Slow News Day? Start a Helmet War!

“Nobody is looking to make any news.” Was the statement from the White House regarding the Obama family vacation. Famous last words.

Well, you’ve probably heard the news by now. President Obama went for a bike ride on a beach path on Martha’s Vineyard and didn’t wear a helmet! Predictably, the helmet nannies have their knickers in a twist over this presidential gaffe. Here’s my favorite quote (so far):

“Most bike accidents just happen. Bicycles up and turn over by themselves, and head injuries are a possible consequence of that. Head injures don’t heal well, and they can be very expensive and life-long. It would be great if the President set an example.”

said David Mozer, director of the International Bicycle Fund

I hate it when my bike just up and turns over by itself.

LA Times Top of the Ticket has a wonderfully snarky post about all the hand-ringing:

Future Democrat president Barack Obama refusing to wear a bike helmet in earlier years

The bold move, coming in late August when there’s little else to prattle about except homicides and deaths (also wildfires), is certain to create continental controversy among several people concerned about hats worn during recreation.

Such open defiance of proper head healthcare is actually not new for Obama, who began the helmet-less practice even as a child in Hawaii (see photo). Read the rest.

Tip of the helmet to for this one.

There are debates on the effectiveness of helmets, on the effect of helmet promotion/regulation on ridership, etc. I don’t get into those debates unless someone is trying to pass a law. And I wear a helmet when I ride (road or trail). The problem I have with helmet nannies isn’t their intensity in promoting helmets, it’s that most of them do it to the exclusion of teaching people how to avoid crashes in the first place. It’s just another case of our cultural fixation on passive safety over education and personal responsibility for mindfulness and good decision-making.

99% of safety comes from pro-active behavior, not equipment. If so-called safety advocates spent anywhere near the energy on raising awareness of safe BEHAVIOR as they have on helmet use, we might not have anywhere near the crash rate. Imagine if there was as much peer pressure to ride assertively and follow the rules of the road as there is to wear a helmet!

28 replies
  1. Rantwick
    Rantwick says:

    Helmet nannies! Grrrr. Nothing sells like a simple answer requiring people to simply buy and wear something. Convenience is king in all things, it would seem. Thought and effort are not convenient for most. Rant rant, grrr, grrr.

    I wear a helmet too. The never ending discussion of and promotion of their use just (insert bad word here) me off.

  2. Eric Moritz
    Eric Moritz says:

    “Bicycles up and turn over by themselves”

    This approach hurts bike adoption. Sure scare the masses by making them believe that cycling is an inherently dangerous hobby/transportation method. Good job!

    Bikes don’t just up and turn over, you have to do something stupid for that to happen. When you’re doing something stupid, wear a helmet.

    If you’re riding on the street, wear a helmet. If you’re riding in the woods, wear a helmet. If you’re riding < 5mph with your kids and a path, not that big of a deal.

  3. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    In countries like Denmark and The Netherlands, virtually nobody wears a helmet unless they are doing something like trick jumping.

    The problem with bicycle helmets is that they send a signal that cycling is dangerous. This discourages bicycle use and results in cycling being more dangerous due to losing the “safety in numbers” effect.

    Not to mention that all the people discouraged from cycling are at risk of heart, stroke and other health issues from not living an active lifestyle.

    This is the fundamental reason why I do not wear a helmet. Doing so endangers all cyclists. Helmets kill.

    It is interesting seeing the research on this. It is estimated that a mandatory helmet law would cost the USA $4.75 billion in extra health costs due to all the deaths and injury it would cause.


  4. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    “Nothing sells like a simple answer requiring people to simply buy and wear something.”

    And nothing guarantees bad legislation like profit motive (see: Bell).

    The League had some Bell hotshot come and preach to us LCIs at the Portland Bike Ed Leadership Conference during a plenary. Many of us were offended. It was like a Bell helmet commercial.

  5. P.M. Summer
    P.M. Summer says:

    Kevin: Hell has officially frozen over. First Rick Perry, then Barack Obama, and now you. 😉

    Mighk: I wasn’t at that confab, but I saw the same thing at other seminars… especially if it was under a BFA contract. BellSports is the primary reason we have mandatory helmet laws in some parts of the country, using their lobbying arm to “buy off” local officials. The cycling world has more industry-shill “astroturf” organizations than any endeavor I am aware of.

    Keri: When a 10-year old boy was struck and killed here by a police car going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone, without light or siren, in the evening on a street darkened by no street lights because it was decided by the Utility to fore go maintenance in “that” part of town, what was the media’s cry? The boy wasn’t wearing a helmet.

    I wear a helmet most of the time when I’m on my bike, but not all of the time. I wear a hat at all other times.

  6. Keri
    Keri says:

    “The cycling world has more industry-shill “astroturf” organizations than any endeavor I am aware of.”

    We could use a “Truth” campaign aimed at naive bike advocates, like the one aimed at teen smokers.

  7. ChrisOtto1014
    ChrisOtto1014 says:

    One can never predict the future or prevent things from happening. One may just around the block for a ride, never expecting to have an accident. Sometimes people can do everything right and still have something go horribly wrong. Is it really so hard to wear a helmet?? If you don’t, ask yourself why you do not. Is it worth the price??
    Considering that Obama is touting a health reform package to cover everybody and everything it seems, at the very least he could set a proper example for healthy living by riding with a helmet. If everybody wore a helmet while riding, it would help reduce injuries and subsequently health care costs. Think about it…..

  8. P.M. Summer
    P.M. Summer says:

    “If everybody wore a helmet while riding, it would help reduce injuries and subsequently health care costs. Think about it….. ”

    Chris, if you can produce some evidence for that, beyond the ones that are a result of a reduction in cycling (that also produce a reduction in broken collar bones, etc.), please give me a link. It would be very helpful.

    I presume you advocate, and model, the wearing of Snell Approved helmets in automobiles. Now THAT would result in some serious health-care savings… as well as HANS devices.

    The reality is far more people, at a higher percentage of usage, suffer head injuries in their showers at home. I would think that would be a good place to start a safety campaign that would really generate results.

  9. John in NH
    John in NH says:

    I have found the only time when wearing a helmet might be of benefit is when on the same path as cars. You also tend to get a wider berth and not seen as one of these yuppy 20 something fixie scoff-laws by the car drivers. with that said, if i am on a car free rout or a trail going a nice slow ish speed a helmet will do more harm then good in most instances. there is no quick answer and no black and white, its a shame people don’t see that.

  10. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    I doubt anyone on this blog is anti-helmet. Some of ARE however, anti-helmet law, anti-helmet obsession, anti-“helmets come first”…

    Helmets are sold as THE bicycle safety solution (probably in a tie with “bike paths”). They are not. They’re a good idea that’s been pushed as a mandatory panacea.

  11. Paulo Andrade
    Paulo Andrade says:

    I don´t wear a helmet. I cycle for more then 30 years and I never was injured in the head. I´m more confortable and secure without the helmet.

  12. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    So far, I’ve experienced only bad stuff from wearing helmets. First a nasty insect bite, and now a tan that looks like a tatooed version of a Rantwick helmet hair humor post.

    Seriously, Mighk, helmets and bike paths go together. The overwhelming majority of my low speed falls occur on bike paths, despite them representing a very small fraction of my mileage. The low speed fall is not far beyond what bike helmets were designed for.

  13. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Helmets are actually better for slow speed falls than high-speed impacts. I had an acquaintance who died in a slow-speed sidepath collision. Her only injuries other than to her head were minor abrasions. Another person I knew casually died on a path with no other bike or car involved; again, from a head injury. Neither were wearing helmets.

    I also had two friends killed in (separate) high-speed motorist crashes; both wearing helmets. With high speeds, other injuries besides the head can still kill you.

    This is my philosophy:

    And my own priorities for wearing helmets:

    Moderately to highly technical mountain biking — always
    Group rides — always
    Riding with kids — always
    Riding solo around downtown Orlando — usually, but once in a while I’ll leave it at home
    Riding solo outside of downtown Orlando — almost always
    Non-technical mountain biking — rarely

  14. ChrisOtto1014
    ChrisOtto1014 says:

    Evidence?? My two crashes. If I were not wearing a helmet, I would most likely have some serious head injuries resulting in massive health care expenditures and lost time of work. How is that?? It may be limited to me and my experience, but most bicycle accidents go unreported as the person gets up rides home and replaces broken equipment (as I did) and can’t be counted under statistics. No one had ever asked me to fill out a report or take a study. It’s easy to say “statistics don’t lie”, but they can misrepresent by having inadequate sampling, biased sampling, etc.

  15. Rick
    Rick says:

    I agree with Mighk on this one. I’m not anti-helmet, but I am against legislation requiring me to wear one. Prior to having kids, I never wore a helmet. I rode a bike while in college as a primary means of transportation at two college campuses and was occasionally told by well meaning people that I should wear a helmet. When my kids started riding with me I discovered I had to be a role model. It is now to the point where I was wheeling the bike out after making an adjustment and my daughter “made me” go back and get my helmet. I look at that as a well brought up girl.

    As far as helmet vs no-helmet injuries, I think you might do well to look to the motorcycle industry for those stats you were looking for. Being on the observation side of injuries in healthcare, we see a lot of motorcycle injuries. The question would be whether we see less closed head injuries simply because people don’t survive. I have not seen those statistics, but I plan to err on the side of caution. Safety comes first-brain bucket on!

  16. Keri
    Keri says:

    I landed on my forehead when I was hit by a car. The helmet took the impact. I probably would have had a concussion had I not been wearing it.

    But back to my original point. I was hit by a car because I was operating in a way that put me in a common conflict situation. Knowing what I do now, I would not be hit like that.

    Bicycles don’t just up and fall over. Car’s don’t just run into them unpredictably. When you go over crash data, it’s mostly the same common causes you see over and over again. 95% of them are avoidable if the cyclist only knew a few simple things. So if you want to help people stay safe, THAT should be the primary emphasis of so-called safety advocates. But it isn’t. That’s the rub.

    When you see American cyclists dutifully wearing their helmets while riding in the door zone, passing tractor trailers on the right, riding straight in right-turn lanes, riding on the sidewalk in commercial areas, the failure is apparent.

  17. ChrisOtto1014
    ChrisOtto1014 says:

    Comprehensive bicycle drivers course. Teach people how to drive a bicycle safely and lawfully, how to keep a bike in top operating condition and properly fit a helmet. Three pronged approach to reducing collisions, falls, and injuries. Sounds good to me. If any of the above mentioned is left out, then what good are the other two. Why argue against wearing a helmet or having a bicycle in poor condition?? We humans like to think we have control over ourselves and the environment around us. A simple ride down the block can turn tragic in a split second. Can you predict the future?? I really don’t understand the “anti-helmet” arguments.

  18. Keri
    Keri says:

    Chris, you’ll never hear me make an argument against wearing a helmet. I never have made such an argument.

    People who are anti-helmet are welcome to make their case. I know what the arguments are, a google search will reveal them. I have no dog in that fight. I’m not anti-helmet.

    I’m anti- propaganda, nanny-states, and misguided busy-bodies. And I get irked at the insidious hyper-focus on passive safety in this culture — that includes everything from helmets to airbags.

  19. JohnB
    JohnB says:

    I’m with Mighk and Keri. I almost always wear a helmet, always on my commute and other longer transportation (except briefly last summer when I was intentionally experimenting with not wearing one, to see how I would feel about it and what peoples’ reactions would be), always on group rides (it’s generally required anyway), always with my kids, but hardly ever anymore when just hopping on my hybrid to pick up milk or beer at the convenience store.

    I was just thinking about this just yesterday, in fact, as I was peddling in my Sunday clothes to my church a few blocks away. I just don’t want to feel like I’m engaging in a sport when I’m simply going from point A to point B in my neighborhood. I don’t want to feel like it’s that big a deal. As a bike commuter, I think I’ve long since given up on the need to look normal (especially in the winter with the hi-viz jacket and reflective leg straps), and I know that using a bicycle for transportation by choice is still somewhat counter-cultural to many, but darn it, I still *want* the activity to *feel* “normal”, like I’m just getting in my car to go to store, except my car is a bike.

    Obviously I could just as easily fall and hit my head going 3 blocks to church as on my 5-mile commute, but it’s a risk evaluation, and in some cases, I decide the risk is not worth doing something I just don’t feel like doing. As Keri says, I believe that how I behave is MUCH MUCH more important to my safety than wearing a helmet, and I know I behave fairly well, although we can all make mistakes and there is always room for improvement. However, there is also the role model factor to consider, for both kids and adults who are not yet adept at handling their bikes or riding in traffic. This is even more important being that I am now an LCI and on the board of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, meaning I don’t have quite as much luxury to decide not to wear one than if I weren’t those things.

  20. P.M. Summer
    P.M. Summer says:

    @ JohnB
    on Aug 31st, 2009 at 8:14 am


    Five, six, seven, eight,
    Don’t forget to thank the State!


    My distilled argument is this: Bicycle helmets are good for cyclists. Bicycle Helmet Laws are bad for cycling.

    I was an early adopter of bike helmets, first with a Bell Biker, then a Bell Biker II, and even a Skid-Lid (which I still have).

    The anecdotal stories (“I’d be dead if it wasn’t for my helmet!”) remain unsupported by injury data, and I find that troubling.

    But what I REALLY find troubling is the belief that bike helmets (with a design impact speed of about`14 mph) provide real protection from collisions with automobiles, a lie which public health and safety groups (flush with contributions from astroturf organizations funded by helmet manufacturers) have been promoting endlessly, along with the false “Bike Helmets Provide an 80% Reduction in Head Injuries” statement. This false information is then used as a substitute for bicycling education.

    If bike helmets worked as described (because low-speed cycling is as dangerous as we would be led to believe), we would see wards full of closed head injury victims in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, not to mention Beijing.

    The cause of US cyclists’ head injuries has more to do with poor cycling habits and education than with styrofoam buffers. Some studies of sports risks seem to imply tangentially that cyclists along (and below) the 35th parallel (especially children) are at far greater risk of brain injury due to heat stroke caused by cheap bike helmets than by falling off their bicycles.

  21. Chris
    Chris says:

    OK, P.M. I will stop wearing my helmet and the next time I crash, I will let you know how it turns out, if I can.

    I do not believe my helmet will save me if hit by a car.
    Anecdotal stories are all I have.
    Injury data and statistics will NEVER tell the full story.
    I am not much for marketing (ala 80% reduction…)
    I am not for the state forcing anyone to wear a helmet.
    I simply do not understand the “I don’t want to wear a helmet” syndrome.
    People think they are indestructible until they are not.

  22. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    I like Keri’s arguement, but really what that says is that most cyclists SHOULD wear a helmet because they don’t know how to properly ride to protect themselves ….

  23. Eric Moritz
    Eric Moritz says:

    I’m too paranoid not to wear a helmet. I don’t care if it only provides slightly more protection over not wearing one, that’s still a slightly better chance than I had before. I don’t hop in the car and not buckle up, I’m not going to ride without a helmet.

    I’m not for mandatory helmet laws at all however. Adults should be able to decide if they want to wear one or not.

  24. MikeOnBike
    MikeOnBike says:

    “I don’t hop in the car and not buckle up”

    But do you wear a helmet in the car? Me, neither.

    Based on head injury stats, we all should wear car helmets. It’s kind of mysterious that the helmet makers haven’t gone after this gigantic market.

  25. Rodney
    Rodney says:

    Not for sure why I started wearing a helmet while cycling. Perhaps it was being a “neophyte” and “skeered of them thar cars”.

    I know it won’t protect me in event of a crash, but it could help to potentially lessen an injury. I have seen the difference of motorists when sans helmet and found I am given more room during passing, even in the evil bike lane (SR 436). interesting view on bike helmet use.

    …and a helmet is a necessity, especially if you do any riding on hard surface roads. (Overhanging limbs can give you a good whack, too.)

    If you use a helmet for nothing else…..I hate it when trees attack!

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