Armoring Up on the Streets of New York

We’re pleased to announce that Alex Marshall will now be contributing to Streetsblog. As a journalist and author Alex has written extensively on how transportation shapes our cities. He is a columnist at Governing Magazine and a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association where he edits the bi-weekly Spotlight on the Region newsletter. Here is his first piece for Streetsblog:

The line between the fiberglass helmet teetering on my two year old son’s head and the death and dying in Iraq is admittedly long, but somehow direct, I feel.

"America is a fearful country," said a friend of mine recently, a friend who is originally from Holland.

It’s that fear that is the connection. Gary Kamiya, in an essay in Salon last week, wrote about how President George Bush "tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity" with his decision to invade Iraq, and a strain he says we have difficulty acknowledging.

It’s that same strain of fearfulness, I suspect, a strain that sees enemies everywhere, that propels us to put bicycle helmets on two years old. In its own way, a bicycle helmet on a two year old is the cycling equivalent of a Humvee. It taps into our desire to "armor up," to make our defenses higher, greater and stronger, rather than focus on something less physical as a means to make us secure, as well as to acknowledge that total security is impossible.

Okay, I know what people are thinking. I’ve been out too long in these recent days of 90 degree heat. And there may be some truth to that. I felt my temperature rising repeatedly this last weekend as I strapped my son into his new cycling seat with his new helmet. It was a great day in many ways. I got to cycle through the streets of Brooklyn, my young son behind me, for the very first time.

But I felt guilty rather than glad as I made my son wear this clanky heavy helmet in the hot sun. The heavy helmet was thick and heavy enough to both practically drag his head over and to make him profusely perspire. It may have made him safer, but it certainly diminished his enjoyment.

Not that I pointed that out to him. I made wearing the helmet a big game, and let him pick out the color and so on. He only complained a little about it. As for me, I rode without one, as usual.

I’m aware that bicycling in New York City is dangerous. I never forgot while cycling this weekend with my son how vulnerable he was. We are not in Amsterdam, where the cars reflexively watch out for pedestrians, and where not incidentally, virtually no one wears bicycle helmets.

But I’m convinced that the answer to the danger of cycling is not more and more emphasis on wearing helmets. Those who have read my work know I can sound like a crusader in these views. Over-emphasizing helmets, including the laws like New York state’s requiring children to wear them, make cycling less popular which ultimately makes cycling less safe by reducing "the safety in numbers" phenomena that happens when many people cycle. It also sends the wrong societal message that safety is primarily the responsibility of the cyclist, rather than that of everyone on the road, including drivers.

But as I think Dennis Miller used to say, Hey, I could be wrong. A lot of my friends take deep pride in teaching their children from their earliest days that wearing a bicycle helmet is part of bicycling, period. It’s part of learning to be safe in life, and not being reckless. I can see why many people feel that way. I always fasten my seatbelt when I drive, just about.

But we’ve taken this kind of logic too far. It’s a tricky argument, because I’m not arguing against wearing helmets, I’m arguing we have over emphasized their use. To truly make cycling safer, and with it walking as well, we need to have more cyclists mingling with traffic, even with children on board, and to have everyone watching out for each other.

Photo: zimpenfish/Flickr

  • d

    I found the quality of this post to be well below Streetsblog’s standards of logic, sense, and reason. Car seats are uncomfortable, too. Should your two-year-old not ride in one because it diminishes his enjoyment? Say what you will about mandating helmet use for older children or adults, but it would seem like a good idea for a kid who is still in diapers.

    I don’t think that wearing a helmet puts the primary responsibility for safety on the wearer any more than wearing a seatbelt does. It’s just an acknowledgment that other people don’t put too much of an emphasis on safety and that we can control our own behavior, but not others’. I have lights on my bike not because it’s hard for me to see where I’m going, but because it’s hard for other people to see me. I wear a helmet not because I think I am not a safe enough rider, but because I know that, in fact, this is not Amsterdam; people don’t pay enough attention to cyclists here, pot holes and poorly painted bike lanes can cause accidents in a split second, and many drivers are openly hostile to anyone on a bike.

    Helmet laws may make a few people not want to get on a bike, but is the effect really so huge that there are thousands of would-be riders who would otherwise enjoy a bike ride were it not for having to wear a sweaty helmet? (Plenty of kids in Prospect Park ride without helmets, so it seems hard to argue that kids aren’t riding because of a rarely enforced law.) Survey after survey has shown that the reason people don’t ride to work, for example, is because of the risk of being hit by a car, poor road conditions, no bike lanes, and no place to securely store a bike at work. I could be wrong, but I’ve never seen a survey responder say, “I’d ride to work if only I didn’t have to wear a helmet.”

    I’m predicting 20 or more responses to this post. There’s just something about mentioning helmet laws…

  • The point, d, is not whether some people don’t bike because they have to wear a helmet. The point is that we focus too much on small, personal-responsibility, defensive mechanisms to address bike safety, when a much more effective way to save bikers lives is to adopt a smart and comprehensive bicycle strategy for the city. But of course, that would come at the expense of cars… hence the emphasis on helmets.

  • My children (3 & 6), love to bike. The older has been riding without training wheels since he was four. The younger is mastering the LikeABike and glides like an angel.

    Without much discussion, we told them they had to wear helmets whenever they got on a bike. Now, when they want to go biking, they demand, “Daddy, go get me my lid,” put it on, and off they go. The never complain about having to wear a helmet. I usually have to remind my son to take his off when he’s moved onto another activity.

    The fact is, bicycling has its inherent dangers, quite apart from the dangers of vehicles. Years ago, I went over my handlebars when my rear-wheel failed and I landed right on my helmet. That same summer, my wife went over her handlebars when she hit a curb-cut at a rookie angle. My brother suffered a concussion as a kid running into a parked car (in the days before helmets).

    I was in my late twenties when I got my first helmet. A friend invited me to ride with her in the Five Borough Bike Tour, but said she wouldn’t ride with me if I didn’t buy a helmet. I bought one that day.

    I have biked thousands of miles since that day, probably fewer than five without a helmet. I can’t think of one time where I’ve decided not to ride because it would require wearing a helmet. I certainly don’t think of wearing one as a burden (though my current helmet really needs a bit of a deodorizing).

    It’s a false choice: personal responsibility v. a comprehensive bicycle strategy. We should have miles and miles of bike lanes filled with thousands of riders … each wearing a helmet.

  • I actually did not wear my helmet today after leaving my home in a rush and forgetting it.

    I have to say, while I felt more vulnerable in some ways, I also felt more comfortable and definitely more dignified as a welcome user of the street. I felt that drivers treated me more as the vulnerable human being that I am.

    While I won’t make a habit of not wearing my helmet, challenging the helmet doctrine, as Alex has so eloquently done, seems extremely appropriate.

    I was also actually just sent this article ( by a friend last night on the negative impact of helmets on riding safety. Sblog has reported on this study in the past:

  • galvo

    “My brother suffered a concussion as a kid running into a parked car (in the days before helmets).”
    bicycle helmets are not designed to and do not prevent concussions.

  • Point taken (on the concussion front). BUt, wouldn’t his concussion have been less severe?

  • Outlaw

    I wore my helmet training in Prospect Park, two hours at close to my red-eyed limit — I lived!

    I casually rode, without a helmet, later the same day to meet my wife in Park Slope — I lived!

    Both experiences, under warm and sunny skies, felt great.

    Alex is right about that need to “armor up.” I’ve never lived elsewhere so I don’t know firsthand if it’s uniquely American. I do know that this is a nation that was a headlong invasion into wilderness for its first 150 years. I do see a society fearful of anything beyond our grasp. We want to control our surroundings — by extension, our destiny — to an extent for which we have no right to ask. We want to control our bodies, to whatever minute extent our technology allows. This impulse drives the economy and dominates our media — helmet obsession is but a micro-manifestation.

    Did thoughts of what would happen in a crash flash in my head as I rode bare-headed? Absolutely. In fact, I would say I was a little more careful, watchful and wary as I soft-pedaled through Windsor Terrace. I wonder if there are surveys showing that helmets can become a dangerous crutch for cyclists, too, fueling reckless behavior with the thought that hey — I’ll walk away from (some)(most)(any)thing because I’m wearing this helmet. Don’t drivers get the same impulse when they’re wearing a seat belt and know they’ll get buffeted by a dozen airbags?

    It’s going to happen, people. It could happen while you’re riding around in a suit of armor or riding in a three-ton SUV. We’re all going to die. It’s probably why I do ride a bike, and try to go fast — because there’s something invigorating about risk.

  • d

    Sean, your point about the false choice is a good one. Even when I ride in the country where car traffic is sparse and drivers give ample space to bikes, I wear a helmet. All it takes is a quick flat tire, a busted spoke, a tiny rock, or a little crack and you’ll fly off the bike.

    Juliette, I agree that we often focus too much on helmets and personal safety choices rather than institutional changes, but I don’t think that Alex’s point was well made by using his two-year-old’s discomfort as an example. Again, should he not put his kid in a car seat simply because it would be better to focus on highway safety and infrastructure improvements? Is that the choice one has to make?

    Alex wrote:

    In its own way, a bicycle helmet on a two year old is the cycling equivalent of a Humvee. It taps into our desire to “armor up,” to make our defenses higher, greater and stronger, rather than focus on something less physical as a means to make us secure, as well as to acknowledge that total security is impossible.

    Baloney. Wearing a helmet is not some acquiescence to a reptilian desire to “armor up.” I wear a helmet and I realize that total security is impossible. As an example, I was hit by a car and landed on my head. Did the helmet prevent the accident? No, but I sure was happy that it was my helmet that split in two and not my skull.

    Plenty of people who die in car accidents die even though they were wearing a seatbelt. Does it follow then, that seatbelts are ineffective at preventing death, or that those who wear them are “armoring up” against an irrational fear?

  • Anonymous mean critic

    Yeah, I kind of prefer the harder-news style of the rest of Streetsblog. This belongs more in the weekly “Streetsblog Magazine.”

    Oh, and “phenomenon,” not “phenomena,” was called for, as the former is singular and the latter is plural… (Wow, I’m really hazing him; I never pick on other Sbloggers’ little language mistakes.)

    But welcome, in spite of all that!

  • Steve

    I don’t think anyone is disagreeing with the last few lines of the post:

    “But we’ve taken this kind of logic too far. It’s a tricky argument, because I’m not arguing against wearing helmets, I’m arguing we have over emphasized their use. To truly make cycling safer, and with it walking as well, we need to have more cyclists mingling with traffic, even with children on board, and to have everyone watching out for each other.”

    The “pro-helmet” position in the post is something of a straw man used to argue against the view that “the answer to the danger of cycling is not more and more emphasis on wearing helmets.” I’m not aware that this view is being advanced much in NYC. Rather than viewing the law requiring helmet use by kids as evidence of state over-emphasis on fear for personal safety, I think the permissive stance toward adults is the key feature of the law. So yes, we should not be consumed with fear and consequently over-emphasize personal responsibility for helmet-wearing as a safe streets solution, but I’m not sure who needs to hear this message.

    Another issue in the post is that the generalized attack on “fear” tends to elide the distinction between emphasizing personal responsibility borne of “fear”/concern for one’s own safety (bad), and emphasizing personal responsibility borne of “fear”/concern for the safety of others (good). I want motorists to be “fearful” (concerned) about the risks they create when they routinely speed and run red lights in NYC. The problem is not that motorists are overly fearful, is that they are too often fearful only for their own safety and don’t give a damn about anyone else. Also, the self-other safety distinction is not absolute;
    I didn’t wear a helmet when I was a teenager, but I do now because now I am a parent with less freedom to disregard my own safety.

    I am in full support of the proposal that more parents bicycle with their kids in NYC, but I don’t think focusing on the under-16 hhelmet requirement is the way to get there. For many parents, daily bicycling is easier and more fun and meaningful when you include kids. In addition, bicycling with kids forces drivers to recognize the consequences of their actions and be more careful. It is a political act that helps realize the safer streets we all want.

    But bicycling in NYC heightens the risk of at least minor traffic-related injury as compared to walking or using mass transit. The heightened risk is even greater for kids, who (when on their own bikes) lack judgment and experience that might help them avoid injuries, and (when strapped into a kiddie seat) are essentially unable to protect themselves from injury.

    To me, the risk of minor injury is an acceptable cost in light of benefits of bicycling with my kids. But like most parents I have a very different attitude toward serious injury and death, guarding against those at all costs. So I have my kids wear helmets, I interpose myself between them and vehicles, I closely follow all traffic rules with them, stick to bike lanes, and occasionally will decide that we must dismount and walk our bikes on the sidewalk to avoid particularly dangerous situations. I have actually convinced one or two parents to bicycling (occasionally) with their kids to school by showing them all the things a parent can do to prevent serious injury or death (and one of the best is to have two parents, one in front and one in back of the kids).

    I can’t imagine that repealing the helmet law for kids under 16 is the key to “having more cyclists mingling with traffic, even with children on board,” as the post suggests. Rather, the key is demonstrating to parents that there are responsible, safe ways to bicycle with kids in NYC, so that we have more families on the road and achieve the “safety in numbers.”

  • Peter Jacobsen

    Twelve years ago I attended a public health conference promoting a child bicycle helmet law. The keynote speaker was asked about helmet laws reducing bicycle riding. She said it was a double win. Not only would fewer children bicycle, but also those remaining would be better protected. That statement galled me.

    Another notable take-away from the meeting was that the words cars and motorists went unspoken. We heard examples of a cyclist who flew 50 feet and another cyclist who hit his head against a windshield. Traffic calming and bike lanes also went unspoken.

    The organizers clearly stated that they wanted to distill bicycle safety down to one message: wear a helmet.

  • Steve


    I too find the approach you describe at the 1995 conference galling. Do you find that this myopic/disingenuous focus on helmets in cycling safety circles has grown since 1995? And by the way, many thanks for your excellent article on “safety in numbers” and I hope we can look forward to more research in this area.

    There is another child bicycling device I have noticed for the first time this year that already seems more prevalent than the rear-mounted kiddie seat–the frame-mounted foot-perch which enables the child to straddle the frame in front of the adult (similar to “jimmy bars” mounted on the rear axle that allow a second passenger to ride standing). These are illegal and strike me as dangerous, but they seems to have encouraged a number of parents to bicycle with a child. Any users of this device out there?

  • Excellent article, thanks, Alex, my sentiments exactly as a non-helmeter.

    I used to transport my son to school (and other places) first when he was sitting sideways on my crossbar, then astride behind me on the rack (it was rated 50lbs). I did ride on the sidewalk when I was with him, and he wore a helmet. This is absurdly common in many countries, including India where I grew up. I never once felt I was putting either of us in danger. And, oddly enough, I never got called on it in Park Slope.

  • Here’s my responses to the excellent comments above.

    In reverse order,

    — It’s great to hear from Peter Jacobsen, a respected public health researcher who did the “Safety in Numbers” study that I cited in my Governing column on the subject. That’s an amazing memory from the 1995 conference. So nice that he’s reading Streetsblog.

    –I agree with those who say my arguments were clumsy. My apologies. But I think there is a big core of truth to my arguments, even if they need rephrasing. It’s a question of balance, a point even I often forget. If you’re bicycling in a race, by all means wear a helmet. If you’re out for the whole day, maybe you would choose to wear a helmet. It’s a personal choice. But for around town, a ten minute cycle to the grocery store, I think an over emphasis on helmets discourages cycling, and thus promotes a hosts of other ills, including fat kids. Children today do not bicycle like I used to, my brother tells me, who has three adoloscent boys. They don’t just hop on their stingrays, and go to a friend’s house or a store. Cycling for them has ceased to be a casual means of transportation, and has become a designated activity, like wrestling or soccer practice. That’s bad.

    –Yes, we are going to die. Agreed.

    –I take Sean’s advice to heart about how to educate children on helmet use. I’ll do just what he says, despite my views. I’ve learned with children that you can’t promote subtleties, at least not at age two. And anyway, it’s the law.

    — Umm, I actually have a bone to pick with children’s seats in cars as well. Are they great for on the highway? Absolutely. But are they really necessary for around town driving? I wonder if the safety the promote is cancelled out by the danger they promote in parents like me swiveling around to try to deal with their out-of-sight child in the back seat. And is safety the absolute value? What about conversing with your child, during all the hours most people outside New York spend in their cars, something that is quite difficult with your child in the back seat?
    The professor William Lucy, who I mentioned in a comment here the other day, has done a lot of research about the dangers of high-speed driving. I believe it was he who said you’re twice as likely to get in an accident in inner-city driving compared to suburban driving, but much less likely to be involved in a fatal accident.

    –The bottom line for me is that I think promoting helmet use zealously ultimately discourages cycling, which leads to a host of other ills, including fat kids and adults. Ben Hamilton-Baille, an English cycling proponent and planner, has done a lot of work promoting the work of Dutch planners, who have encouraged an “everyone into the street” style of safety. I think cycling without a helmet fits into that. The more we encourage streets to be used as the lanes of life, and less as “car sewers” to quote my sometimes ideological enemy but good writer James Kunstler, the better we are.

  • d


    I think your logic falls apart a little more in your response than it does in your original post.

    1. Obviously, the longer one is out riding the more likely one is to get in an accident. The law of averages, and all that. However, a motorist who accidentally rams into a cyclist isn’t going to make a distinction between the guy who’s on an all-day ride and the guy who’s taking a ten-minute ride to the store. (At least no more than a drunk driver will be able to read a yellow “Baby on Board” window sign. “Oh, let me hit the car without the kid in it.”)

    2. Ultimately, other factors influence whether or not someone wears a helmet in either scenario. Wearing a helmet on an all-day ride through Nebraska might not be necessary, but wearing one for a ten-minute ride to the store when you live on Queens Boulevard would be a smart move.

    3. You are right that kids today don’t ride their bikes like they used to. You wrote, “I think an over emphasis on helmets discourages cycling, and thus promotes a hosts of other ills, including fat kids.” Not to sound like an old man, but I used to ride about two miles to my elementary school. Cut to 20 years later and none of the children in my former neighborhood ride to school, despite there being more kids on the block than every before. Is it because more people have advocated helmet use since I was a child, thereby discouraging a quick ride to school, or is it because of a host of other factors? Busier streets, increased development, more SUVs, suburban sprawl, fears (however irrational) of child predators…there are as many reasons for this as there are kids. Top it off with the fact that kids today are just as likely to be inside playing Tony Hawk video games as they are to be outside skateboarding and there’s still another reason why your brother might not see so many kids on bikes.

    4. What about the busier lifestyles of kids in general? Cycling has become a designated activity, as you mentioned, but so has everything else that used to be called “play.” Today, kids’ schedules are filled with music lessons, soccer practice, swimming lessons, play dates, and more. That would give them less time to bike from place to place (as any parent who has frantically played chauffeur to his children can verify) and less safe even if the distances were manageable, since it could very well be dark when they are done with their last scheduled activity.

    5. “And is safety the absolute value?” Yes. I’m not sure what kind of conversations one would have with a two-year-old that trump piles and piles of data on car seats, but when I have kids I’ll make sure they’re safe in the car first and then worry about what we’re talking about and the ease of our conversations. And including William Lucy’s study about city versus suburban driving and accidents seemed unrelated to the efficacy of car seats, unless there is more data that you did not reference. It seemed tacked on.

    6. You’ve also set up a false choice by saying that promoting helmet use zealously leads to fat kids and adults. There may be a very indirect link, but it’s a long road indeed. Again, where is the data to support the idea that there are thousands of would-be cyclists out there who are itching to turn off the TV and get off the couch if only they didn’t have to wear a helmet? If that’s what’s holding them back, why aren’t they running, going for a walk, going to the gym, or playing catch? I’m with you on reclaiming streets for multiple uses, especially ones more focused on people than on cars, but I think you’ve given too much power to plastic and styrofoam head gear as a deterrent to physical activity.

    Again, I’m disappointed that a blog that otherwise posts such reasonable and informed stories would give space to something that seemed more suited for the New York Post, sort of the opposite of their Hulk-like “bikes bad” mentality. Anecdotal data does not an argument make, and this piece seemed based on nothing more than a gut feeling. Sometimes that’s fine, but it was hardly up to the intellectual standards of other SB posts. (Which is a shame, since Alex’s other writing is well worth reading.)

  • Rich Conroy

    I would take issue with your characterization of cycling in NYC as dangerous. I bike here on a daily basis year round, and rarely have a crash. The rare crashes I do have rarely involve another vehicle. To characterize cycling as dangerous engages in the same fear-mongering that you so aptly decry in the first 3 paragraphs.
    One of the single most dangerous things a cyclist can do . . . is cycle dangerously. Cyclists have a lot of control over their own safety, but frequently choose not to take control over it. No lights at night, going the wrong way, flying through the red lights and stop signs, through various blind spots, while talking on the cell phone, inattentive and ill-prepared to deal with sudden events. This is not to let drivers off the hook either.
    In the end, we really don’t have adequate comparative data to know the degree to which cycling is dangerous or not. The best available data is deaths per million. But we don’t really have good data on how many miles people cycle in this country, which would give us better data to compare with other modes–deaths per passenger mile.
    I don’t see cycling in NYC as inherently dangerous. There are worse states and cities to be a cyclist. And I wear a helmet every time, for no other reason than I and the other folks on the street around me are fallible and make mistakes. I don’t see wearing a helmet as inspired by fear, as inspired by the desire to do more cycling tomorrow.

    Rich Conroy

  • Steve


    I think you make a good point about lack of spontaneity as a bar to bicycling. Another, perhaps greater burden on casual bicycling in NYC is the risk of theft and consequent need to constantly remove and affix accessories whenever you park, and the need to lug a 25 lb. chain around with you everywhere). I am always irked by the experienced urban cyclists who will chide bike theft victims, as if the theft were the victim’s fault. It’s analogous to the blame-the-victim attitude of the helmet proponents you are talking about.

    Chandru, I don’t fault you for riding on the sidewalk when “with child,” but this approach does not really address the safety issues that Alex raises. I’m glad to hear you are tolerated in the Slope. In my neighborhood we get plenty of nasty comments from pedestrians for sidewalk bicycling (putting aside my 4 year old on her own bike with me walking). A couple years back I had a cop order me to dismount and walk my bike when I was riding with my youngest, side-saddle on my crossbar while on the sidewalk.

  • I’ve looked at the issues Alex examined here — helmets / risk / safety / kids / etc. — as a cyclist, a parent, and a statistician — and I second everything he said (which he did evocatively, in my view).

    Seems to me that “d” was talking past Alex — which is common enough in discussions of this type, particularly on-line. Maybe Sblog would sponsor an informal forum on this topic, where it might be possible to have genuine dialogue?

    Steve, were you asking (in #13) about the top-tube kiddie seat that comes with the fold-down footrests? I’ve had that on my MTB since 1999, when my older boy was four-and-a-half. I’ve used it with him and his younger brother (they’re now 12 and 9) for over 1,000 miles of NYC “getting-around” riding. It’s not hassle-free — I have to lower my own seat to accommodate it — but it’s been a godsend. I can’t imagine functioning without it.

  • Tyler

    Please ditch this guy – he has no direct interest in purpose and intent of your excellent blog devoted making our streets safer, pedestrian friendly and simply more livable.

    He’s using you to bring unnecessary politicization to the simple notion that our streets should be safe, clean and a part of our community. Not just a way through.

    “America is a fearful country,” says his friend …from Holland.

    Holland? The country where a cartoonist was murdered by Islamists for his work. We know this from the note skewed on the knife they planted in his chest?

    Where a Dutch MP, Yaan Hirsi Ali, had to hide-out in the US for a while because of the unusual amount of Islamist threats on her life.

    He quotes the great Gary Kamiya at Salon as writing that President George Bush “tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity” that “we..” all 300 million of us “have difficulty acknowledging”

    Which Americans? I get bellicose when someone makes facile generalizations about me.

    A journalistic technique of writing an opinion piece where none of the opinion comes from you has been once again employed.

    And the purpose of this piece? To discourage your from putting helmets on your children when you bicycle through one of the most congested cities in America.

  • d

    I don’t think I’m talking past Alex. I’m merely responding to what I am reading as the thesis of his post.

    America, an overly fearful country, has emphasized helmet use as a panacea to bike safety so much so that it has had the negative effect of discouraging greater numbers of people from cycling.

    If this is his thesis, then the article should use data to support it, much in the way that most posts here use quotes, surveys, and statistics to support their claims.

  • It’s not about the helmet.
    Sure armor protects, but also hinders.
    We could look a little further to address the source of the threats we react to – the real terrorists, be they radical clerics or poorly controlled motor vehicle users.

  • Comentz

    Insightful discussion above but I lack data to add much more to it. So here’s a personal point.

    I see many bikers of all ages riding throughout the city on bikes that do not fit them properly. Watching these bicyclists contort their bodies when they stop at a light or how their knees almost kiss their chin when pedaling is a freightful sight. And what about those riders who ride with their helmets tilted back on their head or the straps loose under the chin!

    I have biked with and without protective gear. What I find most important before a ride is to make sure whatever I am riding or wearing fits me.

  • bev_rd

    I find it pretty entertaining the notion that a helmet law which enjoys nearly 100% lack of compliance somehow hinders the growth of bicycle usage.

    In my neighborhood (Kensington, Brooklyn) you will be hard pressed to find one child wearing a helmet.

    I’ve bicycle commuted 35,000 miles in the past 11 years BrooklynManhattan year round. I noticed that I fall once in a while. I noticed early on that when I fall, I hurt my elbows. I pay attention to empircal data. So I wear elbow guards now all the time when I commute.

    People observe me with the elbow guards in the elevator at work as I am heading home, and assume I am “Rollerblading”. WHen I tell them I am riding a bicycle, they can not comprehend why I would be protecting my elbows while on a bike. A bike which is a faster moving, higher placed vehicle that I ride inches from cars and trucks on Flatbush ave, in pre-dawn darkness. Hmmm. Why the perception that protection when ‘blading is ok, but protection when cycling is not ok?

    The answer is this, I think: from the very start of the “Rollerblading” (I know it is a trademark used generically now) people wore elbow guards and knee guards and wrist guards, so it is natural to see those protective items. Where as on a bicycle, most of us over the age of 25 probably grew up never wearing a helmet, so the thought of any protective gear is a strange one.

    I had to change that view myself, since, afterall, I made it though the 1970s as a crazy kid on a bicycle and never wore a helmet. The truth is though that a lateral fall from a non-moving bicycle is enough to cause severe head trauma. It’s not about your riding style, where you ride, or anything else. It is about gravity.

  • To Tyler: You protest “facile generalizations” about you and then proceed to make even more facile ones about Holland. One murder? One person stalked and harassed? How can you live in a country that has 20 times the murder rate (or more) of any civilized country and say that with a straight face? Where thousands of people are killed by guns?

    To d and others about “supporting the argument” about being fearful. Sometimes, just observing can lead a rational being to make justified statements. There are many quotes here from people who “know of” an accident or had one themselves. Does that make it valid to make a generalization? No. Neither does it invalidate their personal experience.

    If anyone does not think that Americans are more fearful, more apt to believe that terrorists are about to get them, that there are child-predators everywhere or that Saddam was a real threat (to the US), they have been in a cocoon the last ten or twenty years. It’s a well known statistic that, primarily due to TV News, the fear of the average American of crime is an order of magnitude higher than reality. Yes, there are studies which prove these theses and I can look them up for you.

    All you have to do is travel abroad to notice a level of “risk” that most here would wonder at. No signs warning you of every possibility. In most inner cities, delivery trucks routinely go on pedestrian streets as needed, and there are no need of warning klaxons or flashing lights. The catacombs in Paris or Rome would be shut down as a health hazard to those stupid enough to have a heart condition and go in there. We cater to the lowest denominator here, be it in cycling, walking, driving or using a step ladder.

    With regard to cycling specifically, I noted before that practically no one in the rest of the world wears helmets. Putting aside the possibility of it just being more dangerous in the US, this must mean a) that these furriners are just plain uneducated/unenlightened or b) they do, indeed, accept a higher level of risk than we do (which dovetails nicely into our being “fearful”.) Is safety an absolute value? No, or you’d never venture out your house. I’d rather teach my 9-year old how to be defensive (in walking, cycling or driving) than get a false sense of security because of armor. That way lies the Hummer.

    I think Alex’s article is a breath of fresh air and hope he keeps on shaking up the preconceived notions.

  • Evan

    My kids have been on like a bikes since they were two. I had bought them helmets months before that so they would get used to them. Now a year later, they know the helmets go with the bikes (even in the apartment).

    They take their cues from me, whenever I get on my bike, the helmet is on my head. My helmet stays hung on my bike so its there when I get the bike.

    Having a helmet doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of the ride. There is no alternative, no helmet, no ride.

  • Charles (Komanoff),

    I disagree. d is addressing Alex head-on (wearing a helmet to avoid any rhetorical injury, of course).

    Alex is arguing that there are costs associated with certain safety precautions (having a child wear a helmet or a seatbelt) that are larger than the benefits. Unfortunately, he doesn’t back them up with data or sound argument. For instance, the notion that there are “safe” rides and “not-so-safe” rides is specious, at best, as d makes clear in his point #1.

    There are two issues for me as a cyclist and a father of two kids I want to be cyclists:

    1. What can we do to reduce the number of bad things that happen to people on bikes so that biking is a more attractive activity, especially children?

    2. What can we do to reduce the risk of injury when something bad inevitably happens?

    The answer to the first question is bike paths, safer streets, more bike-friendly culture, more experienced bikers, &c. Helmets are irrelevant.

    The best answer to the second question is helmets.

    It’s bad when people focus on the second question at the expense of the first, but that doesn’t make the second question irrelevant.

    A lot has changed since the days I rode my Orange Crate with abandon about the neighborhood. More cars taking more trips. Less recognition that streets are for everybody. Our understanding that helmets saves lives.

    I work to undo the first two changes. But, it would be foolish to ignore the third.

  • Steve

    Thanks to Alex for fostering this excellent and overdue discussion on children bicycling in NYC. I have expressed my own quibbles with his presentation, but his central point that fear is prime barrier to children bicycling in NYC is crucial. The significance of the helmet requirement for kids is not so much practical (having to wear the helmet is not the key barrier to riding), but symbolic.

    I am always thrilled to see the popularity of bicycling among the generally 20-35 y/o apparently single set, but I also sometimes wonder what will happen to their bicycling if they have kids (or if urban bicycling is such a close proxy for misanthropy that most of them will never have kids!). In my view, helping these folks make the transition to family bicycling is one of the main ways to institutionalize and expand and the prevalence of daily bicycling in NYC over the next 10 years. An unabashed, explicit pro-safety message and educational effort is a necessary part of that project. However my urging of various safety measures suited to kids–such as use of helmets, bike lanes, etc.–reflects a parenting agenda that goes to Sean’s point #2 (#22 above), and is completely consistent with more general bicycling agenda in Sean’s point #1 (it’s motorists’ job to behave safely and responsibly around bicyclists, not bicyclists job to protect themselves because “they are the lightweights,” as Mayor Bloomberg has suggested).

    Charles (#20), I’m talking about a bar approximately 8″ long that is affixed, at a right angle, to the lower portion of the frame between the cranks and the handlebars. The kids straddles the top of the frame while standing on the 8″ bar. My concern is that if the bike stops short the kid goes flying.

  • Steve — thanks for clarifying the seat you had been referring to. It ain’t the one I’ve been using for the past eight years, which I think is more crashworthy.

    Sean and d — Judging from your comments (Sean in #28, d in #17 and #22), one would think that Alex had vehemently bashed (so to speak) helmet use as well as helmet campaigning, w/ no allowance for doubt. Yet his post was larded with acknowledgments (I count four) of the complexity of the issue. And if I read you correctly, you also faulted his lack of supporting data. Hell, I’m a data hound, but it wasn’t that kind of piece. Alex was wrestling with an idea, a feeling, not trying to prove a point. He was encouraging us to think about trade-offs in a different way. I give him credit, and I’d like all of us to give him a bit more slack.

  • Sproule Love

    I am always amazed at the resistance to helmets that inexplicably persists in the bicycle community. As several people have pointed out, once you (or your children) get used to wearing something like a helmet, it becomes second nature, just like seat belts or shoes for that matter. Modern helmets (Alex, do your kids a favor and upgrade…helmet design has come a long way) are light, well ventilated, and extremely effective at protecting your fragile noggin.

    I say this because in 25 of years of tooling helmet-less around the streets of St. Louis as a kid, mountain biking, road racing, and commuting everyday in NYC, I’ve fallen badly or been hit by cars many times. Fortunately, in all but one of those falls (probably around 1979) I was wearing a helmet, which got mangled every time, whether it was from whacking a tree or the pavement or the body of a car. In short, the helmet did its job well, and I didn’t end up physically deformed or dead.

    Why anyone would neglect to use one seems irresponsible to me. Why someone would proudly stand firmly in opposition to them seems delusional. How someone can claim that wearing a helmet makes you less safe is just plain absurd (I agree with the contention in other posts that the much ballyhooed study that makes this claim stands on pretty shaking ground). Sure, if you ride with less caution in your helmet, you’ll be at more risk, but that’s not the helmet’s fault.

    I think everyone reading SBlog firmly supports making cities safer for riding bikes, but that is a totally separate issue. You can fall off a bike anywhere, and if you have a helmet on, you’re less likely to get seriously injured. In my mind there is just no arguing that. That’s why helmets are now required in the Tour de France, who’s host country may be the leading bastion of personal accountability when it comes to risky behavior.

    Whether or not you regulate the practice is really the crux. There’s no refuting the deep and often misguided paternalistic streak here in the U.S. – you really can’t protect people from their self-destructive urges – but there are strong socio-economic arguments for safety laws. It cost society a lot when people don’t wear seatbelts or motorcycle helmets or bike helmets and have to go to the ER.

    In my view wearing a bike helmet, like any assessment of risk, is a very personal choice that I wouldn’t want to dictate to anyone. But people I care about get an earful if they don’t.

  • gecko

    There are reasons why insects have their skeletons on the outside. Scale may be one reason. High mobility may be another. It seems to make good biological sense.

  • Should helmets be mandatory? No. Should people wear them? Yes.

    A bicycle takes you right into the dangerous territory of velocity. Most bicycles don’t have very good brakes, if only because the swept brake pad area and the tread on the road are very small compared with the weight of the cyclist.

    Do the math. You have one head. It must last you for 70-80 years.

    Now, if you were in Holland, riding a balloon tire bike at about 8 mph in a car-free zone of Amsterdam, you would probably be pretty safe without a helmet.

    When I ride in an American city, though, I try to go the same speed as the traffic, about 30 mph, or (whoopee!!!) even faster. To me, wearing a helmet makes sense.

    But I don’t think they should be mandatory.

  • halfie

    I think the point about the helmet issue is not so much, as some claim, that an 11 year old who would otherwise hop on a bike to go to school decides instead to get fat while riding the subway, simply because a helmet makes his or her head sweaty. The fact of helmet use being mandatory for all children 12 and under cannot possibly be the causal factor in the general societal trend of kids getting fat and growing up to be unhealthy, slothful adults.

    While it’s true that kids do lack the judgment and experience of their older bicycling peers and would therefore be well advised (as well as legally obligated) to wear helmets when riding bicycles, adults are under no such obligation and should not be ostracized for their decision to either wear one or leave it at home.

    As Steve (#27) notes, I think the helmet issue is more symbolic than anything else. Sometimes when I have a near-scrape with a car, the driver will yell at me “Get a helmet!” as if to say that whatever injuries await me as I bicycle through the streets of New York, it serves me right for not taking my safety into my own hands. I get the impression that drivers like this often seem to feel that because I’m not wearing a helmet while I ride, I deserve to be given no regard. That in true “blame the victim” fashion, I’m just “asking for it”. My helmet-less state almost seems to absolve the driver of any culpability in the event of an accident. The helmet issue seems to be a red herring which is keeping us (not the SB community, but society as a whole) from addressing more relevant livable streets issues.

  • After reading most of the comments here, I can only comment on my own personal experiences here in New Zealand. It is law here that all cyclists are to wear an approved safety helmet while riding a bicycle. The bottom line here is that the Police ticket people without helmets. They are known to chase children/youth to hand them tickets!! The fine for not wearing a helmet is $55.00.I sit on the fence on this because I have 4 children aged from 5 – 9 who ride daily to school. My wife and I ride daily as well. On top of that I am a Pedicab operator who does not need to wear a helmet becuase my Pedicab has 3 wheels and is not a bicycle so falls under a different law???? On one hand I do understand the safety aspects of helmets yet on the other I see this law as only a revenue grabbing tool(yet another one)

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I want to add a few random data points from my own life.

    1982. On a country road without a helmet, I hit a big patch of gravel, lose control and black out. I’m taken to the hospital with a concussion.

    1988. On a country road with a helmet, I hit a dog and flip over. The dog runs away. My worst injury is a sprained ankle from my toe clip. I never wear toe clips again.

    1995. Rollerblading in Central Park, I forget to bring my helmet and pads. I notice that everyone, including the pretty women, seem to pay more attention to me and treat me like a social being instead of a vehicle.

    1999. In Albuquerque I see a cyclist hit by a car running a red light. He flies 30 feet in the air and lands on his head. He has no helmet on. People call 911 immediately, but by the next day he is dead. The motorist gets jail time, but that doesn’t bring the cyclist back.

    I’m basically with Serial Catowner on this: Helmets shouldn’t be mandatory, but they’re a good idea. Especially if there are cars around, or if you’re a hotheaded kid who rides too fast down hills where there might be gravel or dogs.


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