Bicycle Helmet Scofflaw, or Sophisticated European?

Ann Althouse, a daily read for me, links to this New York Times story by Elisabeth Rosenthal, a reporter and blogger on environmental issues, who seems surprised to find that not everyone in the world has gotten the memo that they must, really really ought to, wear a helmet when bicycling.

Visiting Paris, Ms. Rosenthal hops on a public bike-sharing bicycle for a jaunty ride, but not first without making this realization:

Then I did something extraordinary, something I’ve not done in a quarter-century of regular bike riding in the United States: I rode off without a helmet.


I don’t wear a bicycle helmet on my daily work commute. There is a bicycle helmet hanging right above my bike, in my garage, which I’ll don the next time I go mountain biking. But I don’t wear it on my daily commute. Some people find this really upsetting.

Ms. Sloan explores this controversy in her NY Times story on helmets, helmet science, and the popularity of bicycle commuting and public bike-share programs in Europe and America. Sharing what I gather are her personal experiences from travels abroad, and citing bicycling/safety experts along the way, she notes the vast gulf between bicycling habits at home and abroad.

In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke. Cities are aggressive in helmet promotion.

On the other hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule.

I spent some time exploring the safety literature and found that – surprise – there is no clear consensus on the costs and benefits of wearing bike helmets. I doubt anyway that the Dutch are leaving their helmets at home due to the latest peer-reviewed helmet safety study.

What I did discover is that a lot of the differences between America and European bicycle friendliness can be attributed to commuting behavior, urban layout, and traffic design. In America, we’re addicted to our automobiles, and will hop in one to drive around the block to the Quickie-mart. Of course, part of the reason we do this is because our communities are street- and vehicle-centric.

In Europe, there is a history of commuting by human power. The Dutch, for instance, have been getting around on bicycles for at least a century. Add to that that many European communities are designed to favor the pedestrian and bicyclist. Some of this is because these communities are much older than their American counterparts. You see this in the very narrow cobble-stoned lanes in Europe. In America, we’re all about the big two-lane boulevards, even in our residential areas. In Europe, you find things like the Woonerf – living streets where pedestrians and cyclists have the right of way and priority over the automobile-bound commuter. And imagine an American community doing away with traffic lanes and street signs to enhance the balance of interests between drivers and pedestrians. And for some reason, America, frankly, has a much more aggressive nanny state when it comes to helmet laws. We can’t seem to relax even for a moment, ever vigilant against the slightest chance that someone may injure him or herself in the pursuit of happiness, or life, or going out for a gallon of milk.

I am convinced the only way to make bicycling a widely accepted form of commuting here at home is to have its popularity grow and spread, until it becomes common to encounter people going to and from work, church, school, errands, restaurants and bars, and so on, on their bicycles. Once it’s no longer viewed as some aberrant behavior, but a thing that any sane, normal, non-tour-de-france freak may do, then finally we may make some progress in this ongoing conflict between bikes and cars, and who owns what portion of the roadway, and whether or not we can go about our business without threat of ridicule from the self-appointed helmet police.