Weekly Reading: Be Sure to Bring a Helmet to the Bike Helmet Debate

Maybe it was the recent roll out of Citibike in New York. Or perhaps it was fall out from the excellent and exhaustive article in Bicycling Magazine by Bainbridge Island writer Bruce Barcott about how most of today's helmets do very little to protect riders from concussions. (PDF of the article is available here, from Barcott's blog) Or the Bike Helmet Safety Institute's rebuttal. But whatever the reason, the debate about bike helmets seems to have intensified during the last week.

Everyone from fashion bloggers (warning: slightly off-color headline, but good article), to writers at The Stranger (both con and pro), to the Washington Post, to Atlantic Cities have been unpacking the data over whether helmets make people safer while riding.

Holding down the anti-helmet end of the debate is Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize. Passionate, funny and articulate, Mikael has argued against mandated helmet laws. His great frustration is that he believes that these mandates--whether intentionally or not--are stifling cycling culture in favor of a culture of fear. He looks at the data and attempts to erode the strength of the evidence evidence used by policy makers backing mandatory helmet laws.

No one can make the case better than Mikael himself, so please check out his TED talk below.

This week Mikael's case may have been bolstered by those who have been his most trusted debaters: the public health community. Thanks in part to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, the federal government has withdrawn it's long-standing claim that bike helmets are 85% effective. As WABA report:

In 1989, a study in Seattle estimated that helmets prevent 85% of head injuries. Efforts to replicate those results during the 1990s confirmed that helmets reduce injuries, but not nearly as much as the Seattle study suggested.

So the wall for anti-helmet advocates just got a bit smaller, but why should we care?

Here's why: everyone wants cycling to be safe and convenient. These two camps diverge on how to achieve those goals. The advocates against mandatory helmet laws take the stance that empirically-proven measures like safe, separated infrastructure and a critical mass of riders make riding in the city safer. Pro-helmet advocates don't discount those arguments or dispute the data. However, they make the case that, at least in the US, we don't have either of those elements yet, making helmets a prudent addition to the urban cyclist's attire.

Enter Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog, reflecting on the new data and taking a nuanced stance regarding helmets and the launch of Puget Sound Bike Share in 2014, which will be one of the first bike share operations to have rental helmets due our mandatory helmet law. Tom writes:

There are serious concerns that King County’s all-ages helmet law could have a negative impact on use of the upcoming Puget Sound Bike Share system. Bike share is dependent on people choosing spontaneously to use the system for a short trip here or there. But it is very unlikely that many potential users will carry a helmet with them at all times. PSBS and vendor-operator Alta Bike Share have plans for a helmet vending solution, but this has not yet been successfully implemented anywhere in the world and will add cost to the system and individual users. This cost and reduced ridership due to the helmet law was factored into the system’s plan.

I do not actually care a whole lot about the helmet debate outside of the context of bike share. I choose to wear a helmet, and while I am not a supporter of helmet laws, it’s really not that hard to keep a helmet with your personal bike. There are much more important bike safety issues facing Seattle, like investing in safe bike facilities and encouraging the use of bike lights at night.

But bike share could revolutionize the way Seattle gets around. Our city is perfectly set up for it, with express transit routes moving people into urban centers where people are often dropped off within a short bike ride to their destinations.

That’s why the city/county should modify the bike helmet law for adults (not children). There is very little political will to repeal the law, but there is room for a compromise: Make it a secondary offense (or maybe even make it a secondary offense for bike share users only). Adults who are biking safely and obeying all traffic laws are not a public safety hazard, either to themselves or others. The city should support the success and safety of bike share by doing what they can to encourage the highest use of the system possible. Again: Safety in numbers is 100 percent certain to lower the collision rate for people on bikes.

The compromise here is that people who are not obeying traffic laws and are biking dangerously would get double-ticketed if they do so without a helmet on. So this law change would put an extra emphasis on lawful, safe riding while also allowing bike share to flourish. That’s a politically-palatable win-win that I think most people can agree on.


Despite 70 percent support among New Yorkers, when Citibike rolled out there were still loud howls amongst certain quarters against the program. The most prominent of these detractors was the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, particularly the Pulitzer-prize winning Dorothy Rabinowitz, who, now infamously, observed that "The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise."

Twitter responded, of course, with it's newest handle: @BicycleLobby.