by Zachary Shahan, 13/2/2014
One of the perennial topics of controversy in the bicycling community is helmets, and the controversial issue is not about which color is prettiest. I won't spend too much time on the backstory, but the controversy is whether or not helmets should be a must (for their skull & brain protection benefits) or left at the shop (because they inhibit bicycling, which results in less bicycling, which makes bicycling less safe). "Must" could mean a legal requirement, or it could simply mean a personally imposed must – it depends on the conversation.
I used to be the director of a nonprofit that was primarily focused on promoting and supporting bicycling in the greater Charlottesville area. I remember publishing the picture that I've used at the top of this article on the front of one of our newsletters and subsequently getting chewed out by some of our members. The feedback wasn't nearly as extreme when I published an article on the unique relationships that Dutch kids have with bicycles here on TreeHugger, but essentially the same discussion was spawned. In this case, however, there were also a lot of Dutch readers (as well as others) who chimed in with their perspective. I found a lot of interesting nuggets in there, so thought I'd summarize and share them here.
First of all, I'll start with the question that got the conversation started: "Why the lack of helmets? The Dutch skulls aren't any more resistant to impact with the ground than anybody else, Or is it that the Dutch: 1. Less litigious than Americans, 2. Have a health care system to handle injuries of all citizens, 3. Isolate bike traffic from automobile traffic? Still seems that it's just good sense to wear a helmet."
On to the responses...
TreeHugger reader Schrödinger's Cat noted:
Similarly, from dr2chase:
Also, on the first Groningen article I wrote, dr2chase commented: "Measuring per-trip or per-hour, cycling in the Netherlands is safer than driving in the US (which is not really all that much safer than cycling in the US)."
The issue of whether or not we should be required to wear helmets in cars came up a few times. However, I think an even more apt analogy would be whether or not to wear helmets when jogging. The Dutch bike at a very slow, leisurely pace. You could likely jog alongside many of them. So, I think that the idea of wearing a helmet while bicycling sounds as absurd to a Dutch person as the idea of wearing a helmet while jogging sounds to an American.
This second point is one of the biggest arguments against helmet requirements. Continuing his comment on the Dutch-kids post, dr2chase wrote:
Guido Bik concurred:
I'm not sure how prevalent this one is. I think it's the first I've seen this response. But perhaps it is actually quite common. From Erik:
sabelmouse wrote: "having a helmet of any kind on my head irritates and distracts me and makes it more dangerous." I'm not sure if it technically does make bicycling more dangerous, but I have had the same thought many times.
So, bicycling is much safer in the Netherlands – we got that. But one of the key reasons why it's much safer was highlighted by Liz Almond:
Yep, research has shown this over and over again.
A reader from Utrecht, Guido Bik, added a longer but must-read comment to try to better convey to readers how the Dutch system looks:
Many of our readers are Americans. Unfortunately, in the US, there is a different driving and road culture than in most other places. Frankly, it's one that is not as welcome to, or safe for, bicyclists and pedestrians.
A Dutch person now living in Chicago added:
Indeed, we have some problems in the US....
Of course, there were also many people arguing for wearing helmets. The intent of this article was not to compare or present both sides, but simply to convey why it's harder to find a Dutch person wearing a helmet than it is to find a FOX News anchor who can admit that humans are causing catastrophic global warming. However, to be fair to the other commenters, I'll share their key point.
Jeanne Misner commented: "If the adult driving the bike hit a pebble or tripped up somehow, and the child fell to the pavement, he could have a serious head injury. It would make sense to protect the children."
Jim Gordon backed her up: "One little twig that rolls, a wet plastic bag, an ounce of sand, a few wet leaves or a front tire blowout - any one of these things can slam you down to the pavement incredibly fast during a turn. A front tire blowout slammed my head into the pavement and cause a double shoulder separation. Without a helmet I would have been in a head trauma unit with a half million dollar bill."
tony did as well: "Agree re helmets. A few years ago I skidded on a patch of mud and cracked my head on the kerb. Fortunately I was wearing my helmet (which cracked) and since then have always worn a helmet. It was the temple area which hit the kerb, directly over the middle meningeal artery and if that pops, it's probably curtains."
As did GPaudler: "Helmet use should be a personal choice, neither mandated nor shamed. Twice a helmet saved me from injury, or worse, and neither occasion involved speed or another vehicle. I'm a very attentive rider with decades of active cycling under my belt and understand how helmets seem to affect or correlate with culture but it's your head - decide for yourself and respect other people's decisions."
Well, this is the main one. It's not about helmet laws, but about biker choices.
I guess I'll add my 2 cents as well. I didn't wear a helmet in the Netherlands. I felt absolutely no need to do so, and I knew that it would be very odd for me to do so. It was really the former that led me to not wear one, but I also wonder if the latter reason doesn't have a pretty big influence on some Dutch people. Perhaps there are Dutch people who think that it's better to be super safe than sorry, but who know that wearing a helmet goes so much against the social norm that they don't want to try it. I'm pretty positive that's not anywhere close to the majority of the population, but I think a certain minority could be in that canal boat.
In the US, I started off not wearing a helmet. Even living down in Florida – which I think is the most dangerous state for bicyclists, or at least one of them – I felt safe bicycling. As I noted previously, I have always biked at a Dutch pace, so perhaps this is why I felt safe. Or perhaps I'm just a trusting guy. However, after spending time with some other bike commuters, and having the safety benefits of helmets pounded into my head, I eventually started wearing a helmet most of the time. I still would if I lived and biked in the US. Though, as I noted higher up in this piece, I have on several occasions felt that the distraction of my helmet was a greater risk than bicycling without one. But maybe those were illogical thoughts.Source: treehugger.com
How did we revise the compulsory helmet law in Israel?