We Americans think helmets are incredibly important– at least I always have. Just the other day when leaving my girlfriend’s house, she informed me that my chinstrap wasn’t tight enough and refused to let me leave until I adjusted it accordingly. I appreciate her looking out for me, but putting me in a choke-hold is a little more affection than I can handle. But I did tighten it, so perhaps her wisdom is just above mine.
My buddy who lives in Boston doesn’t wear a helmet. Cruising around the city on a little BMX bike, he lets the wind massage his scalp, refusing to deny the world a view of his luscious locks. He told me the reason he doesn’t protect his head is because he doesn’t have the money for a helmet right now. If there is anything I can relate to, it is a lack of cash. But helmets can run as cheap as twenty dollars. I’m not sure what my buddy thinks of his life, but the monetary value is apparently below twenty dollars.
In doing research for this column, however, I came across some arguments against helmets, and arguments against me being a sassy know-it-all to my best friend. A New York Times article discussed how mandatory helmet laws actually decrease bicycle use, as shown by bike-share program usage in countries requiring helmets versus those that don’t. This keeps people in cars, taking away health benefits from riders and the planet. Some of the other articles I came across said in wearing a helmet, bikers take chances they wouldn’t otherwise because of a feeling of invincibility. Some studies even suggested that bikers without helmets are treated with more caution by the cars passing them.
It is possible that in our fiendish love of helmets, we, as a society, have made cycling more dangerous than it actually is. When we think of helmets as a catch-all for injury prevention and talk about how dangerous biking can be without them, we scare people away from bikes. This makes it more dangerous for current bikers because when there are more bikers on the road, drivers are more cognizant of them and drive more carefully. Like when surrounded by little kids instead of just next to one, you’re less likely to swear or talk about how all their dreams probably won’t come true.
After reading through these articles, I thought about my own riding habits and realized that I do ride my bike in a manner I never would without a helmet on. Flying around blind turns on bike paths, racing through yellow lights, jumping curbs on a bike without any shocks whatsoever– I would certainly ride more safely if I didn’t have the sense of security that a helmet provides.
This isn’t to say helmets should be tossed aside. I’ll still wear one, not only because my girlfriend would headbutt me if I didn’t, but also because in the case of a crash, they do provide protective benefits. But they shouldn’t be the primary means of injury avoidance. Helmets should be combined with knowledge on both the side of drivers and cyclists on how to interact with one another. Where helmets can provide a false sense of security, the real safety comes through a community that is bike-friendly and bike-aware.
While I intended this column to be about helmets as essential for any commuter, and though this is still the case, and my buddy is still a slight moron for not wearing one, the real essential for the safety of your noggin is awareness of the road around you, which is a constant process. I’m still learning how to ride safely in traffic, how to properly signal, and how to not daydream in the middle of a dangerous merge. A helmet is still a necessity, and I’ll still wear one, but I hope cars will drive cautiously around me as though I’m not wearing one, and I’ll ride as though I’m not wearing one. Because I want to be safe, and also my girlfriend said, “I’ll kill you if you get yourself killed.” Isn’t she a catch?