I don’t ride a bike all that often—because Chicago has a dearth of safe, protected bike lanes on roads I might use for commuting, and because I lack the vigor and bravery needed to ride alongside cars and buses on most of our thoroughfares. But when I do, I hate wearing a helmet. In the summer, it’s hot, in the winter, it’s cold, and at all times it messes up my hair and looks ugly and stupid. There’s also something about wearing one that takes away from the feeling of freedom I associate with being on a bicycle.
I learned to ride a bike in Russia, and between the ages of four and nine never saw or wore a bicycle helmet. I never had any grisly accidents or hit my head when I fell while riding, although as a kid I also wasn’t riding alongside traffic. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone biking in the crazy street traffic in Saint Petersburg in the 90s—the Soviet-era sidewalks were wide enough to accommodate walkers and bikers. But within weeks of coming to America in 1997 I had a black-and-pink ten-speed mountain bike from Goodwill and a white Bell helmet some government or maybe nonprofit organization was doling out for free to kids at our apartment complex in State College, Pennsylvania. I remember the weird feeling when some guy was fitting it on my head, the way the warm day’s breeze was suddenly replaced by the suffocating pressure of Styrofoam against my scalp. I don’t think I ever wore that thing again. The adults I was around were mostly immigrants who themselves seemed unfamiliar with the idea that biking could be unsafe for children and that helmets were the remedy required by state law.
Though various bike helmets floated in and out of my life in the years that followed, I never remember paying for them or wearing them much. It always just seemed anathema to biking. My first conscious helmet purchase came once I moved to Chicago and got a Divvy pass a couple of years ago, and even then I only bought it because the annual subscription came with a coupon for a discount on a helmet. I do put it on when I know for sure I’ll be riding next to cars for a few miles—or when my partner guilts me into wearing it. Still, I try to avoid it as much as possible.
I thought I’d write this piece about the pros and cons of wearing a bike helmet, but there’s already plenty of literature on the topic a quick Google search away. Much of it is devoted to painstaking (and often mind-numbing) analyses of accident data, comparisons between biking cultures in the U.S. and elsewhere (or between U.S. cities), and riffs on what should and shouldn’t be a matter of public policy. There are also lots of memes about how, since driving puts people at much higher risk of head injury, it’s drivers, not cyclists, who should be wearing helmets.
The basic argument for helmets is that they’ve long been associated with decreased risk of serious head injury among people hospitalized after bike accidents—especially kids. Some studies have found that helmets reduce the risk of head injury by as much as 60 percent among adult bikers, and as much as 63 percent among children, though they have also been linked to an increased risk of neck injuries.
The overall consensus seems to be that while wearing a helmet is generally a good idea for the rider, it’s bad policy to mandate them by law, as it takes pressure off governments to make infrastructure more bike friendly.
Laws mandating helmets may even discourage ridership. One thing that failed bike-share programs in Seattle and two Australian cities had in common were helmet laws that intervened with exactly the sort of casual, often unplanned biking that helps programs like Divvy thrive. Apparently I’m not alone in preferring not to ride a bike rather than to ride one with a helmet.
Currently, no states in the country require bicycle helmets for adults, though more than 60 municipal governments do, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. In Chicago, only bike messengers and delivery people are required to wear helmets. Nevertheless, the overwhelming cultural message around biking is that you should wear a helmet—and shame on you if you don’t.
How did we become so convinced that biking is dangerous and that helmets are the answer? Was it the rise of Big Helmet (and by that I mean Bell-which invented the modern bike helmet in 1975-and its succession of subsidiaries and parent companies)? Was it the explosion of lawsuits connected with children’s recreational safety in the second half of the 20th century?
The earliest bike helmet law was created for kids under five in New York State in 1989, though a national campaign for children’s helmet laws was touched off that same year when a 13-year-old boy in Maryland was killed by a car while riding his bike without a helmet. His middle school classmates thought he might have survived had he been wearing one, and with the help of teachers and parents they organized to pass a local bike helmet law for kids under 16. Throughout the 1990s the National Safe Kids Campaign lobbied for similar laws in states and municipalities across the country. This legislative push coincided with a corporate restructuring at Bell that led to greater investment in the production of bike helmets—especially for kids—and heavy advertising of the company’s new products in parenting magazines.
Grassroots politics, corporate initiative, a freak accident turned morality tale, consumer safety concerns transformed into law—a truly American cocktail. And one that was unsurprisingly concocted in the post-cold war 90s when, no longer preoccupied by nuclear armageddon, the middle class had little left to worry about besides their children’s safety. Am I annoyed more by the feeling of wearing a helmet? Or by the culture surrounding their wear, which somehow makes me feel like science and data and my best, rational interest and sense of agency are actually quite secondary to a pervasive moral panic and clever advertising?
I don’t usually talk about how much I loathe bike helmets. It’s exhausting to have to justify an apparently irrational choice, even though I’m happy to know there’s some science suggesting that not wearing a helmet might be keeping me safer. But I know that neither data to the contrary nor scary accident pictures will make me want to put one on. And at the end of the day, not wearing a helmet doesn’t have to be a rational decision. We do many other potentially risky things based on feelings, passions, bodily sensations, or vanity: Stilettos make you more likely to break your ankles. Speeding in a car is risking untimely death. Tinder is Tinder.
About a year ago, I actually had my first bike accident—a collision with another cyclist on a tight turn on the lakefront path at a busy hour. It resulted in me crashing headfirst into a quickly moving, Lycra-clad man on an expensive bike. I googled my symptoms and described them to my physician parents, and I suspect that I suffered at least a minor concussion. But the incident didn’t make me feel like I should be wearing protection. Instead it made me reluctant to bike on the lakefront path during rush times.
Oh, and that time, I was wearing a helmet. v