The urban bike magazine

Papa, Do You Have a Bike Helmet, Too?

I knew this day would come, but it caught me by surprise nevertheless. I guess I was hoping I still have some time left. But last week my daughter, who just passed the tender age of two, has used the H-word. In the morning I kissed her good-bye, as usually, and said I'm going to cycle to work. And then the H-word came. "Papa, do you have a helmet, too?" she asked. For a brief moment I did not know what to say. Because while she wears a bike helmet every time I take her on the bike, I am not wearing one myself, not when I'm bringing her to the day-care nor on my commute to work. As parents often do, I rescued myself by telling a half-truth - that I wear a helmet when riding my race bike.

M.Afanasyev_square
I was born in the Soviet Union, lived in Israel for many years and since 2003 I live in the Netherlands, in Rotterdam. Geophysicist by training, I am doing a PhD at the Delft University of Technology. In my family, we own 7 bicycles between the four of us, so as you can imagine we cycle quite often. I pedal to work, to the store, to the park with the kids, for sports or just for fun. I love cycling and I enjoy writing, so I combine the pleasures of both.
Image © Michael Afanasyev

Why Am I Not Wearing a Bike Helmet?

But on my way to work I kept thinking what will I say when she grows a bit older. Why am I not wearing a helmet and how can I explain this to her? Its not like my head is fall-proof. If anything, adults are more vulnerable than children. They have harder skulls with less cushioning, cycle faster and have a higher way to fall. I myself commute in the rush hour and violate a dozen of traffic rules every day – cycling on pavements, cutting corners and busting red lights. I’m regularly involved in near-misses with other cyclists, cars, pedestrians and most of all, just by myself as I slip on sand, fallen leaves or patches of snow. I know many people who’ve been involved in serious cycling accidents, even with permanent disability as a consequence. So why despite all this I am not wearing a helmet? Wouldn’t it be the logical thing to do? It turns out, it is not.

Cycling without helmet@Michael

Image © Michael Afanasyev

A Helmet Does Not Make You Safer (While Cycling)

I’ve done a bit of research and was surprised to find out that, first of all, most cyclists that are involved in accidents with cars are hit sideways and/or at speeds far in excess of what the bike helmet was designed for. And in other accidents, its usually the shoulders, knees and hips that are damaged, not the head. A helmet would do nothing to protect that friend of mine who got hit by a car that ignored a stop sign and cracked his spine. Nor would it help my other friend, who lost the use of her leg after slipping on an icy road. Additionally, if I would want to protect my head from injuries, based on statistical evidence I would be much better off wearing a bike helmet when not on the bike – the odds of sustaining a head injury while driving or walking are much higher than when cycling!

Worse, a Bike Helmet Makes You Less Safe

So what about the research that shows a decrease in head injuries after making helmets mandatory for cyclists? There is a major flaw in that research – it forgets to account for the cycling rates. In the countries and regions that made helmets mandatory the numbers of cyclists plummeted. While the number of head injuries went down, the probability of getting your skull cracked while cycling actually went up! In fact, wearing a helmet reduces your safety. Not only do cyclists who wear bike helmets adopt a more dangerous riding style due to a false sense of security, experiment shows motorists are passing helmet-wearers at a much closer distance.

Safety in Numbers

To improve the safety of cyclists, what we need is more cyclists. It is called “safety in numbers”. It works as follows: when there are many cyclists, motorists are used to them, and adjust their driving style accordingly. According to OECD increased cycling rates automatically means more motorists have experience in being a cyclist. They know “how the other half lives” and are more considerate for the safety of cyclists. And as far as governments are concerned – instead of making helmets mandatory, to improve the safety of cyclists they should invest in the development and maintenance of good cycling paths, as much as possible physically separated from traffic other, regularly cleaned and repaired and de-iced in the cold season.

To Wear or Not to Wear?

It does make sense to wear a bike helmet during race-cycling or mountain biking (like I do), as a cycle messenger in general and perhaps elderly and children are best advised to wear a helmet, too (even that is debatable though). To increase my own safety perhaps I should always cycle as if my daughter is on the bike with me – I never run a red light when I’m with her. But as far as a bike helmet is concerned the bottom line is that I am making a wise, rational, scientifically supported decision not to wear a helmet. But how do I explain it to a two-year old?

 

M.Afanasyev_square
I was born in the Soviet Union, lived in Israel for many years and since 2003 I live in the Netherlands, in Rotterdam. Geophysicist by training, I am doing a PhD at the Delft University of Technology. In my family, we own 7 bicycles between the four of us, so as you can imagine we cycle quite often. I pedal to work, to the store, to the park with the kids, for sports or just for fun. I love cycling and I enjoy writing, so I combine the pleasures of both.

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