Bicycle Helmets

Elisabeth Rosenthal has a piece in the New York Times Sunday Review about whether helmets should be worn when cycling. Her argument is that, yes, helmets probably save lives1 but making them mandatory actually discourages people from cycling.

Recent experience suggests that if a city wants bike-sharing to really take off, it may have to allow and accept helmet-free riding. A two-year-old bike-sharing program in Melbourne, Australia — where helmet use in mandatory — has only about 150 rides a day, despite the fact that Melbourne is flat, with broad roads and a temperate climate. On the other hand, helmet-lax Dublin — cold, cobbled and hilly — has more than 5,000 daily rides in its young bike-sharing scheme. Mexico City recently repealed a mandatory helmet law to get a bike-sharing scheme off the ground. But here in the United States, the politics are tricky.

Last year, I had the worst bike accident of my life. I was coming from the north side of the city. As I came around the corner of the Matt Talbot bridge - at a point where two cycle lanes cross over each other in the middle of a pedestrian crossing - when another cyclist on a Dublin Bike was coming the other way. We both saw each other too late and we both swerved in the same direction.

The results weren’t pretty.

I landed on my head, lost consciousness for a few minutes and was taken to hospital in an ambulance.

There were two things I realised. First is that I don’t think cycling helmets should be mandatory, but for my style of cycling, which I would call ‘assertive’ rather than ‘aggressive’, I probably should wear one. The other thing I realised is that people on Dublin Bikes are, generally, awful and dangerous cyclists. They have no idea of the rules of the road. No concept of spacial awareness. They’re oblivious to other road-users (and especially, other cyclists). What I have observed myself is that their first use of a Dublin Bike is usually the first time they’ve been on a bike in a few years, so they’re a bit wobbly and nervous. And then, after about fifteen minutes, they remember how much fun cycling is and they start cycling like lunatics. And that’s when you have to watch out for them. Because they are the heaviest bikes on the road and an accident with them will fuck you up.

Believe me. They will fuck you up.

So, speaking as a cyclist, I guess my point is that I think bicycle helmets shouldn’t be mandatory. Regardless of what I just said about the majority of Dublin Bike users, I think the Dublin Bike scheme is a terrific asset to the city and I also believe that it would get no use if people were forced to buy and use a helmet before using one of the bikes. I think that the decision should be left to the individual cyclist, that people should wear a helmet if they feel like they need it.


  1. Although she seems to suggest the life-saving benefits of helmets are largely apocryphal