Cyclists Without Helmets Deserve to Die

bike breakHelmet, check. (Photo by Simply Bike on Flickr.)

Read about a bike wreck, especially a bloody one, and the first thing you want to know is whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet. Call it curiosity, call it a tool to reassure ourselves that the same thing won’t happen to us, but we should really call it what it is: victim blaming.

Take the latest study about helmet usage in Boston. According to the findings, which were published yesterday in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, one in five users of bike sharing programs — like our vastly popular Hubway — don’t wear helmets! Add then there’s the commentary:

“Head injury accounts for about a third of all bicycle injuries and about three-quarters of bicycle related deaths, so these are some pretty shocking numbers,” says lead author and emergency medicine physician Christopher Fischer, MD.

Yes, doc, that is shocking. But what are we supposed to take away from this? Either 1) bicycling is so dangerous that we all ought to avoid it — health and societal benefits be damned — or 2) all those Hubway cyclists are asking for it — they’re bike-fatality statistics waiting to be compiled.

Both outcomes provoke a strong reaction in those who read them. I’m talking about fear. When we allow some tut-tutting doctors to scare us into changing our behavior, that’s exactly what happens. Instead of a higher helmet-usage rate though — especially on Hubway, which, despite their efforts, continues to lack a good, cheap, and convenient way to get a helmet — we’ll see a lower usage rate. There’s a precedent for this in Copenhagen, basically the bike-as-transportation capital of the world, wherein a fear-driven helmet awareness campaign caused a reduction in cycling activity when bikes were booming all across the rest of Europe. Add that to rather dubious claims of helmet efficacy and this whole thing starts to stink.

Would these doctors at Beth-Israel Deaconess prefer people to get off their bikes and back into the cars — what with these rising gas prices and looming cuts on the T, and nevermind that more people die in cars than on bikes? Massachusetts already has the lowest seat belt use rate in the country. Maybe we’re just cavalier about safety on all our wheeled transport.

Look, I know that the “was he wearing a helmet?” question is more a query about safe riding in general — the assumption being that someone who is safety conscious enough to wear a helmet probably doesn’t ride like a maniac — but biking around the city isn’t something that should be discouraged by careless studies, especially when they have no injury statistics to support them.

I’ve been hit by cars before while cycling, twice actually, and I always wear a helmet, use hand signals and resist running red lights. But my protective gear or road wherewithal didn’t matter either time. The driver was distracted, turning right on red against the posted sign, or not signalling. It’s amazing we let people drive like this without requiring them to wear helmets.