City of Boston to Cyclists: Your Head Injury Is Your Fault

Cyclists of Boston, I have some bad news for you. If you forget to wear your helmet when you are riding a bicycle, this is how you will end up:

helmet adPhoto by Casey Lyons

And it will be all your fault. At least that seems to be the message of a ridiculously infuriating new ad campaign by the Boston Public Health Commission.

The “No Excuses Wear a Helmet” campaign, which is plastered on bus shelters all over town, depicts young people with smashed up faces who apparently should have known better than to bike around town without a helmet. Because the penalty for not wearing a rinky-dink, semi-effective piece of plastic on your head while cycling is obviously a disfiguring wound.

Now, these types of scare tactics have been used to great effect before. I’m thinking of the anti-meth campaign in Denver which made meth face a fixture on the city’s streets and highways. The visuals are strikingly similar. But in that case, you have an epidemic that hooks kids on a drug, and brings about the decline of their looks, their youth, and eventually, their lives. With that in context, it makes good sense to scare the hell of kids as a deterrent to self-destructive behavior.

Bicycling can also hook young people and while it can turn some of them into traffic scofflaws, no one causing their teeth to rot by feeding their bike jones. Cycling is not a gateway to harder forms of self-conveyance. What’s more is the city is actively encouraging cycling through Mayor Menino’s initiatives (though curiously, the “No Excuses Wear a Helmet” ads carry his branding) and through Hubway, which has been a runaway success. (No one from the Mayor’s office or the Boston Public Health Commission immediately returned calls seeking comment.)

The real problem with an ad campaign like this is it sets up a clear distinction. You can ride a bike and risk being maimed (and deserve it), or you can not ride a bike. That’s not going to get more people on bikes, and contrary to what you might think about wearing helmets, increasing the number of cyclists—and the awareness that brings from bikers and motorists alike—is what really keeps everyone safe.

These ads should come down right away.

(h/t Boston Biker)

  • Rob Hammett

    I don’t ride a bike in the city very often (much more dangerous then other tame stuff I do like ride motorcycles and snowboard) but I have had one bicycle accident. I went over the handlebars (all too easy to do) and landed on my head with no helmet. I was lucky, I was OK but it scared the crap out of me. I will never ride a bike without a helmet again. Even if I didn’t care about myself (I do), I would not want to become a medical burden to my family or society.

  • Wallace Feldman

    This blog’s point of view is really inane. As one who knows people whose lives have been saved by bike helmets, my brother among them, and who has known people riding without a helmet who are no longer with us,I strongly favor anything that will encourage more helmet use. I don’t k ow if Casey Lyons rides bareheaded, but I am certainly unwilling to pay any share of his medical bills if he comes to grief while so doing.

  • dana

    I agree that the campaign is misguided, though presumably well-intentioned, and that the ads and road stencils should be removed.
    I wear a helmet on my daily bicycle commute. I’ve almost certainly been saved from a concussion or brain injury or worse by a helmet.
    But please Boston, charm me, amuse me, reason with me. Don’t threaten me. Just as a rude driver makes me want to be rude back, your ads and stencils make be want to ride helmetless just to spite you.

  • Natalie

    What IS the excuse for not wearing a helmet – one that is not rinky-dink or semi-effective? People should know better and what this ad visually demonstrates is what you could end up looking like if you don’t. The epidemic of meth in Denver is no different, no less destrucive, and certainly can as swiftly swipe someone of their livelihood and youth as the ridiculous, entitled, ‘nothing can hurt me, so f-you’, live free or die attitude of many bikers in this city.
    You can ride a bike w/no helmet and risk being hit by a car, thrown over your handlebars and suffer traumatic brain trauma the same way you can be in your car, decide not to wear a seatbelt, risk being hit by another car and getting thrown through the windshield. Both helmets and seatbelts are in place, not to guarantee your complete and total safety, but to minimize injury as best as possible.
    Dana’s ‘eye for an eye’ is exactly the type of ignorance we’re faced with here – if you’re rude to me, I’ll be rude back. If you’re going to try to push ads in my face that make me unhappy or uncomfortable, I’m going to do the exact opposite – regardless of if I agree or not – just to spite you. The sooner this state starts requiring and enforcing use of helmets – just as they do with seatbelts, the happier and safer everyone will be. You want your ‘vehicle’ and you, as it’s driver to be treated with the same respect as a car? Then start behaving and following the rules that car drivers have to.
    (and FYI – I’m a cyclist.)

  • R. Hendershot

    Who cares what the city says. Its not like these cyclists obey the laws anyway. Dont believe me? Take a drive through Boston sometime. They weave in and out of traffic with nary a glance, run red lights with impunity and quite often come very close to running down pedestrians. If you are riding a bike you are legally required to obey the rules of the road. They are not just fast moving pedestrians. Any cyclists who are mad about these signs should examine their behavior while riding on city streets. Chances are they break the law more than ten people who drive cars combined.

    • dulles

      @R. Hendershot — I agree with all your points on scofflaw cyclists. But I’d challenge that a scofflaw cyclist breaks 10x the laws of the average driver. Cyclists break high-profile laws (run a stop light). Lawbreaking drivers just aren’t as visible (think speeding, tailgating, failing to pass safely, roll through right-on-red/stop signs, fail to stop for pedestrians on crosswalk etc. etc. etc. Yeah, a scofflaw cyclist probably will still beat an aggressive Boston driver in number of violations, but not by much… and they’re doing it on a 20lb., 10-20mph bike, not a 2,000lb., 30-50mph car.