The Inflatable Bike Helmet: An Interesting Distraction

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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.

Here’s the video in full:

Before I get into any further discussion of the virtue or necessity of helmets, let me make these two caveats:

  • In no way am I arguing that if you want to wear a helmet, you shouldn’t.  Of course, if wearing a helmet makes you feel safer and more confident, then do it!  There’s no reason not to if you want to!
  • I am writing in the context of cycling for transportation.  If you are cycling for recreation or sport – particularly if you are cycling for speed – then you should probably wear a helmet.

Being in the bike advocacy business, people assume that I would be pro-helmet.  The flaw in this, I believe, is that to assume I’m pro-helmet also means I assume that cycling is inherently dangerous, which I do not.  This is not to say there are certain kinds of cycling that isn’t dangerous, or that there aren’t places one could cycle that aren’t dangerous.  But as a whole, the kind of cycling I participate in and promote is pretty safe.  And to the extent that it’s not safe, the danger won’t be addressed by fancy headgear – it will be addressed by better infrastructure and better education.

I won’t go into detail here on all the arguments against the necessity of helmets.  I will save that for Howie Chong, whose excellent article offers a lot of clear arguments and excellent data on the subject.  In that article he makes the following point, which I think is the crux of the helmet/anti-helmet arguments:

[A] broader look at the statistics show that cyclists’ fear of head trauma is irrational if we compare it to some other risks. Head injuries aren’t just dangerous when you’re biking—head injuries are dangerous when you’re doing pretty much anything else. There’s ample evidence showing that there’s nothing particularly special about cycling when it comes to serious head injuries.

Devices like the Hovdig are cool applications of technology, but in my mind they don’t actually do anything to make cyclists and cycling safer.  In fact, when you watch that stream of crashing cyclists and the sudden appearance of the massive airbag around their head, it gives the impression of cycling being a fairly dangerous undertaking.

A few years ago I responded to an article in The Roanoke Times on this subject, noting that despite the times implicating the lack of a helmet in the recent death of a cyclist, all of the bicycle-related fatalities in recent history would not have been avoided by a helmet.  Indeed, in all of the cases cited, I pointed out it was either irresponsible drivers or bad infrastructure that played the main role in the cyclists’ death.

Bike helmets only protect you from certain kinds of injuries, the kinds you are just as likely to suffer from falling down the stairs while walking, or even in your car while driving (in Mr. Chong’s essay above, he has a graph showing 92% of head injuries in  San Diego study were suffered while driving – so if you are really concerned about protecting your head, where a helmet while driving!).  Yet, helmets (collars with airbags in them, I suppose) tend to be presented as a kind of panacea.  Cycling will be safer if everyone wears helmets! the argument seems to go.  But that also suggests the obverse – if you aren’t wearing a helmet and you get hurt, it’s your own fault.

Devices like the Hovdig present another problem: where cycling advocates like myself want to see cycling grow is in the transportation sector.  We want more people to have access to the health benefits and cost savings associated with using a bicycle for transportation.  We also recognize there are large segments of our population that already DO use a bicycle for transportation, possibly out of necessity. I’m not sure that getting excited about a $333 piece of equipment is going to help their experience improve or make their commute any safer.

In short, I think this is a terrible distraction.  I think it makes cycling seem more inaccessible as a transportation option to the average person, and I think it lets communities off the hook for doing what is really necessary to make cycling safer.

If we want cycling to be safer, we need to stop making helmets do all the work.  We need to fix our streets and train our drivers to understand how to share the road.  We need to hold traffic engineers, driving schools, and law enforcement accountable.

Mostly, though, we need to stop scaring people away from cycling.  Cycling is fun, cycling is easy, and cycling is actually safer than driving.  Don’t pay attention to the woman with a balloon wrapped around her head – just get out and ride.

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