Even some mainstream cycling advocates say helmets aren't necessary for urban commuting. Credit: Danielle A. Scruggs

The bike helmet debate stirs strong emotions. Many of us have heard stories of people who suffered traumatic brain injuries after being struck by a motorist while biking without a helmet. It’s also common to hear testimony from people who believe that wearing protective headgear made the difference between life or death during a crash.

For example, in December 2012, Justin Carver, a friend of a friend of mine, was biking home from his library job in the western suburbs. As he rode through a Berwyn intersection with the light, he was struck by a left-turning teenage driver who failed to yield, and who later tested positive for marijuana.

Carver, who was wearing a helmet, sustained damage to his frontal lobe as well as injuries to much of the left side of his body. Although he became a father a year ago, he still uses a wheelchair and has major cognitive challenges.

“I have to imagine the helmet lessened the impact,” Carver’s wife, Kim, told me shortly after the crash. “I believe that if he didn’t have his helmet on it could have been over instantly.”

On the other hand, there are many people—even mainstream American bike advocates—who say helmets aren’t necessary for all kinds of riding.

Gabe Klein, Chicago’s former transportation chief, caught flak last fall for being photographed for Washingtonian magazine in a D.C. bike lane, astride a Capital Bikeshare bike, bareheaded.

“I purposely don’t wear helmets now in photo shoots,” Klein said in a follow-up article. “I would never ride my fixed-gear [bicycle] in mixed traffic, my mountain bike off-road, or my racing bike without a helmet,” he continued, “but when traveling at slow speeds in bike lanes, helmetless riding is quite safe.”

Denmark-based Mikael Colville-Andersen, a polarizing figure who runs the transportation consulting firm Copenhagenize as well as the influential photo blog Copenhagen Cycle Chic, takes this position several steps further. Not only is special headgear is totally unnecessary for urban commuting, he argues, but helmet use sends a message that cycling is dangerous, and can discourage others from riding. He’s been known to brand the companies that sell helmets, and government and media figures who promote them, “fearmongers.”

Of course, it’s easy for Colville-Andersen to argue that helmets are superfluous when he lives in a city where bicycle infrastructure is first-rate, more than a third of all trips are made by bike, the rate of cycling injuries and fatalities is extremely low, and helmet use is rare.

The question of whether helmets are necessary for everyday commuting is far more complex in a city like Chicago. Here, less than 2 percent of trips to work are made by bicycle, protected bike lanes are still fairly uncommon, and we have an epidemic of aggressive and distracted driving, resulting in a comparatively high injury and fatality rates.

A helmetless bike rider flips the bird on Clark Street in Andersonville.
A helmetless bike rider flips the bird on Clark Street in Andersonville.Credit: John Greenfield

Between 2009 and 2013, an average of about six bicyclists a year were struck and killed by drivers in Chicago, according to Illinois Department of Transportation data. (Judging from news reports, there have been no deadly bike crashes so far this year, but bike fatalities are most common during the summer and fall, according to the IDOT figures. I’m crossing my fingers that this year’s good luck streak continues.)

“[Helmet use] dramatically reduces the risk of head injury in the event of a crash while bicycling,” CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey says via e-mail. He pointed to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found that cyclists wearing helmets in a crash have a 69 percent reduction in the risk of head injury and a 75 percent reduction in the risk of brain injury.

However, a 2011 “meta-analysis” of all published studies on the effectiveness of bike helmets by the scientific journal Accident Analysis & Prevention found that helmets only reduce the risk of head injuries by 25 to 55 percent. Moreover, the report stated, because helmets create a greater risk of neck injuries (due to the possibility of a helmet getting caught on the ground or wedged below a car’s undercarriage), the net reduction in head and neck injuries is lower still.

Claffey adds that the department encourages people to use helmets when using the Divvy bike-share system, noting that annual members receive a discount on helmets at participating bike shops. However, helmet use is rare among U.S. bike-share users, and Seattle’s mandatory helmet law has been blamed for the low ridership levels in that city’s Pronto Cycle Share.

People generally aren’t wearing helmets while using bike-share. Still, a study released in March by the Mineta Transportation Institute found that there have been zero fatalities among U.S. systems since the first one debuted in Tulsa in 2007. This excellent safety record has been credited to the fact that the bikes are slow, stable, and have built-in generator lights; plus, users are often new to urban cycling, and therefore cautious. The lack of helmets may even make bike-share safer by further discouraging risk-taking behavior.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke says that while the advocacy group doesn’t support helmet laws like Seattle’s, it strongly encourages helmet use.

“Obviously helmets prevent and reduce the severity of head injuries,” he says. “But on the other hand, when you adopt and enforce helmet laws, fewer people ride bikes, so the health benefits of more helmet use may be offset by people riding less.”

“Just as important as helmet use is having laws and infrastructure that make our streets safer for cyclists from the get-go, so that whether or not they’re wearing a helmet, they’ll be less likely to get in a crash in the first place,” Burke adds.

CDOT installed 103 miles of buffered and protected bike lanes within the first four and a half years of the Emanuel administration. The city also recently raised the fine for “dooring” a cyclist from $500 to $1,000. Both of these initiatives are steps in the right direction toward preventing crashes.

The cover of a comic book being distributed to third and fourth graders in Phoenix.
The cover of a comic book being distributed to third and fourth graders in Phoenix.Credit: Phoenix Street Transportation Department

Of Chicago advocates, Randy Neufeld, the founding director of Active Trans, who now runs the SRAM Cycling Fund, may have the best understanding of why northern-European cycling is so safe. Bankrolled by the local bike-parts manufacturer, the fund provides grants for cycling infrastructure projects in North America, Europe, and Taiwan, so Neufeld has traveled to many countries to check out best practices.

Neufeld says the reasons why cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have such good safety records is threefold: bicyclists are never forced to share the road with fast-moving car traffic; all citizens receive bike-safety education at a young age; and local laws always hold the driver responsible in a crash with a cyclist, unless it can be proven the bike rider was at fault.

“My attitude towards helmets is the same as the European one,” Neufeld says. “You wear a helmet when you’re doing something dangerous. You wear a helmet for football or hockey, but you don’t for basketball or soccer. That’s not to say that head injuries never occur in soccer or basketball, but there’s a tradeoff between safety and things like field of vision, comfort, and enjoyment.” Similarly, he argues, riskier types of biking call for helmet use, while safer types of biking don’t require it.

While Burke says he wore a bike helmet when he rode in Copenhagen a few years ago, Neufeld says he never wears one while riding in northern-European cities “because it’s not dangerous,” and he usually doesn’t wear one while running short errands in his neighborhood. But he does strap one on if he’s commuting downtown. “Helmets make sense for racing or mountain biking and, you could say, riding in a city like Chicago where there’s dangerous traffic,” he says.

Neufeld added that he’s fully supportive of people making their own choices about what’s safe. However, he feels it’s important for Americans to realize that helmets are not a panacea, and important to continue to push for safety measures that prevent crashes, not just mitigate their effects.

“My goal is to make Chicago a place where, someday, you won’t need to wear a bike helmet,” he says. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.