The slow race

I have my antennas tuned to the signals coming from the paint and path, anti-car, transportation reform segment of bicycling advocacy. I have no access to the messages which advocates of this stripe send to one another. But when I hear the same suggestions coming from multiple sources, I must conclude that there is communication among them.

Here’s the latest party line: bicycling will be better for us when we all ride very slowly. And we should not bother with helmets, because bicycling will become safer if we don’t.

I read it yesterday on an urban planning e-mail list in the following words: “The question … is one of helmets for all versus just riding a bicycle safely…I prefer seeing women, men and kids riding in safe environments en-mass [sic] which will then slow speeds and make bicycling in the city what we see in Amsterdam and Copenhagen and what we still see in China in many locations.”

I heard it again today on Robin Young’s Here and Now radio show on NPR. At the beginning of the show, host Young announced that a topic would be “is it possible that not wearing helmets makes bicycling safer?” The helmet segment consisted entirely of an interview with a guest Elizabeth Rosenthal, a public-health advocate. Here’s a link to the show segment: http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2012/10/02/lose-bike-helmets

The claim which underlies the party-line argument against helmet use is that if people don’t have to wear a helmet, then more people will ride bicycles, motorists will become more attentive, bicyclists will have to go slower (because there will be so many getting in each other’s way on narrow bicycle paths, also part of the plan, though that isn’t mentioned). Voilà, bicycling will be safer. There also is a health claim.

Let’s consider a parallel example: “is it possible that not wearing a lifejacket makes canoeing safer?” And here is the supposed logic, as applied to canoeing: if people aren’t encumbered with having to purchase and wear a lifejacket, then masses of people will take up canoeing, people in powerboats will be more attentive about avoiding collisions with canoes, and the rivers will be clogged, forcing slowdowns — and so canoeing will become safer. Also, the health benefits of canoeing to society at large will outweigh the losses through drowning, even if (also never mentioned) most people never canoe far enough or paddle hard enough to get a meaningful fitness benefit.

The argument as it applies to bicycling has some traction because it rests on a nearly universal, distorted perception of risk — fearmongering turned inside out. I took canoeing as an example because it is well-known that most canoeing incidents do not involve powerboats: a canoe simply capsizes, or someone falls overboard. Less well-known is that over 70% of injury-producing bicycle crashes do not involve a motor vehicle. Also in incidents which do involve a motor vehicle, a helmet often prevents or mitigates injury.

What underlies the anti-helmet drive is social engineering by the bicycle industry, environmentalists, transportation reform interests and public-health advocates like Young’s guest Rosenthal, to recruit more people to ride bicycles — and mitigation of risk to the individual bicyclist be damned. We prime the pump for increased bicycle use by shoving that issue under the rug, and if we have a few fatalities and disabling injuries (actually, many thousands –) which could have been avoided, well, these are sacrifices that must be accepted in the interest of the Greater Good.

The anti-helmet argument gains more support thanks to the advent of municipal bike-share systems, which at the same time make access to a bicycle easier and use of a helmet more inconvenient.

Also, the story on Here and Now confused the issue of mandatory helmet laws with the issue of personal choice as to whether to wear a helmet. Let me make it clear: I don’t support mandatory helmet laws, which aren’t enforced, yet which can impose a presumption of negligence on a bicyclist who doesn’t wear a helmet — as in “yes, the driver ran the stop sign, but you weren’t wearing a helmet, so you don’t collect on the driver’s insurance.” That kind of blaming the victim is despicable, but it happens. On the other hand, because I care about my own well-being and that of my family, I wear a helmet. I recommend that other bicyclists make the same choice.

“It’s more like walking than riding a bicycle. You’re more like a pedestrian,” said Rosenthal of ideal urban cycling as she envisions it. “The kind of crashes in which people fall off bikes and hurt their heads are really, really, really rare because you’re riding around at 5 miles per hour. It’s more like walking,” said Rosenthal. Great. That’ll get me home in two hours. And who will point out the bicycling is several times as efficient as walking? Taking Rosenthal’s argument to its logical conclusion, I’d benefit more from walking, and then it would only take me four hours to get home. Canoeing upstream on the meandering Charles River from Boston to my home would be even better, and swimming, better yet.

Let me also point out that the speed at which the head strikes the ground depends on head height, not forward speed — and that slow-speed crashes are often caused by collisions while in crowds of bicyclists.

At the end of the radio segment, host Robin Young quoted someone as saying about a helmet wearer, “you’re a racer. Get off city streets.” A competent and fit urban cyclist is by definition a racer? A bicyclist is going too fast, not even as fast as a motor scooter rider, and so should get off the street? Serious confusion reigned.

Bicycling advocacy has always been subject to push and pull from various non-bicycling interests. Now, more than ever, it is being taken over by people, whether with the best of intentions, intent only on personal gain, or who consider themselves to be doing well by doing good — for whom bicyclists are only a mass, a population — as described in one of the quotes at the start of this article. After the US Civil War, there was a name for such people: carpetbaggers. People who might not be familiar with the legacy these people left both for the Southerners whose lot they claimed to advance and those whose tradition they attempted to overthrow might read this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carpetbagger.

20 Responses to The slow race

  1. Thanks, John. Now I don’t have to write the same essay.

  2. Thank you, John. I keep learning from folks like you, Dan, Keri, and Bob.

  3. Having used my helmet SIX TIMES on one icy morning, not counting two times when I fell while attempting to stand back up after a fall on my bike, I can definitely state that going slow has little to do with the situation. It is all about what hits with what energy.

  4. Luckily for me, the conventional wisdom that you have to throw a helmet away after a single hit is also not universally correct or I’d never have made it to work that morning…

  5. I think that the discussion of helmets is a waste of time and energy that could be better spent talking about crash prevention. Wearing your helmet will NEVER prevent you from crashing. You know what will? Using lights at night, riding sober, and having an understanding of traffic flow (ex. Not riding against traffic on the sidewalk and not passing large trucks on the right). Unfortunately, helmets seem to represent 90% of mainstream bicycle safety discussions.

    • Correct, wearing a helmet will never prevent you from crashing. (Well, almost never. If it is bright-colored and reflectorized, it can make you easier to see). I agree strongly with the measures you recommend, and put them into practice. But are you then totally immune from crashing? I’m not. I’ve had to replace three helmets over the past 37 years.

      1) Sideswiped by a drunk driver on a rural highway — diversion-type fall. My left temple and shoulder hit the pavement hard. I was bruised, sore and scraped, broke a collarbone. The helmet was seriously indented but I didn’t notice any concussion symptoms.

      2) Tree branch was hanging over the curb, same color as the pavement, got caught in my front wheel. I was going slightly downhill, around 17 mph. Stopping-type fall; I landed hard on the front of the helmet. I had facial lacerations and a concussion. with noticeable symptoms that lingered for weeks. Details here: http://www.bikexprt.com/bicycle/helmtrd1.htm

      3) I failed to notice a pothole when riding behind another cyclist in a group of highly-skilled cylists. We were going about 8 mph. Loss-of-control, I fell to the side and landed not very hard on my right temple. Scraped elbow, and a concussion with 15 minutes of anterograde amnesia followed by memory impairment that resolved after a few hours. Details here: http://www.bikexprt.com/massfacil/waltham/pothole.htm

  6. Thanks John. Great write up.

  7. As you know, a helmet is part of the final layer of safety, not the first. But when all the other layers (control of the bike, proper location & position, etc.) fail, a helmet can be somewhat useful.

    This is part of the “Copenhagenize” agenda which was such a strong part of the agenda at the recent Pro Walk / Pro Bike conference. If we make our bicyclists look like theirs, then maybe the same mode share will arise…

    • Richard summed up the agenda: “If we make our bicyclists look like theirs, then maybe the same mode share will arise…”

      Ah, so modern cycling advocacy is a cargo cult. That explains a lot.

  8. “Here’s the latest party line: bicycling will be better for us when we all ride very slowly. And we should not bother with helmets, because bicycling will become safer if we don’t.”

    It’s surely from the same book where they found their pro bicycle facility agenda. I believe the book’s title is something like “The Cyclist’s Manifesto: The Case for Riding in Ways that Will Get You Killed by Embracing Danger and Scorning Safety”, or maybe it’s “The Art of Urban Cycling: Lessons Pulled From Out of My Arse”? Alternatively, it could be by that fellow who wrote “City Cycling (Urban Suicide for Those Who Aren’t Sure They’re Suicidal)”. Not sure of the author’s name in either case – I tend to avoid hack writers and people who think earning a PhD entitles them to fabricate research.

  9. “Cargo Cult Cycling Advocacy”. Sounds catchy! And the description fits the disease very well indeed.

  10. You have to know what a cargo cult is, though. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult.

  11. Why is it that people think bicyclists in Amsterdam ride slowly? That’s not what I saw/experienced. I thought the average bicyclist there traveled too fast given the cramped and chaotic conditions of their lanes and tracks. I’ve never felt in more danger on a bicycle in my life than in Amsterdam. And I’ll never ride there again without a helmet ;-)

  12. One has to cut through all the political hype of the “helmets make it look dangerous” crowd on one side and the public health centered “if you aren’t wearing a helmet, you have a death wish” on the other extreme. The nice thing about the Layers of Safety concept is that it puts helmets in a logical context rather than treating them like some sort of scarlet letter on one hand or magic bullet on the other.

    Children and new riders without matured bicycling skills and sound cycling judgement are at elevated risk compared to other cyclists. But any cyclist can run into an unexpected road hazard. John Allen’s examples, posted above in the comments, are probably typical. We all can probably remember unexpected bad things happening, many having nothing to do with a car being nearby. I was riding down a small country road on Long Island one quiet sunny day and had a raccoon run out from deep grass and cross the road right in front of me, resulting in me doing a quite spectacular endo. The raccoon and I were fine. That front wheel needed some work.

    Andy Cline (hi, Andy), over at Carbon Trace, breaks down the times he will wear a helmet according to four situations that are obviously associated with higher risk: riding home from happy hour, poor road conditions, darkness, and bad weather. While those are obvious ones, I suspect there are plenty of “gotchas” out there that are not associated with these, falling under that euphemistic “Acts of God” catch-all.

    Bicycle helmets meeting certification standards are not cost-prohibitive, if you can afford a bike. I went to walmart.com (this is not an endorsement) to see how cheap someone could buy a helmet, and its under twenty bucks. I used Wal-Mart because its probably cheaper than anyone else and its stock still has to have a certification sticker on it. Helmet fitting is another issue.

    http://www.walmart.com/search/search-ng.do?search_query=bicycle+helmet

    That’s not much money to give you a better shot at picking yourself up off the road with a working brain. I still think rider skills/situational awareness trumps crash protection alone, but I also don’t see why there is a false dichotomy there, nor why we have to sell a relatively safe activity by actually making it more hazardous to new recruits.

  13. “Less well-known is that over 70% of injury-producing bicycle crashes do not involve a motor vehicle. Also in incidents which do involve a motor vehicle, a helmet often prevents or mitigates injury.” –> source please?

    I wonder what fraction of pedestrian injuries do not involve a motor vehicle, and whether helmet use should be advocated for them too?

    • Here are some studies which address the percentage of crashes involving motor vehicles:

      The BikeCentennial study

      The Moritz study of adult bicyclists

      The Moritz study of commuters (Higher rate)

      Dennerlein-Meeker study of couriers

      The Kaplan study

      I note that these studies mostly surveyed adults. The percentage of crashes involving motor vehicles is smaller for children, according to some studies which unfortunately aren’t avlable online. (e.g., Schupack and Driessen) — but see summary here and especially the listings by crash type on pages 42 and 43.

      As to whether pedestrians should wear helmets, I think that the relevant issue is risk exposure per time spent at the activity. Because of the higher speeds of bicyclists, it is higher. Comments about relative numbers of injuries need to be indexed against time spent at the activity rather than mileage or number of participants. I have recently seen the opposing argument made against helmets: that bicyclists shouldn’t need helmets if they travel more slowly!

  14. I think you make some good points, but you also go astray at times, particularly with the canoeing analogy. Clearly you meant to be absurd to illustrate your point, but the statement that encouraging people to bicycle without a helmet will increase the number of riders and improve public health is true primarily because people already have bikes that are sitting unused. Most people don’t have a canoe sitting unused in their garage. You are correct that walking may be healthier still, but it isn’t nearly as much fun!

    Increasing the number of riders doesn’t increase safety by causing congestion. Rather, it makes riders an expected everyday part of the street landscape. When motorists know they routinely need to watch for bicycles, the riders are safer. When bicycle riders are unexpected rarities, they are at greater risk.

    As for the statement that risk to your head is related to height rather than speed, there is underlying (if irrelevant) truth to that. If you simply fall over, your head will hit with a speed related to height, but that speed is generally insufficient to cause serious harm in a low-speed, falling-sideways type crash. This is particularly true when falling sideways on a bicycle, since the rate of vertical acceleration is very low until you reach an angle in excess of 45 degrees. Being a relatively recent convert to cleats I have taken a couple of low-speed tip-over falls at zero mph recently. There was never any danger to my head, as not only did my shoulder take the impact, but it did so in a soft, rolling fashion starting from my knees. I literally had nothing bruised other than my ego. There is no doubt in my mind that increased speed would increase the potential for a serious impact on my head. The ground is not the only thing your head may strike in a crash, and speed definitely affects the severity of impact for pretty much everything else.

    With all that said, I am a sporadic user of helmets. I have ridden a bike without a helmet for most of my life, and have actually never had an incident in which my head impacted the ground or any other object. I suppose that is at least in part because I did a fair amount of stunt riding as a teen and got a lot of practice falling.

    The amazing thing I notice is that when I ride without a helmet motorized vehicles give me a wider berth and are more cautious around me. I look more vulnerable (and perhaps less experienced) and am treated accordingly. Every incident in which I felt my life was in danger while riding was while wearing a helmet, which I do only about 10% of the time. That could be coincidence, but I have heard similar stories from other riders as well.

    The bottom line is that we all make decisions for our own safety, and helmet requirements restrict our ability to do so. One of my co-workers summed it up well when he said, “I’d love it if everyone would go out and ride without a helmet. I’ll still be wearing mine.” If you feel better wearing a helmet, feel free. Just don’t force one on me.

    • Mike Ard wrote:

      …the statement that encouraging people to bicycle without a helmet will increase the number of riders and improve public health is true primarily because people already have bikes that are sitting unused. Most people don’t have a canoe sitting unused in their garage. You are correct that walking may be healthier still, but it isn’t nearly as much fun!

      Some people have an unused bicycle (and in that case, likely in need of maintenance), but where is the evidence that most people do? Also, let’s make the distinction between public health and personal health. One thing which advocates of helmet laws and public-health advocates have in common is that they like to make decisions for other people. Then, in either case, the law of unintended consequences comes into play.

      Increasing the number of riders doesn’t increase safety by causing congestion. Rather, it makes riders an expected everyday part of the street landscape. When motorists know they routinely need to watch for bicycles, the riders are safer. When bicycle riders are unexpected rarities, they are at greater risk.

      The effect of mode share on safety isn’t so simple. Please see my earlier post on that topic and another post in which I examine a couple of safety-in-umbers studies. I’ve suggested some different ways mode share increases safety, some ways it decreases safety, and different ways it can be measured.

      As for the statement that risk to your head is related to height rather than speed, there is underlying (if irrelevant) truth to that. If you simply fall over, your head will hit with a speed related to height, but that speed is generally insufficient to cause serious harm in a low-speed, falling-sideways type crash.

      Like this one?

      There is no doubt in my mind that increased speed would increase the potential for a serious impact on my head. The ground is not the only thing your head may strike in a crash, and speed definitely affects the severity of impact for pretty much everything else.

      I partly agree. Though most head impacts in bicycle crashes are with the ground, an impact with an elevated object (curb, car, bollard, another bicyclist…) is affected by speed. Head rotation worsens brain trauma, it is affected by speed, and you want a helmet to be slippery in order to minimize it.

      With all that said, I am a sporadic user of helmets. I have ridden a bike without a helmet for most of my life, and have actually never had an incident in which my head impacted the ground or any other object. I suppose that is at least in part because I did a fair amount of stunt riding as a teen and got a lot of practice falling.

      Lucky man!

      The amazing thing I notice is that when I ride without a helmet motorized vehicles give me a wider berth and are more cautious around me. I look more vulnerable (and perhaps less experienced) and am treated accordingly. Every incident in which I felt my life was in danger while riding was while wearing a helmet, which I do only about 10% of the time. That could be coincidence, but I have heard similar stories from other riders as well.

      The actual evidence to support that contention is very thin. The famous Bath, England research study in which a cyclist wore a helmet, or a wig to appear female, or neither, showed a difference of a few inches in passing clearance, with an average passing distance around 4 feet. Here’s an examination of the study (and also check out the links at the end).

      The bottom line is that we all make decisions for our own safety, and helmet requirements restrict our ability to do so. One of my co-workers summed it up well when he said, “I’d love it if everyone would go out and ride without a helmet. I’ll still be wearing mine.” If you feel better wearing a helmet, feel free. Just don’t force one on me.

      I wouldn’t force you to wear a helmet. I encourage you to wear one, though — and to read up on a topic before you express your opinion!

  15. I too have been frustrated by the way the advocates blame some bicyclists for selfishly wanting to ride fast (and being thwarted by things like cycle tracks). What is not appreciated is:
    * the travel time difference in averaging 15 mph vs. 10 mph.
    * cycling is not slow, but is often as fast or faster than other urban travel modes. New Yorkers are appreciating this post-Sandy.
    * no one considers 25 mph to be fast (when it comes to motor traffic)
    * if you design facilities that require ‘slow’ travel, at least some bicyclists will go to fast, endangering all. And ‘some’ becomes ‘most’ when there is a downhill slope.

    –Paul

  16. How do the non-helmet wearers and the sporadic wearers predict when they will need a helmet?

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