Helmets Again… Again

On a slow news day, start a helmet war :-)

Here’s my contribution:

As a rhetoric scholar I’m always interested in arguments (usually not the shouted kind). And I find the argument that helmets make bicycling look scary worth examining. I appears to go something like this:

  • Helmets make bicycling appear dangerous.
  • People generally try to avoid danger.
  • Therefore, wearing helmets dampens enthusiasm for bicycling.

I wonder. Let’s examine “evidence” from my own experience. I wear a helmet when I ride most of the time. From what I see on the road everyday, the majority of bicyclists do not wear helmets. I am clearly in the minority. And these helmet-avoiders are not just students. It’s everyone from kids to old folks and from the well-to-do to the working class. The roadies are big into helmets, but then it’s part of the costume.

I’m starting to wonder if just the opposite is true. Let’s all hum this tune while we consider a very different argument:

  • Bare heads make bicycling appear dangerous.
  • People generally try to avoid danger.
  • Therefore, not wearing helmets dampens enthusiasm for bicycling.

Hmmmmm… that makes no sense at all. But it does suggest that perhaps we’re looking for the wrong scapegoat. Instead, I think a more truthful understanding of what dampens enthusiasm for bicycling includes, but is not limited to, a perception on the part of non-participants that bicycling in America fails one or more of the three types of safety.

And it may also be that the common sense of most people tells them (quite correctly, IMO) that a little bit of plastic and foam will not likely protect them in a collision with a car.

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Comments 5

  1. Tracy Wilkins wrote:

    Hmmm….I consider myself a roadie, but not the helmet as part of a “costume”. Since beginning to cycle seriously, I’ve crashed three times. One was mean and nasty, resulting in broken bones. The other two were fairly innocuous little falls that resulted in some bruises, but in both of those I cracked my head on the pavement hard enough to break my helmet. Did it prevent a worse injury? I don’t know, but in both of them I walked away without as much as a knot on my noggin.

    What I do know is that if you have a run-in with a vehicle, you are going to lose whether you are wearing a helmet or not. I think I’m more likely to have the minor types of falls that a helmet will afford some protection from. For that reason, I’ll be riding with my “lid” clamped firmly on my head!

    Posted 01 Sep 2009 at 2:46 pm
  2. Steve A wrote:

    I’m glad I saw the “no sense” about your reverse argument. I was starting to wonder why people take showers. Nice recovery!

    Posted 01 Sep 2009 at 4:55 pm
  3. Andy Cline wrote:

    Tracy… Despite my “costume” crack I think the helmet is necessary for roadies. You guys are achieving much greater speeds on much thinner tires. That you’ve had wrecks is no surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever met a serious sport biker who didn’t have at least one story about a harrowing wreck in which a helmet probably helped fend off serious injury. It’s the nature of the sport.

    Utility cyclists may be another story. In five years of full-time riding as basic transportation, I’ve had two very mild wrecks. Both my own stupid fault. In neither one did I come close to bumping my head. And no damage to the bicycle or me.

    Steve… Not a recovery. A rhetorical strategy :-)

    Posted 01 Sep 2009 at 5:54 pm
  4. Steve A wrote:

    Still, I’m glad I don’t have to wear my helmet in the shower tomorrow morning. I haven’t figured out how to shampoo with it on.

    Posted 01 Sep 2009 at 8:41 pm
  5. David wrote:

    I would like to restate the second argument…

    * Bare heads make bicycling appear dangerous.
    * Some people try to appear dangerous.
    * Therefore, people who do not wear helmets are trying to look dangerous

    … anyway, good for a quick lol.

    I’ve been commuting off and on for about 15 years. I’ve been hit the average of 1 time per 5 years by autos.

    Honestly though, the best piece of protective gear, the one that has helped me the most and prevented more injuries… is gloves. I still wear a helmet when commuting, but that is just so I don’t have to comb my hair before I leave in the morning!

    When I’m out riding for fun on the road though, I always make sure I have a helmet… for just the reason that Andy stated… much higher speeds (40+MPH sometimes).

    Posted 05 Sep 2009 at 3:39 pm