The following is an editorial from Eben Weiss, who writes the popular, funny, and insightful Bike Snob NYC blog.
The most frustrating thing about being a cyclist in New York City isn't the weather, the thieves, the potholes, or even the drivers. No, the most frustrating thing about being a cyclist in New York City is reading about cycling in the local media. Over the years I've read everyone from John Cassidy of The New Yorker to Pete Hamill's boneheaded brother Denis explain how bike lanes are ruining the city by making it more difficult for them to park their stupid cars. (Someone really needs to explain to them that it's not the bike lanes, it's just life telling them to move to Florida already.)
Fortunately there's Gothamist, whose writers and readers tend to have a more enlightened view when it comes to bikes and their rightful place in the city. For this reason I was a little complacent when I began reading a recent post called "Tips For Biking Through All Of Winter 2017." It started out well enough (fat bike commentary aside), but then came the inevitable admonition, which was as jarring as riding over an expansion joint on a road bike:
No you don't.
Well, actually that's not entirely true. New York State does require all bicyclists under the age of 14 to wear helmets. The rest of us, however, can do whatever the hell we want.
Cycling for transportation in New York City has improved tremendously in recent years, but where we still lag behind is in our attachment to the outmoded and oppressive notion that riding a bicycle around town without wearing a helmet is tantamount to suicide.
There's certainly nothing wrong with wearing a helmet. (Assuming you wear it correctly, which surprisingly few people do. There are way too many ill-fitted or just plain backwards helmets out there.) However, the negative impact of our culture's helmet obsession (the notion that "you need to wear a damn helmet" or you're being reckless somehow) far outweighs the safety benefits, which are exaggerated and difficult to quantify. You've probably heard at one point or another that bicycle helmets prevent 85% of head injuries, a statistic long touted by the federal government. Bullshit. This was based on an inaccurate study, which is why it's since been withdrawn under the federal Data Quality Act. Yet this discredited factoid continues to pop up, like that story about Richard Gere and the gerbil.
Of course, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that bicycle helmets make us safer, and I'm sure you're going to read plenty of "A helmet saved my life!" testimonials in the comments below. Did it really though? People often come to this conclusion because their helmet cracked. However, a helmet is supposed to compress to absorb the energy of an impact, and if it shattered instead of compressing this could be a sign that it didn't do its job. They may still be alive because they wore a helmet, or they may still be alive despite the fact that it failed.
But the real problem with our excessive focus on helmets is that it undercuts the two things that really do have meaningful impact on rider safety: good infrastructure, and more cyclists. In 2003 Peter Jacobsen identified the "safety in numbers" phenomenon, which is this:
The likelihood that a given person walking or bicycling will be struck by a motorist varies inversely with the amount of walking or bicycling. This pattern is consistent across communities of varying size, from specific intersections to cities and countries, and across time periods.
Denmark and the Netherlands are the safest places in the world for cyclists. It ain't because they wear helmets. (They don't.) It's because they have lots of bike infrastructure and lots of people using it.
Meanwhile, our constant helmet-shaming serves only to discourage cycling. It makes people forget cycling can be a mode of transport and not just a sport. It makes riding a bike seem more dangerous than it is. It facilitates victim-blaming. (You could get flattened by a steamroller and the newspapers would still go out of their way point out whether or not you were wearing a helmet.) It allows city officials, police, and drivers to cop out by focusing on what cyclists are wearing on their heads when they crash instead of what's causing those crashes in the first place.
Most perniciously, it opens the door for driver-pandering politicians to propose those stupid mandatory helmet laws, which are disastrous unless your goals are to kill bike share, reduce the overall number of cyclists, make the streets even more deadly, and give the police yet another pretense for stopping certain types of people.
Every person who skips a bike ride in New York City because they don't want to strap a foam buoy to their heads makes cycling just a little less safe for all of us. You don't need to wear a damn helmet. You need to ride your bike, because that's what actually makes a difference.
Stay warm out there.
Eben Weiss (a.k.a. "Bike Snob NYC") writes the Bike Snob NYC blog and is the author of Bike Snob, The Enlightened Cyclist, and Bike Snob Abroad. His most recent book, The Ultimate Bicycle Owner's Manual, was published in May 2016."