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The slow, cautious, and practical riding style indicative of most transportation-related cycling is not equivalent to sport riding and is not inherently dangerous.  While we would never discourage anyone from wearing whatever gear makes them feel safe on a bicycle, we believe wearing a helmet is not the most effective safety measure for this type of riding.  Further, an overemphasis on helmet-wearing in the public discourse on cycling misdirects from the strategies that really do keep transportation-focused cyclists alive: better bicycle amenities on roads, separated and parallel bicycle-only infrastructure, and more observant and patient drivers behind the wheel.

As southwest Virginia’s Commuter Assistance Program, RIDE Solutions promotes and encourages the use of any mode of transportation other than driving alone.  In many communities in our service area, this includes the promotion of bicycle commuting.  Bicycling for transportation has a number of both personal and community benefits: better health for the rider, zero carbon emissions, reduced transportation construction and maintenance needs, and an opportunity for folks to interact with their neighborhoods on their daily commute are just some examples.

As an enthusiastic supporter of bicycle transportation, RIDE Solutions shares community concerns about the safety of riders.  That is why we take seriously the comments and criticism we occasionally receive when our promotional media presents some cyclists riding without helmets, or when we are criticized for not requiring helmets for our bike events.  Our neighbors are right to want those on a bicycle to be safe, but we feel the emphasis on helmet-wearing is misplaced and distracts from the strategies that could dramatically improve safety for those on two wheels.

A relevant analogy is the difference between a NASCAR race and our last trip to the store.  Even though both involved people driving automobiles, we understand that the NASCAR driver is driving faster and more dangerously than we were, and so needs more safety equipment – harnesses, helmets, roll cages, etc.  We would not expect to be similarly outfitted, because we know the risk level is much less – indeed, we might seem ridiculous wearing a full harness and helmet in a minivan.  There is certainly nothing wrong with gearing up that way for a trip to the store – it’s definitely safer than not wearing a helmet and full harness – but we also know that the risk level doesn’t justify it, and it makes the shopping trip more time consuming and less pleasant.

At RIDE Solutions, we tend to think of two broad categories of cycling trips:

Performance Cycling: Performance cycling for sport, recreation, or fitness often involves higher speeds, longer distances, and more challenging terrain.  This could include on-road or off-road riding, including rural roads, gravel, or mountain bike trails.  Cyclists might engage in performance cycling to improve their fitness level; improve their performance on certain segments of trail or road, either compared to their own previous performance or that of other cyclists; or to train for a competitive event.  This kind of riding typically involves the use of Strava or similar tracking tools to measure and track rides and results.  Performance cycling can require specialized bicycles that include safety features appropriate to the terrain the ride is taking place on.  On these trips, riders may wear clothing appropriate to the risk level or fitness goals of the ride, such as spandex bike kits, elbow and knee pads, safety glasses, and helmets.

Practical Cycling:  This is cycling primarily for practical needs.  Practical cycling is generally about arriving at a destination, often by or within a certain timeframe.  It requires the use of whatever infrastructure connects the rider to where they need to be, which may mean using routes more suited to automobiles and where cyclists may be less common.  This kind of cycling is less concerned with performance, so is often done at a slower pace – someone riding to work might ride slowly enough to avoid working up a sweat, for example.  Practical cycling may be done by riders who are choosing to ride or by those for whom a bicycle is their primary vehicle.  It is often for shorter distances, and practical riders may be more cautious, especially if their trip takes them on roads not built for bikes.  Except for very committed bike commuters, practical cycling often uses whatever bike is available to the rider, and riders often dress for their destination, rather than for the trip.

We want to be careful to note that we are generalizing two types of riding and not two types of riders.  Just as a NASCAR racer might later drive to the grocery store in a minivan, the same cyclist might be a practical rider during the workweek and a performance rider on the weekend.

The reason it is helpful to think of cycling in these terms is that the safety strategies a cyclist or the community might employ – including helmet use – are really more about the trip the bicycle is making and the environment in which he or she is riding.  Different forms of riding can present various levels and sources of risk.  It is in this context we want to discuss the particular focus on promoting helmet use and why it can miss the mark in terms of actually making cyclists safer.

In our service area, and in the United States in general, performance cycling is the most dominant and visible kind of cycling.  When someone talks about riding their bike this is often our default idea of what that person is doing, which can conjure certain images of how they should dress, what kind of bike they are riding, and why they are riding in general.  This can also mean when we see someone riding their bike on the road, or in a video or advertisement, and they are not geared up for performance cycling, it can seem like they are dressed inappropriately or riding irresponsibly, simply because we are not very used to seeing people ride bicycles for practical purposes and are not used to the different risk levels involved.

Performance cycling is kind of like the NASCAR driving of the bicycle world, while practical cycling is shopping in the minivan. But where the default image of driving is shopping in a minivan, the default image of cycling is performance cycling.

What Does a Helmet Actually Do?

Talking about helmet use is often shorthand for talking about bike safety in general, but it’s important to note that a helmet has a very specific purpose: to protect the wearer from head injuries.  To that extent, it is without a doubt true that a cyclist who gets into a head-threatening crash while wearing a helmet is much more likely to avoid serious brain injuries than a cyclist who gets into a head-threatening crash while NOT wearing a helmet.

But is someone on a bike more likely to get into a head-threatening crash than other people?  The data says no.  In fact, people on bicycles are less likely to get into a head-threatening crash than someone behind the wheel of an automobile.  Several studies have examined this risk: a 1978 San Diego study showed that over half of all head injuries reported that year were from automobile crashes.  Indeed, that same year 15% of head injuries happened to pedestrians, while only 6% happened to people on bicycles.  A 1996 Australian study showed that pedestrians were at nearly twice the risk of head injury as cyclists.

This being the case, why aren’t we advocating for helmet use all the time, regardless of the vehicle you are using – including your own two feet?  If one is really concerned about the thing that helmets protect us from – brain injuries – then why don’t we advocate for driving helmets or even walking helmets, which would protect far more people than bicycle helmets?

This isn’t an argument against the efficacy of helmets, it’s simply to point out that the thing that helmets are designed to do – protect heads – isn’t limited to cycling, yet we tend to dismiss as ridiculous the idea of encouraging helmets while driving or walking.

A message that focuses on wearing helmets for cycling but not for driving or walking presents cycling as inherently more dangerous than those other activities, which is clearly not the case.  Certainly, there are many ways in which someone on a bicycle is more vulnerable, especially if they are sharing a road that was not meant to accommodate both automobiles and bicycles.  This does not mean that cycling is more dangerous though, it simply means the decisions we have made as a community as to how to accommodate cyclists – or, as is often the case, as to how not to accommodate cyclists – puts them in more danger.  The question becomes one of infrastructure, not safety equipment, as we’ll see in a moment.

Why All the Fuss?

You might be asking why make such a big deal about helmets?  They’re cheap, easy to carry, and not worth fighting over.  Just encourage everyone to wear them and move on to another topic.  What harm can it do?

The singular focus on helmet wearing distracts from real arguments about safety, making it seem like some kind of magical protective device.  In 2010, in Roanoke, a young man was killed in a bicycle crash when he ran a stop sign on a rainy day and rode into heavy traffic on Route 460.  He was struck by a tractor-trailer and killed.  It is not clear whether the crash resulted from failed equipment, or wet brakes, or rider error, but it is clear that the cause of death was being struck by a tractor-trailer traveling at high speed.  Yet, here is how The Richmond Times described the awful tragedy (emphasis added):

A Roanoke man was killed Tuesday in Botetourt County when his bicycle went through a stop sign and was hit by a tractor-trailer.

According to the Virginia State Police, Rueben Denard Williams, 27, died at the scene of the 4:45 p.m. accident at U.S. 460 and state Route 1400. Police said Williams, who was not wearing a helmet, was traveling south on Route 1400 when he was hit by the truck, which was westbound on U.S. 460.

While seemingly innocuous, this one short fragment about Mr. Williams’ lack of helmet use actually has two insidious effects.  First, it imparts nearly supernatural protective abilities to a simple bicycle helmet.  There is no universe in which a simple bicycle helmet would protect someone being struck by a tractor-trailer.  Language like this can support a general if unconscious sense that wearing a helmet is the single most effective strategy for being safe on a bicycle, distracting from bigger and thornier problems.  Mr. Williams, who was riding for transportation out of necessity, was required to use roads that were not built to accommodate bicycles – specifically, a four-lane, high-speed, truck-heavy arterial highway.  While this crash was a tragedy in which no one seems to be at fault, it can’t be denied that had Mr. Williams had access to better, safer bicycle infrastructure to get to his job – infrastructure that didn’t involve sharing the road with tractor-trailers – his crash likely would have been far less tragic if it had occurred at all.

Second, the statement gives the impression that Mr. Williams was somehow at fault for the crash.  Note, for example, that the article doesn’t say if the driver of the tractor-trailer was wearing his seatbelt, or on the phone, or reading a map, or distracted by oncoming headlights.  This kind of victim-blaming is a feature of the tired scofflaw cyclist canard – the idea that until all cyclists, everywhere, at all times obey every traffic law, no cyclist deserves additional accommodations or space on public roads (a standard to which we do not hold drivers).  Intentional or not, it has the effect of communicating, subconsciously at least, that this cyclist deserved to die because he was flouting supposed safe riding practices.

By emphasizing the lack of helmet in a situation in which the helmet would have had zero practical effect, it puts Mr. Williams at fault for his own death, thereby alleviating the reader from thinking about, or the community from investing in, the infrastructure that would really have kept him alive.

To be clear, this is where the distinction between performance cycling and practical cycling is really important.  In Mr. Williams’ case, we are talking about a practical cyclist, someone using a bicycle to get where he needed to go, using the infrastructure available to him, at the times he needed to use it to get to work.

How Do We Really Make Things Better for Cyclists?

First, it must be restated that RIDE Solutions does not discourage the wearing of helmets.  Our goal, and – we think – an admirable goal for our region, is to get more people out of cars and onto bicycles, among other modes of transportation.  Whatever helps someone make the decision to replace an automobile trip with a bicycle trip is fine by us.

If we are really concerned about keeping these folks safe, though, we would do well to change our focus from what they are wearing to where they are riding.  Practical cyclists, focused on getting to a particular destination within a particular timeframe, will need to use the same roads as every other vehicle uses to get to those places at those times.  Do these roads have sufficient space to allow a bicycle to travel along them safely?  Does that space provide a barrier of some kind between bicycles and automobiles?  Or, preferably, can bicycles get to that destination on paths or trails where automobiles are not allowed?  The greenway network in Roanoke and Blacksburg are good examples of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure that serves both practical and recreational purposes.  Critically, do people behind the wheel understand that people on bicycles also have a right to be in that space, and operate their vehicles with patience and caution? In most cases in our region, we are not there yet – much work must be done carving out safe space for people on bicycles and providing better connections from off-road trails to important destinations like grocery stores, shopping, and job centers.  Drivers still view cyclists on the road as primarily engaged in recreational cycling, and wonder why they don’t ride at different times or on different roads and just get out of their way.

There is much more to build and much education to be done to keep our neighbors on bicycles safe.  Rather than berate a cyclist for riding helmetless, stop and think: why are they riding where they are? Where are they trying to go? And will a helmet really keep them safe? You’ll probably find a kind letter to an elected official or your local transportation department advocating for better bike lanes and more greenways will go a lot further making that trip safer than an entire NASCAR racing harness.

For help on figuring out how you can make a difference, contact us and we’ll point you to your local transportation department or VDOT District so you can ask for better bicycle infrastructure for all types of cycling.