride, educating them on facts not anecdote to make individual choices. Helmets are not even top 10 for cycle safety (as in it only works for low level injuries/low speed bicycling) but does have many negative effects on cycling as a whole and indeed safety.
      Maybe as a high profile person you should lead by example and actually look at the facts before making an error in judgement which in my honest opinion you are making by promoting helmets, sadly you are one of many.

  6. Shelly, had you not gone back for your helmet you would not have been crossing the path of that car at the exact moment it hit you, so in effect going back for your helmet was what caused your injury in the first place!
    This is exactly the kind of anecdotal information which skews statistics and makes it hard to form a rational opinion based on facts and truth when there is in reality know way of knowing, in that exact moment, if a helmet helped or not. Perhaps you would have seen the car easier, or physically reacted in a different way had you not been wearing a helmet. I don’t know, you don’t know, no one knows or can know. Statistics can be made to reinforce any agenda. Facts are never that, they are just the information the highest bidder has payed for. Do your own research, live your life the way you choose, and let others do the same. Better world! Winner!

  7. Wayne

    Why has no one brought up the added summer benefit of wearing a helmet for shade/insulation from the sun? As an old guy with a receding hairline, I love that styrofoam atop my balding noggin. I also add a skullcap so I don’t get sunburned through the open areas of the helmet.

    BTW In my youth I had a close look at a friend’s brother writhing around on the pavement and moaning (concussion — out to lunch) after tumbling from his bike. Was he wearing a helmet? Nope. There are lies, damned lies and then there are bike statistics. I occasionally ride one of my bikes without a helmet but not for any great distance. Helmets reduce head injuries plain and simple — regardless of what the stats show. Anecdotes rock!

  8. C Byron

    I’m with you Tom. I wear it when I want. On gravel when it’s not technically difficult, with pups/snow with lower speeds I don’t bother. With technically difficult or high speed I’ll bring it.

  9. C Byron

    There is also a movement for daytime light use. It’s just another expectation creeping to cycling that’ll add to the victim blaming cartels.

  10. Frank Krygowski

    I agree with all of the author’s points except one: “it’s beyond debate that building a strong network of protected bike lanes creates a safer environment for people on bikes.”

    No, I don’t believe it’s beyond debate. There are at least two well-designed European studies that have found the opposite: that crash rates increased very significantly after conversion of normal streets to streets plus cycle tracks. Some of the North American studies that found benefit were very deceptive – for example, using a cycle track over a long bridge (with, therefore, zero intersection hazards) to generate most of the data. Or comparing purportedly similar streets that were in no way comparable, in terms of intersection count, traffic volume, etc. I’m aware that Columbus Ohio installed a few miles of bi-directional cycle track and saw car-bike crashes rise from 2 to 15 in one year. And in the 1970s, Columbus installed one of the first cycle tracks near the OSU campus, but removed it within two years because of greatly increased crash counts.

    The Achilles heel of “protected” bike lanes (or cycle tracks) is the intersection problem – a problem that occurs at every street and driveway, where cyclists who feel “safe” shoot into traffic from invisible or unexpected locations. These situations surprise and confuse motorists. And predictability is key for road safety.

    Would traffic engineers ever have motorists riding opposite the usual direction of travel? Would they ever have a “straight ahead” lane to the right of a right turn lane? Of course not, for obvious reasons. Yet these “features” are standard for segregated bike facilities. Those facilities may make cyclists feel safer, but “feeling” safe can actually add danger when a complicated road situation arises.

  11. JP Peretti

    There are provinces / territories with helmet laws for all ages, some with helmet laws for minors only and others like Québec, no helmet laws for anyone. Are there statistics showing the differences? Facts are a better argument than opinions based on emotions. It’s like the “loud pipes save lives” nonsense that we here a lot in the motorcycling world.

  12. Fred Trampler

    I ride around town without a helmet because i’m not retarded.

    • Wayne

      Not yet…that happens when you accidentally hit the pavement due to an unexpected event.

      Last summer I encountered TWO accident scenes where older women partners were drafting their hubbies because they were talked into going on longer rides than they were fit for. Each of those women touched the rear tire in front of them, throwing them to the ground. EMS was involved in both incidents on paved pathways. In another encounter last year, I watched an elderly gentleman hit a bit of a raised curb at slow speed and he fell off his bike in an instant. His helmet bounced off the hard concrete surface like a rubber ball and saved his life. He was dazed but not retarded.

      Yup, more anecdotes…

  13. Kevin

    Far more people get head injuries every year from ladder accidents than bike accidents. Should everyone wear a helmet every time they climb a ladder? Or for that matter anytime they do something where there’s a chance they might get a head injury……which covers a lot of activities.
    IMO Tom’s story is analogous to construction, people wear helmets on heavy construction sites where the risk is higher, but not on smaller projects like single family houses even though technically the risk is still there.

    • Darrel

      Well of course there are more head injuries from falling off ladders as they don’t wear helmets whereas cyclists do wear helmets so therefore have less head injuries.

  14. Anonymous

    Odd how many people here have had multiple crashes. I’ve biked everyday for most of my life. I admit we lived in a very small community when I was a kid, but I now live in WashingtonDC and was biking here before the very first bike lane went in and I’ve never had an accident (knock on wood). Still I do wear a helmet. I hate wearing it. Every time I put it on I think back to that childhood where I could race through town with no helmet! I agree, we probably don’t need to be so crazy about it. In paved trail rides I could probably take the helmet off and enjoy myself a bit more. Some interesting facts to consider in this piece, thanks!

  15. Anonymous

    I’d like to see mandatory helmets for drivers and pedestrians. After all, no one should get to choose the amount of risk they are comfortable with taking.

  16. Sorry, I don’t really buy your pedestrians vs cyclists argument. Pedestrians are not consistently moving at 15-20mph, nor are constantly forced to respond to hazards while moving at this speed.

    I respect your decision to not wear a helmet in some situations (that’s your personal choice), but I would never do the same. I’ve had plenty of close calls with cars turning without signals, doors opening into bike lanes, etc that I feel like wearing a helmet is worth it relative to the super low cost of putting it on.

  17. Olive

    “Helmet-deniers” do whatever they want and I’m perfectly fine with that, but to me it’s all a matter of mitigating the risks.

    When wearing a helmet increases your risk, then don’t wear one. I cannot think of a situation in which it would be the case though.

    When wearing a helmet reduces the risk, regardless of its potential consequences, then it is worth it.

  18. Lisa

    My only fall where I injured myself was on a low speed bike path. If I wasn’t wearing my helmet I’d at minimum have a very messed up face and at worse would have sustained a head injury.
    My job is in risk management. Your description of risk and the comparisons you make, as well as cherry picking research and is simplistic. If you did a real risk assessment your risk of being injured seriously is not that much lower on a separated path.

  19. Jim Catano

    I’m an almost daily commuter and recreational (road and mountain) cyclist, and I don’t have the luxury of traveling in protected bike lanes (nor the disadvantage of going 12 mph in them.) However, I was once in an accident that approximated such “safe” conditions. I had stopped to help another cyclist who had had a major tube failure. He didn’t have a spare, so I opened my saddle pack and gave him mine which happened to be the same size. As I started back down the quiet suburban street at less than 15 mph, I realized I hadn’t re-zipped my pack. I reached around with my right hand and pulled the zipper around, but, as I did, I inadvertently squeezed my front brake lever hard with my left hand. I did an immediate endo which drove my head directly onto the pavement. My bell was rung, and my helmet was split clear through, but I survived without major injury.

    So it’s much easier (and safer) for me to just wear a helmet all the time kind of like it makes sense to just wear an auto seat belt all the time. I don’t see how it ever detracts from safety, but it does prepare me for the totally unforeseen and provides an example to inexperienced and young cyclists.

    Everyone is free to do as they choose, but I encourage those who ride without to be sure to fill out an organ donor card. Your failure to 100% accurately predict the future could at least benefit others. 🙂

  20. Three comments:
    1) The statistics are all based on *fatalities*. I think most of us are more concerned about *injuries* when we put on a helmet. These are very different things.
    2) I walk at about 5 km/h. I cycle at at well over 25 km/h. Speed makes ALL the difference.
    3) Perspective is everything. My Dutch friend laughs at me when I wear a helmet. She says “If you need a helmet to ride a bike, maybe you should wear a helmet when you go out for a walk.” My Australian wife reminds me that it’s the *law* and you can get ticketed (really) for not wearing a helmet in her country.

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