I hate my helmet

Really. I hate it. I hate it. It’s heavy, especially with the helmet light on. It limits my hairstyles and choice in hats. It’s difficult to deal with off the bike, at my destination, as it hangs there off my bag, taking up room and getting in the way and bonking into things. The only thing I like about my helmet is that I can put stickers on it. Oh, and the helmet light, which is helpful for reading street signs or, y’know, lighting up exactly what I happen to be looking at.

The first time I rode my bicycle without it was unintentional: I forgot it at work. I didn’t realize it until I was on the Hawthorne Bridge and had an itch on my head. I scratched it absent-mindedly and then thought, “Oh…shit.” The times I’ve gone helmet-less since then, I’ve been amazed at how natural it feels, how freeing, to go without. I’ve rarely gone without it, though.

And I can’t decide if it’s even worth it, if it does any good. Both sides can come up with plenty of studies supporting wearing them vs. not wearing them. You’re more likely to have head trauma without one–but you’re still more likely to get major head trauma walking or in a car than on a bicycle, and no one’s insisting that drivers and pedestrians should wear helmets (except facetiously). It supposedly only really does much good at low-speed impacts, like falling off your bike–but I’ve fallen off my bike a few times, and twice I know my helmet hit the ground.

There’s research that says that people driving cars give more passing space to people riding a bicycle without a helmet. I admit that more passing space would be nice sometimes.

There’s the people who point out that wearing a helmet makes cycling look dangerous, and that we’ll never get people on bicycles en masse if they see it as a dangerous activity. On the other hand…especially in the USA, especially outside of Portland, cycling does feel dangerous, even to me. It occurred to me recently that I’m forever trying to get my family to ride bicycles, but I myself hate cycling out where they live, in the west-side suburbs. I do not feel as confident or as safe out there as I do in most of Portland.

Why is it so important to get more people on bicycles? Because it’s safer. The only thing that always makes cyclists safer is for there to be more of them. And that’s because it teaches people driving cars to look. If someone who drives a car never sees people on a bicycle in the road, they’re not expecting you to be there. In addition, they don’t know how to predict your behavior, or how to gauge how fast you’re going. But if someone driving a car lives in a city where a third of the population (including, likely, themselves) bikes somewhere on any given day, they’re expecting you to be on the road, and they’re looking for you. They’re familiar with the hazards. As an example: If I’m in the bike lane going straight, I’m in danger from people who turn right without looking to see if I’m in the bike lane. “Right hooks” are a fairly common cause of accidents between bicycles and cars in the USA. In places with large numbers of cyclists, like Copenhagen, people who drive know damn well to look for cyclists in the bike lane before turning right.

Almost everyone on a bicycle knows someone who swears that their helmet saved their life. First of all, it is almost impossible to know that for sure. Secondly, as the tired saw goes, “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.'” One of the times my helmet hit the ground, I went over my handlebars and landed partially on the right side of my face, requiring two sets of stitches and a new pair of glasses. I also, supposedly, received a mild concussion (I didn’t lose consciousness). Would it have been worse without my helmet? I have no idea. Especially since I believe that part of the reason I hit the side of my face is because the visor of my helmet hit the ground first. I guess stitches are better than a broken nose. I might make a post about that accident eventually, I haven’t decided yet. (I have bought a new helmet since then, but it lacks a visor.)

And why are helmets pushed so hard when they should the item of last resort to protect you? If you need your helmet, something’s already gone terribly awry. If you really want to be safe, you should have a really bright headlight and taillight when it’s dark or raining, and learn the most common ways cyclists are hit by cars, and how to avoid them. Also, since most of the times someone is killed on a bike, it’s because they were hit by a car, why not point out to people who drive that they should be more effing careful? Hell, I’d be pretty happy if they enforced the no cell-phone rule more strongly, since people who are jerks to me are often, surprise! on their phone. My helmet is almost worthless if a guy in a truck mows me down. Would you take a carton of eggs, stick it in a box of polystyrene, run over the box, and expect the eggs to be unbroken?

There are other people who have written pretty balanced views on the subject:

An article on treehugger.com discusses a video by Mikael Colville-Anderson about why we shouldn’t wear helmets. The video itself is well worth watching, even if you’re in the pro-helmet camp. People who ride without helmets are not necessarily stupid or careless, as I used to think when I first started riding everywhere.
My friend Elly Blue has written an excellent article that looks at many sides of the helmet wars debate.

This is what I’ve settled on: wearing my helmet most of the time. I do feel like I wear it mostly out of superstition, out of the belief that the day I don’t wear one, I will get in an accident and get head trauma the helmet would have prevented. Also, many people who skip the helmet get flak from people who do, and I just don’t feel like dealing with that. Most of the times I have gone helmet-less in the past (and likely will again) are slow group rides with lots of people. There is safety in numbers, after all.

I always wear it while touring, which is funny when you think about it, as most bike/car accidents are in cities, at intersections; not out on long meandering roads. But nevertheless: I wear it on tour.

Edited to add: If I were in Copenhagen or Amsterdam, I would not wear a helmet. Ever. Because no one else does. Because it’s so much safer to ride a bicycle there. Both cities are on my list of “places I’d like to visit,” mostly so that I could ride a loop-frame bicycle around on their gorgeous bike routes all day without a helmet!

I very much do not support mandatory bicycle helmet laws, as I think that’s a decision everyone should make for themselves. In the same vein, I don’t criticize people who ride without one.

I didn’t write this post to start a debate or anything, but I understand if people want to comment. Just please keep it civil!

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