I got an email a couple months ago from Carleton College psychology professor Neil Lutsky inviting me to speak to his fall class, Measured Thinking: Reasoning with Numbers about World Events, Health, Science, and Social Issues, about the bike helmet issue that I’ve raised here on LoGro this year. (See all my bicycle helmet-related blog posts here.
His idea was to have his students take a close look at the relevant research that’s been cited to support or oppose my contention that the promotion of helmet wearing for around-town bicycling is bad for public health.
I spoke to his class on October 5 and yesterday asked him for an update. He wrote:
The class is divided into four groups investigating the questions listed below. They will have reports addressing these ready at the end of the term. That’s where things stand at the moment.
By the way, if you have any suggestions for the question list (which the students are also modifying as they get into their research), please feel free to share those.
I suggested to Neil that I post the four groups of questions here on LoGro and invite suggestions and discussion from interested citizens.
1. Bicycle accident overview
- What is the overall risk of injury in cycling?
- Who is injured? Where or under what conditions are injuries more or less likely to occur?
- How does this risk and injuries sustained in accidents vary as a function of helmet wearing?
- Is correct helmet use related to injury outcome?
- Do helmets make injuries worse (considering rotational head injuries vs. concussions and
- What are these accident numbers like in cross-national comparisons?
2. Helmet use promotion
- What laws and programs exist to promote helmet use?
- How much helmet use is there? Do people wear helmets correctly?
- Do government policies have an effect on helmet use?
- What evidence suggests the suggestion or imperative to wear a helmet inhibits cycling?
- What are common attitudes toward helmet wearing?
3. Helmet wearing and rider and driver safety
- Is the density of ridership related to cyclist safety?
- Do cyclists wearing helmets behave in a riskier fashion? Is this due to helmet use?
- Are drivers less cautious when encountering cyclists with helmets? If so, why?
4. Health and inactivity
- What are the health consequences of inactivity?
- What are the health benefits of cycling?
- Does cycling make a difference to physical health and the health of the environment?
- If people weren’t cycling, what would they do? What alternative forms of exercise and transportation are there?
StarTribune columnist Jon Tevlin (crappy 2007 photo with Tracy and Ross at the GBM above) covers the bike helmet issue in his column today, Bike helmet debate hits evocative fork in road:
In a Star Tribune story earlier this week, Minneapolis Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Shaun Murphy was photographed on his bike, without a helmet. He told the reporter that he doesn’t always wear a helmet because he doesn’t want the activity to appear dangerous or scary. "I just want it to be seen as something that a normal person can do," said Murphy.
As you might imagine, comments posted online and letters to the editor took Murphy to task. After the story ran, Murphy was told by supervisors that he now has to wear a helmet on the job. But at least one Minnesota bike advocate is on Murphy’s side, presenting some counter-intuitive data that is stirring up controversy on two wheels.
That advocate would be me.
"The studies out there are irrefutable that wearing a helmet is safer than not wearing a helmet," said Bufton. "The cost is low and the return is high. We’re not militant on it and we’re not at the Legislature asking for mandatory helmet laws."
Bufton misses my point. The cost is low for an individual person but from an overall public health impact, we’re inadvertently paying a high price by such over-zealous promotion of helmet-wearing for casual biking.
Wigley is happy about that. Meanwhile, he will continue to ride his bike and wear a helmet, but he sure won’t tell you what to do.
Not quite. I no longer wear a helmet for around-town/casual biking. I do wear a helmet at all other times. And if you’re a public official, I will tell you what to do: for the sake of public health, set an example like me.
I’ve authored three blog posts in recent months about bicycle helmets:
These posts came to the attention of National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), the national body that governs high school mountain bike racing. I had taken their training to be an assistant coach this fall for the Cannon Valley Mountain Bike Racing Team for area high school students. They also came to the attention of the Cannon Valley Velo Club (CVCC), where, as a member, I had volunteered to be the mountain bike ride coordinator and therefore became a club officer.
I wrote to NICA, summarizing my position:
I think public officials and other community leaders should stop the promotion of helmet-wearing for around-town bicycling and instead, work on all the other issues related to getting people, including kids, to ride bikes more, including doing what it takes to make the activity safer. There’s a considerable body of research to support this.
I have very few, if any, kids reading my Locally Grown Northfield blog. My blog post that’s titled “Photos of Northfielders biking around town without helmets: all the cool kids are doing it” was not aimed at kids and contains no photos of kids. The phrase “all the cool kids” is a generic, cultural reference that doesn’t directly refer to kids but anyone (for example, Suing Madonna, Self-publishing, Quitting Facebook).
But it’s very likely that kids will find out about my helmet-related blog posts, either on their own or from teachers, parents, or members of the local bike clubs. If they ask me, I’ll explain my position.
In Northfield and elsewhere in MN, the vast majority of high school age teenagers using their skateboards and BMX bikes in municipal skateparks don’t wear helmets. Insurance doesn’t require it as long as the obstacles are under 48 inches high. But if you go to a BMX or skateboard stunt show, all the performers wear helmets. Most kids would understand why: speed and height make a difference. An analogy: should parents let their kids play in the street? Pretty much everyone would say that it depends on the age of the kid, the type of street, and the type of play. Kids gradually learn the subtleties of playing in the street and by the time they’re in high school, it’s a non-issue. Likewise, with helmet-wearing.
Boys especially don’t want to appear to be overly concerned with safety. I insisted that my three sons wore helmets from the time they were toddlers but once they were 14 or so, they refused to do it for around-town biking. They had no hesitation on wearing a helmet when I took them mountain biking or road riding.
I’m 100% in favor of promoting the importance of wearing helmets for mountain biking, road biking, gravel riding, and all forms of bike competition and I would hammer this point home and enforce it rigorously with the high school student athletes. And I would not use my coaching/face time with them to promote my position about helmets and around-town biking.
NICA gave me a choice:
…while NICA’s rules do not govern what Griff does outside of the context of his high school mountain bike coaching, NICA does find his position on helmet use contradictory to our risk management and safety standards. Thus, NICA staff are not supportive of his position regarding helmet use nor his public blogging on this subject. NICA encourages Griff to chose between abiding by the NICA rules at all times – in order to serve as a role model – or not coach.
I replied in part:
One thing I didn’t state in my “Griff’s position” statement was that it never occurred to me that my blogging about helmets for around-town biking would have anything to do with mountain biking. I simply never made the mental connection. If I had, I probably would have avoided the issue altogether.
While it’s unfortunate, I don’t regret doing it. I really do believe in what I wrote about the issue so I can’t in good faith go back on it. So I have decided to withdraw as team director and assistant coach.
And while I’ve put in a lot of hours in this over several months, I have no regrets — no bad feelings whatsoever. I’ve really enjoyed and benefited from all of it, especially the two-days of Leadership Summit training…
I met with the officers of the CVCC to clarify my position that I would always insist that anyone on a club-sanctioned mountain bike ride with me would have to wear a helmet. Their response:
In the end, most felt that we can’t as a Club endorse a position which suggests publicly that riding without a helmet at any time on the bike is advisable. It was very tough to decide whether this meant that individuals within the Club are speaking for the Club, but in the end it was decided that anyone whose name is on the CVVC home page “Club Officers” table could be construed as speaking for the Club. Given that your position as expressed in blog posts is in conflict with our helmet policy (and that you stand by this position), we decided that this means your name should not be listed as a club officer.
So as a club member, I can informally invite others to go on mountain bike rides with me. I just can’t be an official ride leader.
I harbor no ill will towards either NICA nor CVCC, even though I strongly disagree with them. It’s a tricky issue and insurance/risk management makes it even more so.
There are many ways for me to contribute to the sport of mountain biking and bicycling in general. I won’t be shy about letting you know what I’m up to. If it’s Northfield-related, I’ll let you know here on LoGro. Otherwise, stay tuned to my Mountain Bike Geezer blog and/or follow MTBikeGeezer on Twitter.
As part of my public health campaign, I’m going to use this blog post to feature photos of Northfielders bicycling around town without helmets. Why?
Because there’s substantial research available showing that:
- the promotion of the wearing of helmets significantly discourages people from using their bikes for around-town bicycling
- the fewer the number of people bicycling on a given street or in a concentrated geographic area, the more bike-car accident rates rise
In short, riding a bike around town without a helmet is a relatively safe activity. And society benefits (health, transportation, environmental, economic, etc.) the more that people do it.
(See my May 22 blog post, Bike helmet promotions are bad for the public health of Northfield, for more. Chime in there if you want to discuss the issue, not here.)
For some of the photos, I’ll identify people by name. For others, I’ll just post them with maybe a note about where the photo was taken. As I add photos to this blog post, I’ll add a comment to the thread to alert everyone that a new photo has been added.
I took this photo of Cody Larson and Jake Olsen biking to work this morning. They weren’t wearing bike helmets, a perfectly reasonable and safe thing to do for around town biking according to the research discussed here.
These gentlemen need to look their best at work, so they leave their helmets at home when commuting and biking around town. Plus, they know that they’re helping to contribute to the overall public health of the community by setting a good example. Yep. The promotion of the wearing of bike helmets for around town biking reduces bicycling and the public health benefits of cycling. Who’da thunk of those unintended consequences?
(It’s absolutely not true that Jake and Cody were smoking cigarettes and texting while biking just before I took this photo. That’s just a vicious rumor circulating on the intertubes.)
Contrast their fresh, cool and professional appearance with the way I looked this morning when I arrived at GBM after a hard commute from my house wearing a helmet.
No, this is not a faux news piece. I heard this story on PRI’s The World a month ago, Why Germans Don’t Like Bicycle Helmets, and started poking around to learn more.
It turns out that the promotion of the wearing of bike helmets, and especially helmet laws, reduces bicycling and the public health benefits of cycling.
The best site I found for research: The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation in the UK.
So while wearing a bike helmet might be good for you personally (I always do but even the research on that is questionable), it’s bad public policy to promote the wearing of bicycle helmets.
If you’re a parent and insist that your young kids wear helmets, realize that you’re likely creating a strong incentive for them to abandon bike riding when they become teenagers and to see driving a car as the only socially acceptable form of local transportation.
The Northfield Hospital, Northfield Community Services, the City of Northfield, and other organizations in the area concerned with the health and safety of the citizenry should quit the bike helmet safety promotions.
May 23 8 am update: I’ve changed the name of the blog post from “Bike helmets are bad for the public health of Northfield” to “Bike helmet promotions are bad for the public health of Northfield.” See the discussion below.