Wednesday, May 20, 2009

7 reasons there's more to bicycle safety than helmets

City Paper, DC’s alternative weekly, recently published a cover story that chides cyclists for not wearing their helmets.

In between grisly tales of riders’ heads being bumped, dragged, and otherwise mangled, the article reports that only about 36 percent of cyclists in New York City and about half of cyclists in DC wear helmets.  

The article has a derisive tone. No helmet, the story implies, and you’re as foolish as the balding man on the front cover riding with his helmet strapped to his jeans rather than his head.  

City Paper is right, of course. We’ve all heard the statistics before. Helmets reduce the risk of head injuries by 85 percent. Two-thirds of cyclists killed in accidents are not wearing helmets.  

Helmet skeptics say such statistics are exaggerated, and they’re probably right. Still, you don’t need an advanced degree to recognize that a helmeted head has a far better chance of surviving an accident intact than an unprotected one.

There can, however, be too much of a good thing, and unfortunately that’s what’s happened with bicycles and helmets. At this point, in fact, the discourse on bicycle safety has become dangerously one-dimensional.

Among much of the media and the government organizations that publish information about cycling, the helmet safety message has become something close to gospel. The narrative about bicycle safety in most cases boils down to this:

                                                 Helmet = safe and responsible

                                           No helmet = unsafe and irresponsible

That’s it. End of story. The problem: Bicycle safety is far more complicated than this simplistic message suggests.  Worse, this helmet-centric public health message probably make the roads less safe for cyclists.

Don’t get me wrong. Helmets are important. Cyclists should wear helmets. I wear a helmet, and I encourage other people to wear them too. But the one-dimensional message that helmet safety advocates push to the exclusion of other key factors is a problem.  Here, then, are five things that helmet advocates aren’t talking about but should be:

1) Helmets are a last resort.
Helmets don’t prevent accidents; what they do is give riders a somewhat better chance of surviving one. There’s much more, however, that could and should be done in regards to cyclist (and driver) education and infrastructure improvement, for example, that would go a long ways to preventing accidents in the first place. 

2) One of the best ways to make the roads safer for cyclists is to get more cyclists on the road. There’s an inverse relationship between the number of cyclists on the road and the accident rate for cyclists. Research shows, for example, that when communities double the number of cyclist the accident rate per cyclist drops by about a third. This is presumably because motorists become more accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists. Some of the safest countries for cyclists--Denmark, for example--don’t promote helmet usage very aggressively and fear that such campaigns might discourage people from cycling, thus making roads less safe for cyclists.

3) There are trade-offs to consider. We hear often that cycling is a dangerous activity because of the risk of traffic accidents. And, yes, there is a certain degree of risk associated with cycling. We hear far less, however, about the risks of not cycling as it relates to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other life-threatening health problems. Death from a heart attack might not be as dramatic as a gory traffic accident, but the loss of life is just as real. When you factor the health benefits in, some researchers estimate the benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by nearly twenty-fold.

4) Alcohol is a major cause of accidents. In nearly a third of all fatal accidents involving cyclists either the cyclist or driver is intoxicated, research from the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows. This suggests that one of the most powerful ways to make the roads safer for cyclists is to get serious about combating drunken cycling and driving. 

5) Expanding the diversity of cyclists will make biking a significantly safer form of transportation. One of the key reasons that cycling appears to be a dangerous form of transportation has to do with the demographics of the people who cycle. Currently, the vast majority of people who cycle as a form of transportation are males below the age of thirty. This particular demographic group, as most people can probably guess, leads the way in nearly every single type of accident regardless of whether it involves automobiles, guns, or bikes. The per capita accident rate among male cyclists is approximately eight times that of females, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Thus, increasing the number of women and older riders will significantly reduce the accident rate simply because these groups take far fewer unnecessary risks. 

6) Some perspective is in order. Though many people regard bicycling as a particularly dangerous form of transportation, few realize that walking is even worse. One study conducted by a Rutgers University researcher, for example, shows that per kilometer traveled walking is more than 3 times more dangerous than cycling. Makes you wonder why there aren’t stronger public health pushes for walking helmets, say, or safer pedestrian crosswalks, doesn’t it? 

7) Pushing helmets can have unintended consequences.  Some research, as detailed in this New York Times story, shows that drivers drive more aggressively when passing cyclists wearing helmets. In addition, there’s evidence that extra safety gear can give cyclists a false sense of security that elevates their risk-taking behavior--a phenomenon economists call the Peltzman effect.

The bottom line: helmets are fine, but they’re anything but a panacea. In fact, the emphasis on helmets likely reinforces the myth that cycling is an extremely dangerous activity, which in turn reduces the number of cyclists and makes the roads more dangerous for those cyclists who remain. 


Anonymous said...

Very well written posts. I wear a helmet for the reasons you've listed, but am also dismayed by the lack of driver and bicycler safety education beyond that.

Derek Johnson said...

I am a total victim of the Peltzman effect. Very interesting. Thanks!

clintpatty said...

there shouldn't be helmet laws for bicyclists or motorcyclists; your body and life is your business