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« Who will history remember? | Main | Asleep at the wheel »

Boston Bike Share: The helmet issue

Look at the above picture; why is this woman not being hauled off to jail for child endangerment? Why are these children not being taken into protective custody?

The answer is simple; the picture is from Holland where 99% of the population ride a bicycle at some time or other; for most it is their main form of transportation.

Very few Dutch people wear a helmet while cycling, and as far as I know there are not huge numbers of people dying from head injuries. In fact Holland (The Netherlands.) is one of the safest places in the world to ride a bike.

By contrast the City of Boston, Massachusetts, USA, has a bike share program with 600 bicycles than can be rented and dropped off again at 61 stations. The program only nine months old is already drawing fire from the medical profession because it doesn’t offer helmets for rent.

It is my opinion that insisting that people who rent a bike wear a helmet is a good way to kill off a bike rental program; even suggesting it or making it optional is not good. People who think wearing a helmet is a good Idea, and want to wear one will bring their own.

There are those who say helmets could be rented along with the bike, but who feels comfortable wearing a helmet that someone else has used? Even if it is sanitized. The whole helmet issue really screws up a simple idea.

Bike rental is really an extension of walking. Let's say you are a tourist and you would like to visit a certain place, but it is a little too far to walk. You rent a bike with a minimum of formalities, you ride to where you need to be and you drop the bike off.

Add a helmet to the picture and all of a sudden a simple idea becomes a little more complicated. The person thinks, “Oh yes I could get hit by a car.” The point is you could get hit by a car while walking across the street, but no one suggested you put a helmet on your head when you put your shoes on this morning.

You could fall from your bike without another vehicle being involved; yes, and you could trip on a raised paving slab and fall on your head while walking. These rental bikes are usually heavy “clunkers,” very stable and not built for fast riding.

As previously mentioned, this Boston bike share program is still very new; is there any indication so far that large numbers of renters are getting their heads busted? The article that prompted me to write this is flawed anyway.

It implies that there were 630 cyclist deaths in the US during 2009 due to head injuries. I think you will find that is the total number of cyclists killed, not all will have died from head injuries. Those who did, getting hit by a car doing 50 or 60 mph, wearing a helmet or not will make little difference to the outcome.

The whole issue here is that motor vehicles, driven by careless, inattentive people kill most cyclists and pedestrians. The medical profession should be addressing that fact. 

Until our society also wakes up to that fact and local governments start changing infrastructure, speed limits, etc. and law enforcement start doing their job; insisting that cyclists wear a little Styrofoam helmet will have little or no impact on cyclist fatalities and injuries.  

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. Implying that even a casual bike renter should wear a helmet is like allowing everyone to fire guns randomly anywhere they please, and then suggesting that we all wear bullet proof vests.

Don’t pad the potential victim; control the missile, slow down the projectile.



Reader Comments (14)

"Implying that even a casual bike renter should wear a helmet is like allowing everyone to fire guns randomly anywhere they please, and then suggesting that we all wear bullet proof vests."

Well said.

The safest thing for a person on a bike is other people on bikes. Anything that dissuades people from riding makes riding less safe in aggregate.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Souders

Unfortunately, it's a common stalling tactic by opponents, even in Portland.

On average, I believe that there are a total of eight bike fatalities in the city every year, and a substantially higher number of pedestrians killed every year. If helmets could prevent all eight of those bicycle deaths every year, just think how many more lives could be saved with compulsory helmet laws for anyone who steps outdoors!

Riding a bicycle is a safe activity. I wear a helmet almost all of the time, because why not? It's a small piece of insurance. I don't really expect to get sore or scraped up hands when I ride, but gloves never hurt, either.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChamps

This is OR WAS a FREE country and you have the right OR wrong to do as you please.(FOR NOW) BUT only a DUMB SOB would ride a bike and NOT wear a crash hat OR helmet as they are now called. Any protection that you can get is in my febel mind a plus. Why NOT take advantage of it? Of course next thing will be riding a bike in a suit of armour!

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGRUMPY Crump

I read a study done in Sweden some years ago that cited speed in excess of 20kph and being clipped as being responsible for far more head injuries than not wearing a helmet. This video shows why:
Imagine someone clipped in wearing a helmet taking this corner, he would probably fall, crack his helmet, and then thank the helmet for saving his life

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhil Kent

People regularly die while cycling in Boston from being struck by motor vehicles and (more rarely) above-ground subways. Mix drunk drivers, rural-to-city new students, raging drivers during rush hour, clueless pedestrians walking into the street without looking (even between parked cars), as well as ignorant/novice/arrogant cyclists themselves and it's hard (for me) to over embellish the concern for renters without helmets as "fear culture." Having ridden year-round in Boston for five years, having been doored, struck at 30 MPH by a driver running a red, and contacted by cars several other times (running a stop sign, rolling a stop sign through a bike lane, pulling u-turns, getting pinched by the bus, etc) - the city is no joke. Even cautious, experienced cyclists are at the will of others' behaviors in terms of riding. Boston is NOT Copenhagen. Neither are most other US cities.

I can argue that we do need safer streets, fewer cars, more street-wise pedestrians and cyclists but I won't make the argument that riding with a helmet in Boston is anything less of a necessity; especially with those riding through who are not familiar with the city.

Riding without a helmet (or one that is cracked or older than 5 years and/or improperly worn) is not worth the risk of permanent, serious injury or death. If you're still unsure, as the friends and families of those who have been slain on the streets here. I'm sure they'll convince you otherwise.

Dave, thank you for writing about this issue. I wrote about this last year:


The mandatory (by rules of Hubway - the bike share program) helmets essentially kill the whole fun and convenience of using shared bikes in Boston. But I can add that almost all Hubway cyclists I have seen so far rode without helmets. This means that either law is not strictly enforced or users realize that walking with their own helmet the whole time, thus being ready to rent a bike, is a ridiculous idea.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbostonbybike

Phil Kent,
An interesting point, re: The Swedish Study. I started racing in the early 1950s and people tend to forget that we used shoe cleats, toe clips and straps up until the late 1980s. Our feet were firmly attached to the pedals and to release we had to reach down and loosen the quick-release buckle on the strap with our thumb.

There were no hardshell helmets until the 1970s. My experience was that if the bike slid out from under you due to wet roads, ice, gravel etc. Your knee, hip, elbow and/or shoulder hit the ground and got grazed; it was rare that your head hit the ground in a sideways fall.

It is a natural instinct to stick your arm out and hold your head up as you fall; you can see this in the YouTube video. I have heard it said that a helmet causes your head to hit the ground in such a fall resulting in a cracked helmet.

I wear a helmet for the little protection it does give, but having ridden more years without one than with, I do not have the faith in the amount of protection given that some others do.

PS. While editing Phil’s post to make the YouTube link live, I mistakenly deleted someone else’s post. I apologize.

May 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

spot on again

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpeter

I am sure the car lobby has noticed that the best way to stop people riding bikes in large numbers is to make them wear a helmet. In my home city of Valencia in Spain, the council introduced a bike rental scheme two years ago and it already has over 100,000 paid-up subscribers. Needless, to say very few people choose to wear a helmet.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Rawlins

Seen pictures of both Prez candidates cycling w/o a helmet. That pleases me but which one truly represents the level of independence that cyclists respect and appreciate?

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Well written.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMicheal Blue

The vacuum of policy regarding bike status on the roads is a huge source of conflict between cyclists and motorists. That's why recent installations of dedicated bike lanes in my hometown Chicago are very encouraging. Once the infrastructure respects the presence of the cyclist, then the status of the cyclist on the road will improve. This is the lesson I took from Amsterdam's incredibly well implemented bicycle lane system, and I see signs that Chicago's urban planners are implementing those ideas. One estimate of Chicago's Kinzie St. dedicated bike lane counts more bikes than cars during a typical day's commute. I'm optimistic that those statistics will convince city planners of the tremendous gains to be made by implementing smart infrastructure for cycling. Its becoming abundantly clear that it is good politics to make room for cyclists. That is something that the whole cycling community should be latching onto vigorously.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn LaVere

During the last ten years. Three accidents TWO wearing a helmet. First accident NO helmet drafting a chap on the trail nasty cross wind blew him across and I hit his back wheel with my front. Broken collar bone and ribs from flinging myself on my side to avoid head injurys. Second one more serious.Hit a bloody Horse! the rider cut in frot of me on the trail, broked shoulder blade, broken ribs, mild concussion. paramed said the helmet hit the big block of leather and the helmet took the brunt of it. Third accident slid on ice did the splits on the croosbar and broke my pelvic bone plus mild concussion, helmet was damaged. Previos to that in England the ONLY prang I had was going over the top in a pile up putting my hands out and getting two beoken wrists.NO helmet. Never wore or even thought about usuing a helmet untill the late 1990s, then only used one at times mostly in the winter, to hot in the summer. SO did a helmet help me out in the last 10 years YES, Did it save my life NO is a helmet worth it YES YES YES. the new helmets that are in most cases VERY expensive are light and let plenty of air on the noggin but well worth the investment in MY feeble mind,(that I still have thanks to a helmet!)

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGRUMPY Crump

As a 20+ year resident of Boston I have to laugh at the Hubway and helmet debate manufactured by the medical community.
I live downtown where a majority of these bikes are rented and anyone who is paying attention to this program will note the absolutely unacceptable numbers of Hubway renters riding on the sidewalk.
Before folks get up in arms about helmets how about laying down some ground rules on acceptable usage. That is something we can all agree on I'm sure.

For the record I care not what folks wear on their head as long as they stay off the sidewalk with the bicycle riding.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJIm
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