Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Anti-Helmet Law Rant

Sometimes cyclists complain about other cyclists who don’t wear helmets. While I wear a helmet and would like every cyclist to do so as well, I am not in favor of forcing him or her to do so. Here is an editorial/rant I wrote about it:

Helmets don't prevent "accidents" (that term isn’t even right — they are collisions, not accidents). Rider skill, rider and driver adherence to the law, and proper facility design are what reduce the rate of collisions. Helmets might affect the frequency and severity of cyclist head INJURY, but only if properly fit, adjusted and used. Alas, helmets are more complicated to use than seat belts (and even those are not perfect solutions for all, thus we have child seats and boosters). This is evidenced by the scores of people who wear helmets that are ill-fitting, improperly adjusted, or both. I include members of bike clubs in that observation, so being an enthusiast still is no guarantee of proper helmet use (and therefore proper protection). Moreover, wearing a piece of polystyrene on one's head is no guarantee that traffic laws will be followed, and does not signal to drivers anything significant about the competency of the rider. Many helmet-wearing cyclists routinely break traffic laws in such a way that might endanger themselves and others.

If you are anything like most other cyclists I know, you didn't wear a helmet when you first learned how to ride a bike. You weren't an idiot then, and neither are today's cyclists without helmets. I can think of a few reasons why a cyclist might not wear a helmet and none of them indicate much of anything about their worth as people or even if they are “serious” cyclists, or worthy of respect by drivers. I doubt anyone would call the tens of thousands of daily bike commuters in countries like the Netherlands, where helmet use is low, as idiots.

Coming down on fellow cyclists who don't wear helmets is a waste of our energy at least, and perhaps even counter-productive to cycling as a whole. Cyclists are a minority in terms of transportation mode split. Due to the built environment and disparity in power between even an elite racer and the humblest of cars, combined with our culture's lack of patience and compassion (read “patriarchal cruelty and propensity for road rage”), cyclists may even be considered an oppressed minority of sorts. To then attack other cyclists for not wearing helmets seems, therefore, like internalized oppression. Would that we could get respect from all other road users simply by donning helmets! I'm sorry to say that won't do it any more than sending all women to college will stop sexism (because both oppressions are deeply rooted and institutionalized, involving more than just the oppressed party — the oppressors must change too). Additionally, no cyclist should ever feel or be made to feel responsible for the actions of other cyclists; there is no such corollary pressure on drivers. Buying into this double standard only perpetuates cyclist oppression.

Instead, we should all work to make sure that society is properly providing what cycling as a transportation mode and form of recreation really needs. Pete Lagerwey, Seattle's Bike Coordinator, is fond of saying (and I of repeating), “Good facility design invites right behavior.” True, but no facility will always prevent the ignorant or even willful disregard of traffic laws. That is where safety education and, eventually, enforcement come in (though 100% compliance will always remain an asymptotic goal). As a bike safety advocate I promote helmet use yet fight mandatory helmet laws despite the fact that as a bicycle retailer, I'd make money from such a law. Why? Because I dislike the oversimplification used in rationalizing such behavior control — helmets don't prevent collisions (I am far from a libertarian, though, guns DO kill people). I'd rather see bicycle safety education institutionalized in schools than profit from legislation that did nothing to educate cyclists (and the eventual drivers most of them also become) about how to safely use and share the road. Most cyclists don't even know how to properly use their front brake, let alone how to properly negotiate a busy, multi-lane street while preparing to turn left. I think that properly educated, mature cyclists will usually chose to wear helmets. As a bonus, they themselves will know how to fit and adjust their helmets. This provides a bigger benefit than not providing education yet forcing cyclists to wear helmets under the threat of a fine.

I'm far more comfortable with seeing good safe and legal cycling form coming from a rider without a helmet, than the reverse. I'd rather see an educated, helmeted rider, but I'm not going to berate a cyclist for not being one, and neither should you.


Derek said...

hey good to see you guys getting with it haha. I've been missing bike polo. But it's tough with my schedule :(
Keep this blog updated!


gene whorideshisbiketoduponteveryday said...

Hey! September was a long time ago. Your blog disciples are withering from the dearth of "rants, raves, tips, tricks and thoughts about cycling from the folks at OlyBikes".

Hello? Anyone home?