2008-10-02

more thoughts about bicycle helmets...

In the course of riding a lot lately, seeing things about helmets in the media, and in discussion with people in person, on blogs, etc, I've been thinking about bike helmets a lot. I definitely think there are particular venues and settings where bicycle helmets are very helpful.

Bicycle helmets were designed to protect your head in the event of a fall, not a collision. The fact that they may crack if you simply drop them on the floor while carrying them should be proof of that. This being the case, I think helmets are particularly useful for people who are either riding at high speeds, or people who are riding off-road, where there is a much higher chance of a fall, and where a fall would be potentially much more dangerous.

I've given some thought to the average bicycle commuter in the metropolitan area of a city, and from what I observe in Portland, as well as what I hear from people in other cities, *most* people riding around on city streets are going to be riding somewhere between 5-10 mph, especially as they have to stop often and they are often pacing themselves, as they don't want to arrive at their destination dripping sweat or whatever (especially if it's their workplace or a restaurant or something).

I feel personally that, traveling between 5-10 mph, I can pretty easily see bumps in the road, branches, even screws, glass and other smaller objects before I get to them, and I can react and ride around them if necessary. Going 5-10 mph, I generally don't have too much trouble stopping quickly or moving out of someone's way if they poke out into the street or swerve unexpectedly. Going 5-10 mph, a flat tire isn't going to be nearly as disastrous as it would if I were going 20-30 mph.

I think that, within a city, the biggest difficulty is interaction between bicycles and cars (or pedestrians, runners, etc).

A point that I thought was really interesting regarding the psychology of bicycle helmets that I came across lately, is someone who developed a device which he mounted on the side of his bike, which could judge the distance at which cars passed him. On repeated trips, wearing a bicycle helmet, he noted that cars drove significantly nearer to him when passing than they did if he wasn't wearing a helmet, all other factors being equal. It is also plausible and sensible to conjecture that a rider who feels protected would take more chances in traffic (seeing as we certainly take more risks when we feel safe in other areas of life).

Recently there have been a few cases of bicycle/car collisions in Portland, that have involved the cyclist coming away with no serious injuries, with no head injuries, and yet the media have made a point of emphasizing that the rider was not wearing a helmet, as if this is what caused the collision or something. Essentially, had these riders been wearing helmets, they would have had the same injuries as they did without them. It feels as though the media venues are trying to make people afraid that if they don't wear a helmet, they will inevitably wind up in a collision. However, I don't think things are nearly that simple, and I think there are other factors that will effect your chances of winding up in a collision a lot more than whether you are wearing a helmet. I think this kind of media and advertising for bicycle helmets only increases the fear people have of riding their bicycles.

One of the primary reasons many people don't ride their bicycles is fear of riding. So, taking all of this into account, I still think that the best way to make the road safe for everyone in an urban setting, is to build infrastructure to accommodate cars, bicycles, pedestrians and to make it clear who is supposed to be where, and to educate people on how best to safely use the road with multiple types of travelers using it. The more people we have riding around, the more pressure there will be for infrastructure and education, therefore things will get safer, therefore more people will ride, and on and on.

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