Let me get this out of the way: I'm a daily bike commuter, and I mostly don’t wear a helmet. That doesn't mean I’m an advocate for helmetless riding—I sported a helmet for years and still own one for the more treacherous rides—it means I make a conscious daily decision to ride to work without one, much to the concern of my cycling friends. I can't wholly recall from where the impetus to go helmetless stemmed, but it had something to do with chopping off my scraggly, shoulder-length hippie hair and wanting to ride a day unfettered by a helmet—followed by opting to ride that way most of the time from there on out. This would be an excuse if I was trying to make one. It just is what it is.
Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times wonders, though, if helmets actually encourage biking or act as a deterrent for the casual cyclist. In her recent article "To Encourage Cycling, Cities Lose Helmets," Rosenthal investigates the popularity of Europe’s bike-sharing program, one that doesn’t pressure the use of helmet-wearing and is primarily populated by what she describes as "bareheaded bicycling company." Rosenthal correctly notes that while Europe and most the rest of the world are relatively hands-off when it comes to helmets, the U.S. so strongly condones helmet wearing that it’s quick to label the unhelmeted biking public as "irresponsible, like people who smoke."
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.
Rosenthal points out that Melbourne, Australia, which has a bike-share program and a mandatory helmet-use policy, is struggling to get past 150 rides per day, while Dublin, Ireland, has about 5,000 rides per day, in a much less desirable terrain and climate. So does the insistence of helmets signal that there’s danger ahead for cyclists, thus deterring them from taking part in bike shares? I’m taking the precarious stance of saying yes and no.
There is a certain freedom to being able to just hop on a bike and go—a point Minneapolis bicycling coordinator, Shaun Murphy, promotes to Rosenthal (and one I can certainly back)—but the regular use and advocacy of helmets in behemoth metropolitan cities, like New York City and Chicago, doesn’t indicate that danger lies ahead in bike lanes. Instead, helmet use is so ingrained in a major city’s biking culture that wearing one is more normal than going helmetless. Stopped at a light during a typical trek home from work, my unhelmeted noggin is usually in the minority at about a five-to-one ratio. Would a "mature bike-sharing program" bring those numbers closer together or even flip them?
Rosenthal explains that the answer might depend on the number of female riders:
In the Netherlands, 52 percent of riders are women. Instead of promoting helmet use, European cycling advocates say, cities should be setting up safer bike lanes to slow traffic or divert it entirely from downtown areas. "Riding in New York or Australia is like running with the bulls—it’s all young males," says Julian Ferguson, a spokesman for the European Cyclists’ Federation. And that’s in part what makes it dangerous. (Many European countries do require helmet use for children.)
More riders equals heavier bike traffic equals more awareness equals less danger equals less helmets.
Of course, Rosenthal’s article was certain to spawn a barrage of comments from avid cyclists, bike-wreck survivors, and daily helmet wearers. And it has. The 327 comments and counting affirms that Rosenthal’s is a tough stance to take. But if New York City’s upcoming 10,000-cycle bike-share program does succeed and populate the streets with more and more cyclists, her claim that she may eventually ditch her helmet doesn’t seem too far-fetched.