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photos by Amsterdamize.com and Mark Emery
The Helmet DebateAbove: Riders in the Netherlands rarely don helmets, partially because helmets are not required by law and partially because riding is relatively safe. Separated bike lanes, bike boxes at intersections, and a high volume of cycling traffic makes cycling safer in the Netherlands than most major cities in the US and Canada. Below: Helmets were first introduced to cycling as a way to protect racers' heads from injury. Unlike the typical commuter cyclist, road racers travel at high speeds, in close proximity to other riders in a peloton, such as in Nature Valley Grand Prix depicted here.
The Helmet Debate
By Elly Blue
In the cycling arena, nothing has been more hotly debated or more polarizing than the debate about the merits of mandatory helmet laws.
Carla Danley is a former emergency room nurse who has seen her fair share of head injuries. She has also been a daily bicycle rider since 2009 when, at age 50, she moved to Portland, OR, and launched headlong into the city’s vibrant bike scene. In Portland, bicycling verges on the mainstream.
Danley is one of many who choose to wear a helmet every time they ride. “It’s in my marriage contract,” she said. Her husband lost his teenage sister after she was struck by a car while on a cross-Canada bike trip. “One of the things I give him credit for is: when we moved to Oregon, I was like, ‘I’m going to get rid of my car and ride a bike’, and he has always been behind me 100 percent,” she said. “But he is really clear that he wants me to use bike lights at night and have a helmet on all the time. And I’m good with that.”
Across the globe, in Western Australia, Sue Abbott, a 50-year-old mother of four who has cycled for transportation for 46 years, has never worn a bike helmet. Even after 1991 when Australia became the first country to pass a law requiring them for adults and children, she rode helmet-free, an act that soon earned her a stiff ticket.
Abbott emerged victorious last August from a string of court battles over her right to cycle bare-headed in her town of Scone, New South Wales. Aiding her suit was the embattled and contradictory state of scientific research on helmet use.
Since the helmet question is one of the most fiercely debated and polarized issues in transportation bicycling, the question is, which is more important: personal freedom or a precautionary approach that mandates defensive cycling? Should the government step in to enforce head protection or should the onus be on the individual? The science is murky, but the political philosophies in question are sharply delineated.
A Brief History of Helmets and Laws
For much of the history of the bicycle there were no helmets, only protective leather caps occasionally worn by bike racers, motorists, aeronauts, rugby players and mountaineers.
Helmets, as we know them today, did not exist until 1975, when Bell Sports introduced the first polystyrene model to the United States market. First constructed to protect the skull by crushing on impact, there has been little aesthetic or material innovation in their design until recent years.
Now, in North America, fanciful or sleek helmet shells with minimal venting, such as those made by Nutcase and Bern, are becoming popular among utility cyclists. In Europe, the Ribcap – a knit hat with soft inserts that harden on impact – is all the rage for bicycling and skiing.
The first mandatory bicycle helmet laws that went into effect in California in 1987 and New York in 1989 applied only to young children who were passengers on a bike. Since then, laws passed across North America and the world mostly govern children under 16 years of age.
These laws are increasingly contentious. In Tel Aviv, an attempt to repeal existing helmet laws is being fought as fiercely as successful attempts to impose them in Vancouver, WA, which passed an all-ages helmet law last year. Northern Ireland, Chicago, IL, and Minneapolis, MN, are all considering instituting mandatory helmet laws for children under the age of 16. Mexico City may have had the shortest-lived helmet law – it was passed in 2009 and repealed a year later in the face of intense opposition.
A Heady Debate
Pro-helmet advocates compare helmets to seat belts – a commonsense response to a known safety problem. They have at their service a wealth of data. In the US, head trauma is the cause of over half of bicycle-related fatalities, with survival of serious crashes strongly linked to helmet use.
Also to the point, helmet laws have been shown to be more effective than education campaigns at getting helmets on heads.
Opponents of helmet laws see them as a barometer of a society’s regard for personal freedom. They point to research finding that helmets do not in fact protect wearers in the most common types of bicycle crashes, which result in scrapes and other injuries to the arms and legs. In some cases, research shows that helmets might even cause brain injuries as a result of the mechanical twisting effect that occurs upon impact.