Over the last several years (or 20 or so), helmets have been promoted and in many cases have been mandated. Promotion of helmets has been backed with statistics about the number of head injuries or how many deaths are prevented with the light piece of plastic on one's head or anecdotal evidence of so-and-so who almost died and surely would have had he not been wearing his helmet.
Unfortunately, the data are not that clear. Research has not shown definitively that helmets save lives. The evidence, researchers have found, is inconclusive and contradictory. Part of the problem is the difficulty of doing studies on cyclists. Bicycling, in general, is not a risky endeavor, and very few injuries result, particularly compared to pedestrians and motorists.
Moreover, helmet-related studies have often been "case-controlled" studies, which compare a group of cyclists who had head injuries and one or more groups without head injuries. The problem with these types of studies is that suitable control groups are not always available. Other problems include the difficulty of adjusting for other differences between the head injury group and the non-head injury group (aside from the difference the researchers are looking for: helmet use). Studies have shown that cyclists who wear helmets may be more safety-conscious and follow the rules, which would result in fewer injuries (although, other studies have shown that they also tend to crash more). Also, in one study, helmet-wearers tended to be adult and female (and more responsible) and the non-helmet wearers were children and male (and more likely to take risks).
Another common study, the time-trend analysis, studies injuries over time in places where helmet use is required. The benefit of these types of studies seems to be debatable, as scientists do not agree on the criteria that should be used.
Additionally problematic are the anecdotal evidence ("My life was saved by a bicycle helmet."). Well, it's really quite difficult to say that for sure, isn't it?
In fact, for the casual, commuting or recreational cyclist, the studies do not demonstrate that helmets prevent head injuries. Helmets will, at most, prevent head injuries for high speed crashes of the sort that occur in bike races. At lower speeds, which is the speed most people ride around town, most cyclists will fall and hit their arms or their legs. Furthermore, in an accident with a car, no bicycle helmet will help--they aren't designed to.
(Here is a piece of anecdotal evidence. In the years I raced competitively--not including triathlons--1993-1999, I went to the hospital 3 times for bike wrecks, including a high speed wreck in a race where I slid across the road and hit the opposite curb with my back. I also had many, many other additional crashes. Not once did I have a head injury. But both my hips and knees still carry remnants of asphalt)
The thing we have learned is that mandating helmet use seems to make cycling safer in one way: it discourages people from riding their bikes. If you don't ride your bike, you can't hurt your head in a bike wreck. At least one study (pdf) has found that when helmet laws were mandated in Australia, a significant number of people stopped riding.
Studies of other mandated helmet laws found similar trends--that the number of head injuries declined, but so did the number of other non-head injuries, meaning that the reduction of head injuries was probably related to a reduction in bicyclists. Teenagers, in particular, were more apt to abandon the bike. Helmets are hot and sticky, and they are difficult to secure to a bicycle when the bicycle is parked (the other, more annoying, option being hauling the helmet with you). These are disincentives to wearing a helmet, and, when helmets are mandated, a disincentive to riding a bike.
AND fewer people on the roads actually make it more dangerous for others, as there is safety in numbers.
As the helmet debate probably will not provide a conclusive answer anytime soon, advocates of safe cycling need to focus on the real dangers cyclist face: the automobile. Instead of requiring cyclists to don a helmet, cities should provide the infrastructure to protect cyclists from cars and to make cars aware of cyclists' presence. This includes providing more and better bike lanes that are segregated from traffic; painting those lanes that cross intersections bright, bold colors so drivers can see bike lanes and cyclists; and creating separate turning lanes for cyclists. Additional education for young riders on safety rules would help them protect themselves in traffic.
Bicycling is a healthy mode of transportation. Getting more people on bikes could help clear the air of pollution and minimize our ever-expanding waistlines. Preaching about helmet usage, however, has the opposite effect. It makes cycling seem dangerous when it really isn't. Helmets have not been found to provide the safety that their promoters declare, and such preachiness will only serve to reduce the numbers of people getting out on their bikes. Helmet usage should remain a personal decision (so thank you for no longer preaching to me).
Some additional reads:
Dutch Cycling Union's Position
Icelandic Cycling Union's Position
European Cycling Federation's Position
Helmet use for Pedestrians
Seat Belts vs. Helmets
You can follow the exploits of everyone at the purple peddalers on yahoo's site.
Here's Copenhagen Cycling Chic's take on it.
And this is the goal. I first saw this video on Copenhagenize. This is a typical morning in the Netherlands--parents dropping their kids off at school. As Copenhagenize says: normal people in normal clothes doing normal things on their bikes. Enjoy!
And though it is a laudable goal to "encourage" people to ride their bikes to work or the store or to shopping and shows, many people fear riding their bikes through traffic. So, in order to gain the benefits of bicycles, the city needs to take affirmative steps toward getting people on their bikes. The single most effective way to do this is to make riding safer. And the single most effective way to make riding safer is to get more bikes on the road. hmmm....
Clearly, something else must be done to increase safety. In a previous post (Part I), I explained what the city could do better to make cycling safer around town. The proposals included adding more bicycle lanes, segregating bicycle lanes from traffic, and avoiding the "disappearing bike lane" at stoplights.
Although Bloomington has much to be chastised for regarding a lack of safety infrastructure around town, bicycle safety cannot be put wholly in the hands of city officials. Commuting safely through Bloomington also requires smart bicycling, and obeying traffic laws. It may appear that an idiot bicyclist (and I'm just going to call a spade a spade here because I think they are idiots) who refuses to obey the rules of traffic puts only himself at risk, but--alas--such is not the case.
The benefit of traffic laws is their gift of predictability. In other words, you, as participant in traffic, generally understand that others will be following the same rules as you, and thus you can predict with some accuracy what other vehicles will do in any given situation. This allows you to anticipate events and react accordingly. Hence, if you, driver, pull up to a four-way intersection where other cars have already stopped, you realize that there is some order to which each car will leave the intersection. And, if you are driving down a one-lane road, you have a justified expectation that vehicles will not be careening toward you.
All of these rules guarantee a degree of safety for you and for others. And the same must hold true for bicyclists. No good is served when a cyclist determines to make his own traffic rules. Such actions confuse drivers, who have no way of predicting what a cyclist will do, and diminishes safety for other bicyclists.
A case in point: many bicyclists seem to think that those red octagonal signs that say STOP in big, white letters do not apply to them. So when cars arrive at intersections where bicycles have also arrived and where both are supposed to stop, drivers are not sure whether they should procced when they have the right of way or wait and see what the bicycle will do. This causes also sorts of madness and frustration for everyone.
The three main violations I see around town that wreak havoc on predictability (and car, bicycle, and pedestrian safety) are: (1) riding the wrong way on one-way streets; (2) running not only stop signs but also traffic lights; (3) and riding on the sidewalk.
You, who feel so inclined, I think you are just big jerks. I don't think I need to spell out why this is dangerous and selfish.
And it is not dangerous only to the idiot riding the wrong way. You also put me in danger because I have to worry about my safety from cars AND from you. Explain to me, sir, how we are both to fit in this narrow lane going in opposite directions? (I can't even get a clear shot from this direction)
Running Red Lights
This might seem like not such a big deal, right? When the intersection is clear, why not just ride straight through?
Look, bicycles are not children's toys. They are vehicles. They are modes of transportation. And, as such, they must obey the rules of the road. This is not just an inclination or feeling that I have. It is the law (an unenforced law, but still). The only way to improve safety for cyclists is for cyclists to be respected as equals of other vehicles. And the only way for that to happen is if we respect the rules of the road.
Riding on Sidewalks
Aside from the short (and slow) sidewalk trips that are required to arrive at the bike rack, rides on sidewalks are no-nos. Roads are for bicycles; sidewalks are for pedestrians. Otherwise, it is just dangerous for both. Not to mention rude.
Not even trees in the middle of the sidewalk can stop these intrepid bikateers!
bike lane, schmike lane.
Look, I'm not a saint. I've broken my share of traffic laws both in a car and on a bicycle. But I endeavor to ride my bike as I drive my car--obeying laws as much as I can humanly withstand. My general rule, and perhaps this can be a rule for us all: ride your bike as you would drive your car. And if you drive your car through red lights, the wrong way down one-way streets, and on sidewalks, there's not much more I can say.
ScienceDaily (Sep. 7, 2008) — It seems paradoxical but the more people ride bicycles on our city streets, the less likely they are to be injured in traffic accidents.
International research reveals that as cycling participation increases, a cyclist is far less likely to collide with a motor vehicle or suffer injury and death - and what's true for cyclists is true for pedestrians. And it's not simply because there are fewer cars on the roads, but because motorists seem to change their behaviour and drive more safely when they see more cyclists and pedestrians around.
Studies in many countries have shown consistently that the number of motorists colliding with walkers or cyclists doesn't increase equally with the number of people walking or bicycling. For example, a community that doubles its cycling numbers can expect a one-third drop in the per-cyclist frequency of a crash with a motor vehicle.
"It's a virtuous cycle," says Dr Julie Hatfield, an injury expert from UNSW who address a cycling safety seminar in Sydney, Australia, on September 5. "The likelihood that an individual cyclist will be struck by a motorist falls with increasing rate of bicycling in a community. And the safer cycling is perceived to be, the more people are prepared to cycle."
Experts say the effect is independent of improvements in cycling-friendly laws such as lower speed limits and better infrastructure, such as bike paths. Research has revealed the safety-in-numbers impact for cyclists in Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, 14 European countries and 68 Californian cities.
"It's a positive effect but some people are surprised that injury rates don't go up at the same rate of increases in cycling," says Sydney University's Dr Chris Rissel, co-author of a 2008 research report on cycling.
"It appears that motorists adjust their behaviour in the presence of increasing numbers of people bicycling because they expect or experience more people cycling. Also, rising cycling rates mean motorists are more likely to be cyclists, and therefore be more conscious of, and sympathetic towards, cyclists."
Safety concerns are among the most significant barriers preventing Australians from cycling, including among those who cycle regularly, according to the report, titled Cycling: Getting Australia Moving. Despite this, over 1.68 million adults cycled in 2006, an increase of almost 250,000 since 2001. During this period, Australian capital cities experienced an average 22 percent increase in bicycle journeys to work. The city of Melbourne led with a 42 percent increase, while the city of Sydney lagged the field with a nine percent increase. 2006 figures reveal that 12,132 Sydneysiders cycle to work.
Dr Rissel says transport authorities should highlight the fun, convenience and health and environmental benefits of cycling, rather than what he views as an undue emphasis on danger and safety messages, which can deter cyclists: "We should create a cycling friendly environment and accentuate cycling's positives rather than stress negatives with 'safety campaigns' that focus on cyclists without addressing drivers and road conditions. Reminding people of injury rates and risks, to wear helmets and reflective visible clothes has the unintended effect of reinforcing fears of cycling which discourages people from cycling."
(Thanks to Amsterdamize for the head's up on this article)
Waiting patiently for owners at brunch.
Brightening up an otherwise dull-looking house.
I wonder what they talk about, as they sit for those long hours.
(click on the photo to see full-size)
A vintage style in an overly mountain-bikey town.
When bikes meet their makers
And my own trusty steed.
Riding is fun for the ladies throughout the generations. Here is a young girl and her father riding by.
An older woman heading to the farmer's market.
Cruising down Kirkwood.
Heading home in the evening on her old trusty ten-speed (or so).
Hard to see, but my first lady in a skirt sighting! (other than me, of course).
The numbers of people riding by my house every morning has significantly increased, as well.
On my commute to town.
The combination of amazingly cool weather for an Indiana summer, the high gas prices, and, I like to think, the sight of others using bikes as part of their daily lives, have conspired to get people out on two wheels.
I hope that the numbers of bikes will help convince the city council to create more bike lanes. The large numbers of cars and bikes on the narrow roads around downtown can only bring disaster (especially when you include the cyclists who refuse to follow traffic laws and patterns; a post for another day).
How would I characterize current Bloomingbike Style? Super Casual. The over-all bike style is influenced by three factors: (1) the riders are mostly young college/graduate students; (2) most people do not ride bikes with chain guards and fenders, thus making them reluctant to wear nice clothes on their bikes; (3) many riders about town are hippie/punk/alternative types that prefer goodwill style in shades of black or green (or tie-dye). This casual style, I think, is fairly typical of people in general in Bloomington.
Category 1: typical cyclist in Bloomington: Helmet, backpack, and mountain bike.
A second category of cyclists in Bloomington: bike of choice--ten speed, no helmet.
Another example of the milk crate/kid cargo system.
The bikes of choice tend to be ten-speeds or mountain bikes. Helmets are not that common, but you do see them on some of the older commuters. Interestingly enough, I notice that the older commuters are also less likely to commute to work in regular clothing. They tend to wear sports gear.
I think the tendency for people to assume that bikes are a transportation alternative for young people, casual dressers, or unstylish commuters may be part of the reason we do not see more bike commuters around town. You will also notice a dearth of photos of girls on bikes. The vast majority of cyclists are men. I think this is partly because the ladies don't quite associate bikes with style.
A lady rider on my commute home.