One of the most contentious debates amongst urban cyclists is whether or not to wear a helmet. No matter what side of the issue you’re on it seems like a “no brainer.” Helmet advocates point to drastically reduced death rates amongst cyclists involved in crashes, whereas anti-helmet (or dare I say “pro choice”) types believe that the overall risk of death or injury on a bicycle is vastly overstated and discourages bike use. The truth, like a lot of things, probably sits somewhere in between these two perspectives.
I’m pro-choice when it comes to helmet use (and most other things for that matter), but I have to admit that I’ve been reevaluating my no helmet decision since the birth of our son. It’s okay to be an irresponsible man sans children, but the thought of missing out on time with Marek or leaving him fatherless is too much to bear.
I usually fall back on empirical evidence to form opinions, but the research regarding helmet use is all over the board. Amongst the various studies I have concluded that mandatory helmet use for children is a good idea even though I miraculously survived my childhood without ever wearing one. Kids are not as experienced and will take part in riskier behavior, so it seems like a good idea to pad their noggins. Adults are another story.
Studies indicate that as helmet use has increased bike ridership has decreased in America. This is a huge problem in a nation that really needs to get out and lose a few pounds. The theory is that stressing the importance of helmet use overstates the dangers of cycling and dissuades new riders. Similarly, some studies have shown that head injuries have actually gone up as helmet use increased. The hypothesis here is that helmeted riders engage in risker behavior because of a false sense of security.
So who is right? I do know that virtually no one in northern Europe wears a helmet and somehow the Germans, Danes, and Dutch are not perishing in large numbers on bicycles. Still, these nations invest in infrastructure that separates cars from bikes, and I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel more at risk riding on American streets in comparison to a dedicated bike path in Europe.
I just can’t shake the idea that we English speakers are once again attempting to eradicate all risk in life at the expense of our sanity and standard of living.