To quote the late, great Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, “Never treat anyone in the public sphere like an idiot. If you treat him like an idiot, he will act like an idiot.”
There is an issue with the difficulty of providing helmets when bicycles are rented from unstaffed kiosks. Bike-“sharing” (actually rental) has unleashed this problem, in the interest of increasing bicycle mode share, and has been accompanied by a flurry of pronouncements disparaging not only mandatory helmet laws, but also helmet use.
Purportedly, according to several reports which have appeared in the media, wearing a helmet actually decreases safety. The quintessential article appeared in the New York Times. You see, it works like this: helmets make bicycling appear hazardous. If we don’t convey that impression, more people will ride bicycles, and then there will be a safety in numbers effect, so, what, me worry, all will get better.
In my opinion, bicyclists’ helmet use deserves to be a matter of personal choice rather than law. That is, I would like to rely on individuals’ own intelligence and judgment, and on helmet promotion, rather than to treat people as idiots, on the one hand disparaging helmet use in the interest of some Greater Good which is supposed to accrue to society at large, or on the other, passing a law which is supposed to force helmet use, but goes unenforced but and raises an issue of presumption of negligence as in, “the driver ran a stop sign, but you weren’t wearing a helmet, and so you were breaking the law and can’t collect on the driver’s insurance.”
I personally have had 3 serious impacts between a helmet and pavement the past 37 years since I started wearing one. One incident was initiated by a drunk driver. One was a collision with a tree branch hanging over the curb and which got caught in my front wheel, downhill at about 17 mph; the third, an encounter with an pothole at 8 mph. Note that two of the three were single-bike crashes. No bicycle-facilities nirvana is going to prevent these. Actually, crowded conditions on separate bicycle facilities make bike-bike crashes more likely.
Am I to believe that the health benefits of cycling would be far greater than the injuries I would have suffered if not wearing the helmet, or for that matter, whether I would still be cycling, or in full possession of my faculties, or even alive?
I’m not alone in having such stories, or in saying that I wouldn’t ride if I couldn’t wear a helmet; helmet use became almost universal in recreational bicycle clubs within a few years after effective helmets became available in the mid-1970s, and bicycle clubs thrived. Helmets cut both ways, both encouraging and discouraging bicycling. Debris, potholes, riding in close quarters with other bicyclists of widely varying skill, all lead to crashes, and I challenge anyone here to explain how increasing the number of bicyclists or building separate facilities improves that except perhaps if the facilities become so crowded that bicyclists are reduced nearly to walking speed.
My choice to wear a helmet has nothing to do with the Greater Good, one way or the other. I’ve made my choice and it has worked very well for me.
Helmet disparagement is, to put it simply, deception. By way of comparison, recruits into the military are not deceived about the risk they assume, but they may take it on for patriotic and/or career reasons (or back in my day, be drafted). Special benefits, compensation and medical care if injured are part of the deal. Byut bicycling isn’t the military. I ride on my own initiative, for tranportation and recreation.
User agreements for bike share customers (typically, several screens long on the rental kiosk, but where the agreement can be signed without reading it) relieve the renter of responsibility. I’d suggest that one way to promote helmet use would be to offer insurance if the customer wears a helmet. This, unlike a mandatory helmet law, would be a positive incentive.