The Inflatable Bike Helmet: An Interesting Distraction

A number of friends have shared with me, via social media, a video you may have seen.  It’s basically an airbag for cyclists, a collar that inflates suddenly into protective headgear in the case of a crash.  If your thing is interesting industrial design, the Hovding may be for you.  But if you’re concerned with safe riding, I worry it’s a distraction.


Going About This the Wrong Way

Yesterday, Streetsblog linked to this piece by Boston Biker on that city’s new “No Excuses” public safety campaign, an effort to terrify people into wearing helmet and – potentially – not bothering to ride a bike in the first place.

Ad from Boston’s “No Excuses” bike helmet campaign | via the Boston Biker blog

Helmets are good, and people should wear them. But showing a kid who looks like someone took a bat to his face is not going to get more people to ride their bike, and I think we would all be better off if more people rode their bikes, with or without helmets.

Absolutely.  I’ve often thought the breathless exhortation to wear a helmet you get from some folks does more harm than good, painting riding a bicycle as an extremely dangerous activity in which you are likely to get maimed or die.  I don’t think it’s helpful to make people terrified of doing something that’s good for them, particularly when wearing a helmet is no guarantee of safety.

A year or so ago, I sent a critical letter to a writer at The Roanoke Times who had summarized several bicycle fatalities that had happened over the course of the previous year or two.  In that article, she highlighted the fact that one of the riders was not wearing a helmet, intimating that somehow that cyclist’s death (and, by proxy, the death of the other cyclists mentioned) was a result of being helmet-less.  When I researched each of the cyclists mentioned, it turns out that only one wasn’t wearing a helmet.  The two that were were hit by large trucks driven by distracted drivers, and the one who wasn’t wearing a helmet blew through a stop sign (possibly because of equipment malfunction) and was struck by a tractor-trailer.  In each of these cases, the wearing of a helmet was a non-factor in the cyclist’s death, and yet it was presented as if it was.

Wearing a helmet is no replacement for a) safe riding practices, b) good bicycle infrastructure and, more importantly, c) good driver training.  As Boston Biker points out.

I would have rather these dollars spent on ad’s that warn car drivers about checking their mirrors before making turns.  You could use the exact same image, but instead put it up on a billboard near known traffic jam locations, with the text “Do you want to be responsible for the death of someones son. Check your mirrors for cyclists before turning.”


Another Bicyclist Struck in Roanoke

From this morning’s Roanoke Times:

Bicyclist hit by car listed in fair condition

A Roanoke bicyclist who was struck by a car Monday night was recovering Tuesday at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

Anthony Alan Battuello, 44, of Roanoke was riding a bike north on Williamson Road near Fleming Avenue just before 9 p.m. when he was struck by a Saturn Ion turning north onto Williamson Road from Fleming Avenue, police spokeswoman Aisha Johnson said.

The driver of the car, Aries Osorio Bowman, 48, of Roanoke was charged with disregarding a stop sign.

Battuello was in fair condition Tuesday, hospital spokesman Eric Earnhart said.

Given the way bicycle accidents are often framed in the media (and recently in The Roanoke Times), I’m eager to see how the rider’s bicycle helmet (or lack thereof) would have stopped the driver from running a stop sign.

A Helmet isn’t the Solution

This morning’s Roanoke Times has the story of a Radford cyclist working to improve accommodations in his area after having been struck by a car in August:

Nearly at the end of his 20-mile ride on Aug. 2, Mark Wiley was struck by a car in Radford.

He made contact with the windshield, then cleared the car, landing on the ground.

He suffered a broken thumb that required surgery, cuts, bruises, scrapes and strains from the accident.

He was wearing a helmet, which he credits with saving his life.

I’m very happy Mr. Wiley’s injuries were relatively minor, and it sounds like the leadership in Radford is taking seriously his efforts to bring attention to the safety of cyclists sharing the road with motor vehicles.

Street cleaning crews have taken care to clean bike paths, and the paths have been put into the regular cleaning rotation, [City Manager David Ridpath] said. The city is also spending around $2,000 to have signs make for the Riverway walking and biking trail that reads “Keep to the Right,” and repainting stripes designating biking and walking paths along busy streets, including Main Street, Tyler Avenue and Rock Road.

What’s a bit puzzling are the following paragraphs of the article, which seem to link a series of recent bicycle-related deaths to the wearing of a helmet (or lack thereof):

A man was killed in the Bonsack area of Roanoke in March while biking. A woman was struck by a truck and killed in July 2009 on the Virginia Tech campus. And in 2008 Radford University professor Fess Green was killed while biking on East Main Street in Radford. The annual Ride of Silence each spring in Radford is dedicated to Green.

The city passed a law in 2009 requiring moped and scooter riders to wear helmets, but bicycle riders over the age of 14 aren’t required to wear helmets, per state code.

The Radford City Police Department has hosted a bicycle safety rodeo and given away helmets using a $500 grant in 2009, said Chief Don Goodman.

He hasn’t been approached about expanding the helmet law, he said, but the police department has worked to educate the community about their importance.

The young man killed in March, Reuben Denard, was struck by a tractor-trailer while trying to navigate the congested Route 460 after leaving work on his bicycle, his only means of transportation.  Check out the photo of the crumpled bicycle that accompanies the article.  A helmet was not going to save Mr. Denard.

The woman killed on the Virginia Tech campus, 61-year old bike activist Bonnie Tinker, was struck and run over by a Mack truck.  A helmet (which, as a longtime bike enthusiast, she was no doubt wearing, but the article does not specify) was not going to save Ms. Tinker.

Fess Green was wearing a helmet when a car pulled in front of him at the entrance to Wildwood Park, sending Green flying over the vehicle and into the pavement.  The driver was charged with reckless driving.  A helmet did not save Mr. Green.

In none of these cases did wearing a helmet figure into the accident or the cyclist’s death.  In every case, the actions of a reckless driver or the design of roads that didn’t provide safe accommodations for a cyclist did.  So why does the author attempt to link these things?

I am not anti-helmet.  Clearly, in Mr. Wiley’s case, wearing a helmet saved his life.  I would never advocate against wearing a helmet if you choose.  But too often, as in this article and even with some bicycle advocates, helmets distract from the real problem:  implementing truly safe and equitable on-road (or parallel) accommodations for cyclists, and training automobile drivers to be aware of all the kinds of vehicles that use the road along with them.

Helmets did not and would not have saved the lives of these unfortunate men and women who died while riding their bikes, and emphasizing helmets in this case only does one thing:  put the blame solely on the shoulders of the cyclists, rather than on the distracted drivers and poor road design where it belongs.  Helmets are well and good if you are in an accident (primarily a relatively minor accident, and relatively slow speeds), but a helmet will not save you from a tractor-trailer, a Mack truck, or a reckless driver.

Stop blaming the cyclists, and start improving the roads.

The Helmet Question

Food for thought:

There is a perception that if you’re not wearing a helmet, you’re to blame for your accident—that you don’t take your own personal safety very seriously. The fact is that countries that are the safest in the world for cycling have the lowest rates of helmet use. In the Netherlands, less than one per cent of cyclists wear helmets and cycling is not perceived to be a high-risk activity.