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The helmet issue

When I bought Clyde, there was no question in my mind that I would get a helmet at the same moment, and wear it every time I ride. I'm not so vain, nor is my hair so beautiful, that I can't bear to wear a dorky-looking hard shell on my head while I'm out on my bike.

It turns out that helmets are a wedge issue in the bike world. Some cycle-chic and slow-cycle advocates claim that helmets are a deterrent to appearance-conscious people (women and girls are usually mentioned) who might otherwise get on a bike. Fear of mandatory helmet laws drives a lot of your more gung-ho cyclists to hate helmets on principle.

There are lots of arguments out in the bike blogosphere about the relatively minor statistical value of helmets in preventing injury in bike accidents. In my mind, even the slightest statistical benefit makes the helmet worthwhile. This ain't Amsterdam. Even in Portland, bikes are in the very-small minority on the streets. Safety from automobiles is a BIG concern.

And yet.

My route to work is 75% on traffic-free neighborhood streets or bikeways. And it's spring. So today I rode 3.25 miles without my helmet, and three-quarters of a mile with, and I have to say, the helmetless part was awesome. I felt like people could see me. I was more part of the scene. People on foot--even other cyclists--smiled at me more.

And my hair was dry when I got to work, too.

This entry is cross-posted from DarkEmeralds on Dreamwidth.

Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
roxymissrose
Feb. 25th, 2010 09:04 pm (UTC)
That's a tough one. I personally know three people whose injuries would have been much more severe without a helmet. I would be very nervous--as in, 'are you out of your mind' nervous, if Mr. R took off without a helmet.

In New Jersey, helmets are the law if you're riding on roadways(not that I've ever heard of it being enforced.) Mind you, where we live, cyclists are hated with a passion and there are areas where "knock the cyclist into the ditch" is a sport.
emeraldsedai
Feb. 25th, 2010 11:02 pm (UTC)
here are areas where "knock the cyclist into the ditch" is a sport.

Exactly. If I'm on a roadway, I'm wearing a helmet, because that's true here (possibly to a lesser extent). Generally, if I'm anywhere on my bike, I'm wearing a helmet. But the deserted bike-only path at 9:00 on a Thursday morning seemed like a pretty safe bet for blowing my hair back a little.
thedarkages
Feb. 25th, 2010 10:59 pm (UTC)
Two friends of mine have had bike accidents, one fatal, exacerbated by going helmetless. In one case, there was no traffic at all -- just a deer.

All your good feelings about going bare-headed to the contrary, I'd put that helmet back on.
emeraldsedai
Feb. 25th, 2010 11:03 pm (UTC)
Yeah, on the whole I'm right with you, and almost all my miles are ridden with a helmet firmly on my head (also lights all over the place, reflectors, the whole bit).

For the most Amsterdam-like portion of my commute, though, in broad daylight, where there are no cars and hardly any other bikes, it seemed a risk I could take to go without.
(Deleted comment)
emeraldsedai
Feb. 26th, 2010 01:35 am (UTC)
My thinking goes like this: There were 700 bicyling fatalities in the US in 2007. 90% of those were caused by car-bike collisions, and one one in 14 of those killed was wearing a helmet.

So, if I'm riding where there are cars, I wear my helmet. If I'm riding where there are no cars, I might not.

Mostly, though, I'm an extremely conservative, defensive bike-rider.
jbubble
Feb. 26th, 2010 04:51 pm (UTC)
I rarely rarely rarely ride without a helmet - I've got two small boys and a) need to set an example for them (how can i expect them to wear theirs if I'm not?) and b) want to make sure I'm around for them for as long as possible, so why take chances?

But the few times I do go helmet-less, yes, it does feel oh so good. BUT...I also know that the one time I really needed a helmet (and thankfully had it on), when we dumped our tandem 10 years ago, there wasn't a car in sight, we were on a road with no traffic, going slow, just hit a railroad track at the wrong angle. It could've been a rock, a curb, a stick, a crack in the pavement, whatever. With the helmet I was knocked-out, not breathing, had to spend the night in the hospital, had several days of memory loss. And damn, I looked scary (my 3 year old nephew started crying when he saw me 'cos I looked like a monster).

I kind of figure a helmet's not going to help me if I get hit by a car, there's gonna be more to worry about if that happens. I'm much more worried about random falls (which are admittedly and thankfully rare) and bumping my head on the pavement than my head getting hit by a car. And that's where the helmet *might* help me. So I wear it 99.8% of the time.
jbubble
Feb. 26th, 2010 04:53 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah, I hit reply too soon.

I was going to add, I wear mine, but hey, if others want to make the choice not to, more power to 'em :) It's not my place to tell others what to do!
emeraldsedai
Feb. 26th, 2010 05:25 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it's an interesting area. I don't have super-strong feelings about helmets as an "Issue"--the need to wear one didn't stop me from taking up bike-riding again at a late age. I think I'm with Dottie of Let's Go Ride A Bike (and most of her commenters) on the issue: i.e., going helmetless is a risk I'm willing to take occasionally.

Your story--rather than all the terrible danger!danger! fearmongering--makes me think I'll keep it very occasional.
(Deleted comment)
emeraldsedai
Feb. 27th, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC)
LOL! I was thinking that myself.

Yes, I am helmet girl, really.
str8ontilmornin
Feb. 28th, 2010 07:45 am (UTC)
Your logic is sound. Please proceed. :-)
emeraldsedai
Feb. 28th, 2010 07:53 am (UTC)
LOL! Well, thank you!

Actually, I'm glad I put this out there, because the responses have been thoughtful, and have helped me decide to be very selective about where I ride without a helmet.
str8ontilmornin
Feb. 28th, 2010 07:55 am (UTC)
I believe that the proximity of cars is a huge deciding factor for me.
emeraldsedai
Feb. 28th, 2010 08:11 am (UTC)
Yup. I just can't get too worried about wearing a helmet in Waterfront Park, the Eastbank Esplanade, or the Springwater Corridor--all paved, all wide, all carless and all pretty much totally without intersections.

When I ride through the Rose Quarter Transit Center, or on SW 10th in the Pearl? Then, I wear my helmet. And stay away from the streetcar tracks!
str8ontilmornin
Feb. 28th, 2010 08:12 am (UTC)
Yeah, tracks. :-(
jbubble
Mar. 1st, 2010 05:16 am (UTC)
heh...see those are the exact places that i really don't like to ride because i constantly fear collisions with bikers who are racing by way too fast, or with pedestrians who are ambling about, unaware of their surroundings, or dogs on retractable leashes, or kids wobbling to and fro on foot or on bikes. i think about wiping out on those paths way more than i do when i'm on an actual street! but i tend to overthink things ;)
emeraldsedai
Mar. 1st, 2010 06:11 am (UTC)
My cycling life started in the fall, so my experience of the major bikeways in Portland has been on rainy, deserted days for the most part.

But yeah, Waterfront Park is a bitch on a nice day, and I'll probably start using Naito Parkway instead, since it's part of my daily commute. I've had a couple of near misses with dogs. Scary.
ext_143550
Mar. 4th, 2010 05:34 pm (UTC)
I'm too idealistic
I'm too much of an idealist I think. I hate that we should be made to fear something so simple as riding a bicycle, and so not wearing a helmet is partly (minorly) a statement to that effect for me. Riding should not be something to be afraid of.

On the other hand though, we all drive without helmets, and technically you're at least as likely to get a major head injury driving as riding a bike. It just *feels* more secure with lots of metal around you. In fact, you're even more likely to get hit by a car while walking than riding a bike. I guess I just find it very suspicious that people are *so* adamant about wearing a helmet for cycling, when we feel absolutely no need to wear one for similarly dangerous or even more dangerous things that just haven't been branded as dangerous.

I also think the likelihood of a head injury has a ton to do with how you ride and what type of bike you ride, so you should also make your decision of whether or not to wear a helmet based on those factors - someone riding 20mph on a drop-bar racing bike is much more likely to go head first into the ground at sufficient speed to hurt themselves than someone going 10mph on an upright bike. On a typical Dutch bike for instance, there is literally *no* chance of going over the handlebars. It's just an individual thing to consider.

Really, I think there are a lot of factors involved, and you just have to make a decision based on your own circumstances (where you ride, how you ride, with whom you ride, etc). I can't make that decision for anyone, because I'm not in their circumstances. Personally, I don't think I'm at much risk without one, and I feel perfectly comfortable riding without one, but I know I'm not everyone.
emeraldsedai
Mar. 4th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm too idealistic
Thank you for the thoughtful response. I know you ride without a helmet (and look great doing it!) and your point about Dutch bikes is excellent. Clyde's a "cruiser" (I guess) with a very upright configuration, and my chances of going over the handlebars seem very limited.

I'm kind of splitting the difference right now, putting my helmet on when I enter traffic for two sections of my commute, and hanging it over the handlebars for the longer traffic-free portions. I'm a really conservative, slow rider--that's half the fun of riding a bike!
ext_143550
Mar. 4th, 2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm too idealistic
Yeah, I'm fine with whatever people choose, but I would love it if more people made a real, informed decision rather than just believing the "you WILL die quickly and painfully if you don't wear one". That just sounds too much like a marketing gimmick to me (or a religious sermon).

I certainly understand that riding in traffic is not comfortable, feels intimidating, and generates a desire to protect yourself.

I'm a pretty conservative, slow rider myself - much of the reason I ride a bike is because I want to *enjoy* getting where I'm going, which I just don't when I'm driving. I'm not overly concerned with how long it takes (though even riding casually, I often still get places in town equally as fast as if I were driving), I want to see, smell, hear and experience my surroundings.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )

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