Put a Helmet On It!

This is going to sound shocking: requiring bicycle riders to wear helmets is like requiring women to get hysterectomies to prevent pregnancy in the event they are raped (I thought of this very silly idea to illustrate how silly I think the idea of helmet legislation is). Requiring women to get hysterectomies to prevent possible pregnancy does nothing to stop rape, does it?  Does requiring people to wear helmets stop people in cars from hitting them? What is the real problem here, people on bikes bearing the responsibility of protecting themselves from 2-ton masses of metal traveling at lethal speeds, or poor infrastructure that exponentially increases the chances a crash will happen? 

Take a look at this article about proposed legislation introduced in the past week by Senator Carol Liu: Proposed California Senate Bill 192  (put a helmet on it!).

Thank you, Senator, for bringing up this issue.  Anybody getting hit by a car is a big issue, but we are blaming the victim if we require helmets on the noggins of bicyclists without addressing the root causes of why people get hit in the first place. In the article I referenced above, author Tony Bizjak writes, “Liu’s nephew, Alan Liu, was killed in 2004 by a drunk driver while riding in Sonoma County. Liu was wearing a helmet.” Clearly, Alan Liu (rest in peace, Alan, you are undoubtedly missed) was not immune to getting hit by a vehicle, killed even, though he was wearing a helmet. 

Jim Brown, Executive Director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates (SABA), said in a recent facebook thread following a post about this proposed bill, “Bicycling is not inherently unsafe.” What we should be focusing on is what is causing it to be unsafe in certain environments, and fixing that.  Putting a helmet on it is not a fix.

I agree that it is safer to wear helmets on a bike, although some research has shown that helmets can give both the wearer and those around her a false sense of security. Let me repeat, I am NOT anti-helmet. Helmets are great. They’ve saved many lives and will continue to do so. But requiring, by law, people on bicycles to wear helmets is working against the very solution it proposes.  We live in a world where it is desirous and acceptable for motorists to drive fast, close, and dangerously on roadways. Helmets do nothing to address these issues, in addition to the issues of texting while driving, drunk driving, speeding, aggression, and the concrete (pun intended) issue of unsafe infrastructure. Rather than putting a helmet on it, where’s the focus on designing safer pathways for all road users, rather than inventing a crime that does nothing to address the root problem? We should be doing all we can to encourage everyone to adopt healthier transportation options, not discouraging them, and requiring helmets does just that – discourage bicycling. In this article in an excerpt about helmet use in the Netherlands, according to the Dutch cyclists union, requiring helmets actually reduces bicycle ridership. With fewer people on bikes, the danger of riding a bike increases.  It’s true, there is safety in numbers.

Many of us are caught in a bikes vs cars debate, when it is really about infrastructure, education, and who controls the road design. Read this eye-opening piece about how the crime of jaywalking was invented by the auto industry under the guise of safety, and how it served to change the way streets are used and defined. It is not useful to continue this culture of conflict. People in cars, people on bikes, people in buses, and people on foot are all part of traffic, and we can exist peacefully. Senator Liu, let’s take on these bigger, more important challenges of making our world a place we’d like our children to inherit and enjoy: let’s work together to design streets in a way that enhances the health, livability, and vibrancy of our communities (Protected bikeways are a good example). This translates into reducing smog and oil dependency, for one example. According to the EPA:

“The combustion of fossil fuels such as gasoline and diesel to transport people and goods is the second largest source of CO2 emissions, accounting for about 32% of total U.S. CO2 emissions and 27% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012. This category includes transportation sources such as highway vehicles, air travel, marine transportation, and rail.”

As more people get out of their cars and onto bikes (or on their feet), the reduction in greenhouse gases is huge!  Put a helmet on it!

Helmets have their place, on the shelf, next to the other bicycle accessories.  Make them accessible, make them safe, but don’t put a helmet requirement in the lawbooks, or you’ll be undoing years of clean air and healthy transportation progress and causing more harm to our already suffocating air and planet.

Put a helmet on it?  Sure, but only if you want to.





Charis Hill

Charis is a car-free bicycle advocate, healthcare advocate, and fashion model living in Sacramento, CA. A native North Carolinian and graduate of Meredith College in Raleigh, NC with a B.A. in Sociology (minors in Psychology and Women's Studies), she has lived in Sacramento since late 2011. Charis lives with a severe, progressive, autoimmune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis; her bike keeps her moving which is crucial to maintaining her current quality of life.