Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Ultimate Bike Helmet-related Letter to the Editor

OK, just kidding (sort of). The May/June 2011 Momentum magazine features "The Helmet Debate" by Elly Blue (four pages long), as well as two bike helmet buying guides, a separate short helmet review, a full-page helmet ad, a contest with a helmet as a prize, lots of nice photos of both helmeted and unhelmeted cyclists and also several letters regarding helmets, which were submitted in response to a request in the March/April issue. They printed/posted a short letter of mine. Following is the longer version from which it was excerpted (I sent it at the end of March and tonight I added some additional paragraphs).

Dear Editor,

Very detailed information related to your question of mandatory cycling helmets has been done by the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation. Beyond that, I am quite interested in the imagery of helmetism, i.e. how promotion and compulsion of cycling helmets are, perhaps, closer cousins then we think:

To start, nearly all urban cycling promotion organizations suggest that helmets are safer and implying or explicitly state that you are smart to wear one. This includes both the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Transportation Alternatives (NYC), the latter with their Biking Rules project, which irritatingly conflates their recommendations of helmets with laws for cycling. An exception is C.I.C.L.E, from Los Angeles, which had what I would call a very pro-choice helmets page, with simple, objective information and links (including to the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation). (Just added: That link is dead now, the C.I.C.L.E. website is in the midst of a re-design and the only new helmet link is typical of most other bike orgs. Will update if it changes back. Sigh).

Consider that most of the other local organization's publications and websites have helmet imagery which might support the view of the organization which created the page but often does not reflect the real helmet-wearing rate in their area and this is worse if the photos are more general, i.e. of how cycling looks in the city they work in.

I believe a good solution for that would be to determine roughly what helmet-wearing rates are and pick and commission photos of helmeted and unhelmeted cyclists to accurately reflect that.

Beyond that, cyclist pictograms in e.g. bike lanes in USA cities without mandatory helmet laws have helmets! As an illustration of a consistent approach to compulsion via promotional bombardment: Washington D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare website has a cyclist with a poorly-adjusted and thus useless helmet. And this from the company which runs that scheme. And that company's president. (I like much of what Alta does but just want to make a point about how helmet promotion can be both directly and indirectly connected with various initiatives.)

Added tonight: Capital Bikeshare sounds successful from all reports I have seen, however I am curious if all members have read the fine print in the contract, which requires them to sign a safety pledge (i.e. to agree to abide by recommendations on the safety page of the website, which of course includes wearing a helmet.) In addition, the contract says that Alta Bikeshare is "...not liable for any claim including those that arise from or relate to [...] failure to wear a bicycle helmet while using a Capital Bikeshare bicycle...".

What I find most troubling with all this is that while Washington D.C.'s helmet law only applies to children under age 16, users of Capital Bikeshare have to be 16 or over. The system is funded in part by taxpayers through Federal and local funds and because of this and also its design function it's a form of public transport. So while the D.C. government does not require helmet-wearing for people eligible to use Capital Bikeshare users via its democratically-created laws, it does require it via membership contracts for this system which it supports financially.

Perhaps someone with better legal knowledge can enlighten me about why there is not something peculiar about this.

On the other hand, B-Cycle - and I mention them because at this moment they and Alta Bikeshare are finalists in getting the NYC bike share gig - makes no mention of helmets in their membership page (at least in this one for Denver -- there is no statewide helmet law in Colorado for anyone). But to be fair to Alta, I assume there are other contracts in the USA which are similar to theirs, though I do know they will be doing something similar with their new operation in Boston.

At some point formal helmet compulsion becomes unnecessary when there is a never-ending barage of helmet imagery. (I am arguing that it does not matter if an org. which strongly promotes helmets say that they are also against laws to mandate it.) If people only see helmeted cyclists, they might not even ask if it is required to wear them or not. They will just assume so. I know that recently in NYC a police officer gave a ticket to an adult cyclist for not wearing a helmet, when actually there is no requirement to wear one, unless the cyclist is doing commercial activity. That is how crazy this gets. It might also be useful to compare how even a majority of opinions against mandatory cycling helmets in response to your query can compete against not just helmet company advertisements in Momentum, but all the other likely ads which have helmeted cyclists in them.

Finally, consider something else: If a serving politician promoted driving helmets they would be voted out of office (If they were running for election they would never win). Another: This is an issue of personal freedom, since helmet wearing - or not - only affects its user, and parents should be able to decide this for their children for the same reason. And one more: Required labels inside helmets do not clearly state under what kinds of crashes are simulated in helmet testing and their marketing is even less precise. I have a suggestion for this.

My accepted abstract for the last Velo-city in Seville, Spain, "Helmetism & Hyper-illumination" provides further information and references. I have a Facebook Page on the subject focused on Velo-city in Vancouver next year.

Kind regards,
Todd Edelman
Green Idea Factory
Berlin, Germany


Anonymous said...

Seat belt wearing has become the norm in some societies, and is sometimes required by law. Politicians who supported this seem to be still around.

You say it is a matter of private choice and that the person who is hurt while not wearing a helmet is the only one affected. I ask you to consider the driver of a vehicle who collides with a cyclist (lets not worry about fault here, it could go either way) and the cyclist's head get mashed in. I think the impact on the driver, and any spectators, that results from such an incident, will be much worse than it would have been if a helmet had prevented the mashing.

I think it is inconsiderate to not wear any appropriate safety device when you are mingling with other users of the streets.

Slow Factory said...

@Anonymous: A person riding a bike should wear a helmet to protect drivers and "spectators"? From what? Similarly, a driver should wear a seatbelt to protect a cyclist (and spectators)? Again, from what?

Anonymous said...

Having read the article in question, I was a little disappointed in the conclusion.

Helmet laws have already made their sweep over the US and Canada. It is not an issue to come, it is an issue that already has come and left it's mess.

The question is, have these helmet promotions or laws helped, or hindered cycling?

I believe they have hurt cycling by scaring people about cycling and providing an inadequate solution to the perceived problem.

With "advocates" like helmet promotors, who needs enemies?

Slow Factory said...

@Anonymous no. 2: Thanks. The "better labeling" suggestion was not meant to be a conclusion, only a focus on the intentional or lazy lack of relevant testing of helmets.

I am mainly interested in asking questions, though I certainly have my own answers to many of them. For example I would like to know what kind of armour-protection would need to be needed to adequately protect cyclists hit by cars on the fast roads that still dominate most countries.

Kim said...

When you look at the countries where helmet wearing is very low and cycling a very common form of everyday transport, are they awash with head injuries?

No, this is the elephant in the room, what is it that helmets are supposed to protect cyclist against?

Most cyclist (except for those who engaged extreme activities such as racing or throwing themselves down steep slopes), very rarely fall off. In motor sport it is common for the drivers to wear helmet and flame suits, and yet there no strident voices calling for these to be mandated for all drivers. Even though it would be easy to design a research study to show that these would would save lives in the rare event that an extreme crash occurred. It should be noted here that per mile travelled cycling in all forms is safer then travelling in a motor vehicle.

No, we are told that cyclist should wear helmets because they are at risk from collisions with motor vehicle (even though the helmet manufactures acknowledge their products are not designed for this purpose). So real the reason for the promotion of cycling helmets is to absolve the driver from responsibility and blame the victim. Why else would motoring organisation be so keen on promoting helmets for cyclist?

Isn't it time started to think about who has the potential to do the most harm on the roads and how we can get them to take their responsibility NOT to harm others seriously. Victim blaming maybe the easy option, but it is not the solution.

2whls3spds said...

Bit late here, however!

Seat belts are extensively tested and have been proven to save lives I have yet to see any comprehensive testing of bicycle helmets under similar conditions. I want to see test dummies on upright city bikes, I want to see test dummies on drop bar racing bikes, I want to see test dummies on BMX bikes, etc, etc. The dummies need to be of varying weights and sizes. I want to see impact rates, g-forces and other engineering data.

When and if these occur and can prove that bike helmets really do save lives, then and only then can you consider making them mandatory for use. Anecdotal evidence is all that currently exists.

BTW if they are so all fired great, how come so many pro riders wearing helmets have died in the past several years?


Slow Factory said...

@Aaron: Better late then never.

I totally agree about testing but there is no logic in considering making them mandatory based on particular results.

Regarding seat belts, if you are convinced I ask you to wade through the material at this link:

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