Here’s an interesting perspective on cycling without a helmet, written by Joanna Jaoudie. I know our friends over at @cyclelicious might agree with this one….how about you? Let us know your thoughts.
On the Road without a Helmet: It’s for your own good!
by Joanna Jaoudie
I love cycling. It’s something I grew up with. I remember when my parents taught me how to cycle for the very first time. They put a helmet on my head first. That was always the first rule. Then we had to move away for many years, bouncing back and forth between different countries that weren’t bike friendly, so I had to give up my bicycle. I knew I’d never forget how to ride a bicycle, and that it would only take some convincing before I agreed to put on a helmet again (I never really liked wearing one) when I found out that I’d be moving to the Netherlands. I was surprised to find see for myself upon my arrival that wearing a helmet is practically non-existent in Holland, and weirder things you wouldn’t expect to see happening on a bicycle was the norm. Exhibit A.
It’s more common to see a young mother transport her children on the same bicycle than to see someone wear a helmet. Yet, we see professionals wearing them all the time. We know that others have received a fine for cycling without one in the US, Canada and Australia. Even the UK has been fighting to pass a legislative bill over the matter for the last few years – though it still remains non-compulsory– probably for good reason.
There’s so much insistence on the matter, you’d think it’s a question of life or death. Is it really though? I’m here to argue that it isn’t, and to show you how wearing a helmet can actually be more harmful than not.
Let’s let the Netherlands, the bicycle capital of the world, set the example for us. Out of the 16 million Dutch people who own bikes (not counting international students and expats), only 6 people in Amsterdam and 200 nationally die in bike-related accidents yearly. Compare that to the 147 deaths that are witnessed per million inhabitants in the US every year. This article addresses these numbers more extensively, and for any sceptics out there, you can find the raw data officially published by the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment (in Dutch only). On the other hand, countries that make it obligatory to put on a helmet such as Australia don’t seem to be doing a good job keeping the death toll low, with the number of bike deaths spiking in fact.
So what is going wrong here? There are three important factors that need to be taken into account when discussing cycling safety: infrastructures, vehicles and human behaviour. Surely, contraflow cycling on dedicated lanes is one of the best structural adjustments that can be made – something the Netherlands has taken care of. Not every single road is paved with safety, but designated bike paths and calculative road-safety investigations take care of vehicles getting in the way for the most part. However, the most interesting factor for the sake of this article is how human behaviour plays a role.
We’ve been told that helmets will protect us from potential skull and brain injuries that can happen when we suffer a fall, just like we’ve got it engrained in our heads that wearing a seat belt will save our life if we ever get into a car accident. Let’s get some physical facts out of the way first. Science doesn’t really support this theory, and data on the topic is ambiguous at best. According to Dr. Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon at St. George’s Hospital in London, the flimsiness of many helmets can actually cause brain damage upon impact.
In addition to this, Dr. Marsh goes on to explain that the perception of both car drivers and cyclists change when helmets enter the picture. It turns out that piece of equipment that’s supposed to stop an accident may in fact be a trigger for one. Helmets tend to give us the impression that we are safer when we’re wearing them, which in turn makes drivers less wary of keeping their distance. In essence, cars are more likely to drive 3 inches closer to you when you’re wearing a helmet than not. To complement this behaviour, cyclists wearing helmets tend to pay less attention to their surroundings or how fast they’re going because of the obsessive association we’ve made with helmets and safety. The truth is though that you’ve exposed yourself to more danger the moment you convince yourself that a physical item is what will save your life.
It’s not like the Dutch have some supernatural ability to dodge the kinds of accidents that would lead to life threatening head trauma, but they do seem to harbour the kind of behaviour that is needed to make a living and breathing cycling society thrive without the need for helmets: trusting in themselves and their bicycle as the main method of transportation.
Maybe it’s time for you to reconsider the next time you put on that helmet!
About the author: Joanna Jaoudie is loving her bike and cycling her way through life in the Netherlands (without a helmet) where she’s lived for the last 3 years, first studying that funny thing called the mind and brain before taking on the nifty world of discounts with the global coupon site Flipit.com.