In honor of Bike to Work Week, I recently fessed up to my bad no-helmet habit, igniting some strongly opinionated comments (Blisstree readers = awesomesauce). One commenter in particular caught my attention: James Schwartz, the man behind popular bike blog The Urban Country. According to him, ditching my helmet is perfectly alright. To my surprise and delight, he derailed the popular idea that only foolhardy cyclists go helmet-less. According to Schwartz, telling people to wear helmets will more than likely scare them away from biking altogether, reinforcing car-dominance of the road. To find out more about his unconventional point of view, I asked Schwartz to elaborate on his anti-helmet antics in a Q&A. Here’s what he has to say:
How do helmets discourage people from biking?
Riding a bicycle in North America is not an easy choice for most people. Most North Americans are dependent on automobiles, and there are many barriers that prevent people from choosing to use a bicycle (lack of good infrastructure, lack of comfort, weather, theft, accessibility, distance, etc.). If you were thinking about riding your bike, and someone told you that you are probably going to die if you don’t wear a helmet, you probably will look for alternate options to get yourself from point A to point B. It also implies that a) You are indeed going to get hit, and b) A helmet will save your life. But neither of these statements are true.
Bicycling is inherently safe, and bicycle helmets are not designed to save your life. By stating that a helmet will save your life, and you must wear one, is only perpetuating the fallacy, and frankly, results in discouraging people from riding. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wearing a helmet, but instilling fear in people to guilt them into wearing a helmet does not make bicycling sound appealing.
How does the helmet argument distract people from the actual underlying issues concerning city cycling?
Helmet laws are an excuse for politicians to “improve bicycling safety”. It’s dead simple to implement a helmet law and declare victory, but helmet laws ignore the underlying issues with safety. To improve bicycle safety, we need to focus on avoiding collisions in the first place. Preventative, proactive solutions are far more effective than reactive band-aid solutions. The only thing on our streets that pose danger to bicyclists are motor vehicles – and motor vehicles aren’t going away anytime soon.
We need to reduce speed limits to make our streets more bicycle/pedestrian family, and we need to put the onus on the larger vehicle to operate responsibly. That means bicyclists are responsible for not hitting pedestrians, motorists are responsible for not hitting pedestrians and bicyclists, and truck drivers are responsible for not hitting automobiles, bicyclists and pedestrians.
How is the brain-splatter image of a bike collision a scare-tactic?