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Helmet-Free Biking (Sometimes)

Chicago is in the process of selecting where to locate some 300 racks for its new bike-sharing program, delayed until Spring 2013 by politics (which will come as no surprise to any true Chicagoan).

Modeled after similar programs in Canada and Europe, the bike-share program is simple.  The racks are stocked with rental bikes. Swipe your credit card, take a bike. Rent it here, leave it there. As a year-around cyclist myself, I think it’s a grand idea. Everyone wins: daily exercise for the cyclist, less traffic on the streets, reduced air pollution, diminished road rage, and we’ll all be more civilized.

The bicycles themselves are quite heavy and virtually indestructible, as you might expect since they’re designed for constant use by all sorts of bikers. They’re equipped with wide tires and are single-geared, which means you can’t go particularly fast on one, a definite safety feature. You’ll never be able to race against that commuting cyclist, dressed and flying like a juiced-up Tour De France rider, whizzing past on a multispeed titanium shouting “Left! Left!” and expecting you to clear a path. On your rented city bike, as you contentedly engage in a healthful and ecologically sound means of transport, just smile and mutter “Slow and steady wins the race” and enjoy yourself.

Enter the helmet
One serious issue facing the success of this whole project is the bike helmet. Let’s face it, from early childhood we’ve been conditioned to wear one. So, let’s say you spot one of the new bike racks and say, “Wow! This is a perfect moment to rent one of those bikes,” but then you stop, thinking, “Uh-oh, no helmet.” What do you do? Miss out and keep walking? Take your life in your hands and cycle helmet-free?

If you take a look at photos of commuting cyclists in Copenhagen–or in London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and other cities where bike share-programs are in full force–none of the cyclists is helmeted. The number of bicycle injuries and fatal accidents in these bicycle-heavy cities is extremely low and there’s been no call for mandatory-helmet legislation. And yet here in the US, to cycle without a helmet is considered foolhardy, a way to risk life and limb. Helmets have so thoroughly penetrated our culture that you rarely see cyclists in this country, whether in the city or meandering a peaceful traffic-free rural bike, path without a helmet.

Since part of my reason for writing this health tip is to promote the benefits of city cycling, let’s bring up a recent New York Times piece. It’s all about the helmet issue and it’s especially timely because New York is also starting a bike-share program. The article points out that “helmet nannying” has made Americans phobic about cycling. There’s real concern that these marvelous new shared bikes will go unused because people are either fearful of city cycling or won’t have a helmet handy. The point of the article is that people really don’t need helmets, especially if riders are willing to stay in bike lanes and obey the usual traffic rules while riding these slower, heavier bikes.

I agree with the author, partly. My reticence has to do with the bikes many of us are riding, which, given the way we use them, do require helmets. Unfortunately, over the years bike dealers and manufacturers have been selling us the wrong bike for urban transportation. Most of us own lightweight bikes, with racing-style handlebars and multiple gears, great for racing or biking up the Smoky Mountains, but totally inappropriate for safe city cycling.  Unless you’re really careful about your speed, you’ll be the one shouting “Left! Left!” to pedestrians and slower cyclists. Increased speed also limits your ability to stop in time if a car door opens or a truck makes a right turn in front of you without signalling.

Going fast on these faster bikes, serious collisions are possible, though the accidents probably could be avoided in the first place by biking more slowly. Bike fast and you’ll be glad you’re helmeted.

I cycle everywhere
I do own a car but almost never use it in the city. I loathe city driving and, as anyone living here knows, traffic, always dreadful, is worse than ever. Stalled in an endless line of fumy vehicles, sitting immobilized, staring over the dashboard, I resent the precious minutes and hours lost forever. At least on a bike I’m doing something.

Those who see me coming and going from WholeHealth Chicago or out grocery shopping, picking up my dry cleaning, or checking out a new used bookstore virtually always see me on a bike. (Yes, that’s my baguette from Treasure Island protruding from my saddlebag. No, I don’t wear a beret.)  And I do cycle year-round–Siberia Chicago and Calcutta Chicago–for pleasure and transportation. My bike is virtually identical to the ones you’ll see for rent in Chicago next spring. Speed is definitely not its strong suit. It’s about as lightweight as a Volkswagen. And I don’t wear a helmet.

Interestingly, one of the conclusions of the New York Times article was that on a worldwide basis the promotion of helmet laws is actually bad for your health. Endless badgering from assorted government agencies that everyone should wear a helmet has only managed to frighten untold millions from cycling in their cities, keeping people more inactive than ever. You know, of course, that the US has the highest obesity rate among all developing countries. You may not know that we’re now sitting and staring at a screen of some kind (TV, computer, phone) more than eight hours a day. Sitting, eating, burning no calories.

Do you see how the mandatory helmet finger-wagging might be bad for your health?

Ponder these case studies:

  • Melbourne, Australia, a city with flat and open streets (and the third highest obesity rate of the developed countries) initiated a bike sharing program with a mandatory helmet law and averaged just 150 riders a day.
  • Across the world in Dublin, with its narrow cobbled streets, a similar program without a helmet law brought forth 5,000 riders daily, reducing traffic congestion and pollution dramatically.

What I suggest is that Mayor Rahm Emanuel continue to add safe bike lanes to our city, as he’s promised, and on a nice day next spring you locate one of the new rental racks and take a bike out for a spin. If it’s been years since you’ve been on a bike, ride the traffic-free lakefront path until you feel tired and then turn around.

You’ll discover in this adventure that you haven’t forgotten how to ride and that you need a helmet about as much as you need one for walking down a flight of stairs or getting into the bathtub. Enjoy the breeze through your hair…

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD


Leave a Comment

  1. Donna Branson says:

    This is the first time I have disagreed with anything that Dr. Edelberg has written. But to this notion of riding without a helmet, I STRENUOUSLY object.
    In 1998 I rented a bike on the lakefront with some friends. No helmets were available. I am a very competent cyclist, but encountered someone who was not. She lost control of her bike and ran her wheel into my front wheel, stopping it cold. The bike flipped and I was thrown forward, landing on the concrete path…on my head. I broke my nose and suffered a concussion. I was a bloody mess, literally. I developed migraines and minor dyslexia which have never gone away. It’s not rocket science…Please, wear a helmet.

  2. Ann Raven says:

    We need the concrete barriers, like they have in Berlin, so that the bike path is secure from autos!

  3. Dr E says:

    Sorry to hear about the consequences of your accident. I did expect disagreements with this particular Health Tip but I do urge you to click over to the New York Times article it was based on. Overall, it’s “healthier” for a large population to cycle regularly than have a relatively small handful of cyclists with helmets. I was surprised at the article myself but did see they were using European data where the bikes are slow heavyweights rather than our American multigeared speed demons. When an inexperienced cyclist gets on a lightweight bike, they not infrequently find themselves going too fast and losing control.

  4. Ellen Cox says:

    This health tip completely misses the point: Helmets (especially in Chicago) are necessary because of the complete lack of respect between autos and bikers as well as the lack of safety features in place for cyclists. Of course places such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam have more relaxed helmet policies and views because cyclists are fortunate to live in cities where they are more protected from vehicles, be it separate lanes, more respect from autos, or a proper education on how to safely ride. However, in many cities such as Chicago, we often do not have the luxury of a safe ride to work or school and the battle between cyclists and autos is long-held and heated. “People really don’t need helmets, especially if riders are willing to stay in bike lanes and obey the usual traffic rules.” Well, what about the autos and pedestrians staying out of the bike lanes? As an avid cyclist I can say that even in bike lanes I do not feel safe as on a daily basis I have drivers not look before opening doors, cars and buses frequently invading the bike lane without so much as a turn signal, and cars failing to announce themselves when pulling out of obstructed views (to say nothing of the potholes waiting to trip even the most casual of bikers!) The issue is not so much helmets or no helmets; it is about bicycle safety and education for BOTH cars and drivers. Concrete barriers and better bike lanes are a wonderful start, however (for the most part) they are not in place yet. Maybe helmets protect against fatalities and maybe not, but lack of biker education and respect absolutely causes injuries. Wearing a helmet is one step bikers can do to protect themselves on the road. The NYT article talks about setting up sanitized helmet machines at these bike racks which would allow people who want a helmet to wear one and people who love the feeling of wind in their hair to abstain. Excellent idea. Give people a choice. In the meantime I suggest we all take to heart the phrase “share the road” and check out this website (the Active Transportation Alliance), which is a wonderful organization in Chicago that promotes safe commuting, works to establish safer bike lanes, and above all promotes bicycle safety education And WEAR A HELMET.

  5. Brent Cohrs says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on this potential drawback to bike share success.

    I did a web search and wasn’t able to find any data that correlates crash speed with injury for bicycling accidents. I doubt information that detailed can be ascertained. The only stats that keep popping up involve bicycle helmet wearers reducing their chance of head injury by 85%. Helmets are effective should a cyclist go down.

    Your point about a Nanny State with restrictive helmet laws discouraging participation is well-stated. Lest we not forget that we live in a litigious society where an injured renter would sue the bike share company, the bike maker, the city, the county, the state, and the guy who aired up the tires. Bicycling in the city has inherent and unforeseen dangers that can’t be eliminated or “insured”.

    Maybe we should enact a law like the Illinois Equine Activity Liability Act that holds the bike share vendor harmless for the activity of bicycling. We provide the renters with basic safety tips, remind them to obey traffic laws, and send them on their way.

    One other thing – Bike Share bikes are heavy and slow by necessity, not design. It’s an unintended safety feature, unlike the built-in lights and chainguard. Working in the bike industry, I can assure you that there are zero consumers demanding a bike like this for commuting. If they believe that a slower, heavier bike is safer, they can always buy a single-speed beach cruiser. They’re comfortable for about a 5-mile round-trip…

  6. Barbara Newman says:

    This post makes my heart sing–or it would, if I didn’t have two friends whose lives were saved, right here in Chicago, by their bicycle helmets. I hate my helmet, but I finally got one because my commuting route goes right past my doctor’s house (a different one), and he would always shout GET A HELMET! He finally said I couldn’t be his patient any more unless I did …

  7. Irene Frederick says:

    I love ALL your articles, Dr. E.
    Yes, after reading this article and it’s comments… I see it is controversial.
    I feel the idea of “choice” is the way to go…
    and whatever a person believes is right for THEM is right for THEM.
    I personally do not wear a helmet (never have) and feel very good about my choice. So, energetically, I am alligned with my choice. ( I may have missed the “Nanny State”, as I am age 65.)
    I not only love the wind in my hair, but also the sun on my head!!!
    Peddle On . . . Irene

  8. JasonMChicago says:

    I know in Amsterdam they ride without helmets but their INFASTRUCTURE is made for bike traffic.

  9. Richard Doherty says:

    Good article, I am so conditioned to wearing a helmet, I still bristle when I see people riding without one, but I see your point.

2 Pings/Trackbacks for "Helmet-Free Biking (Sometimes)"
  1. […] his opinion that helmet usage may be dissuading ordinary people from taking up bicycling in his blog post on the Whole Health Chicago website on November 20th, debate ensued that caused many of us to examine our own convictions about the […]

  2. […] his opinion that helmet usage may be dissuading ordinary people from taking up bicycling in his blog post on the Whole Health Chicago website on November 20th, debate ensued that caused many of us to examine our own convictions about the […]

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