I enjoyed this satirical essay I found via Phoenix Cycle Chic the other day. (Go ahead and read it. I'll wait).
The comments section really got me thinking about the hubbub around helmets and the timing turned out to be impeccable because Miss Sarah also wrote about it today. Those who find helmets superfluous pointed out that helmets may lead to a perception by the public that cycling is dangerous and some presented statistics that said that helmets didn't offer significant decreases in injury in crashes above 12 mph or with cars. Who said that we're going anywhere near that fast?! My top speed is 9 mph and that's on my naked, old 10-speed, Mr. Lavender.
And who said anything about cars? Cyclists don't get into that many accidents with cars. As hard as it it to find information on cycling injuries (as opposed to fatalities), I found data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that says 2% of all the people injured in traffic accidents were cyclists (cyclists also comprised 2% of traffic fatalities). Of course, this data only reflects reported incidents. I'm sure there are just as many stumbles and spills and abraded hands and knees caused by oblivious motorists who leave their pissed-off cyclist victims in the dust. Still, these cyclists live to ride again (especially if he/she is wearing a helmet). What's more, additional NHTSA data shows that 84% of nonoccupant traffic fatalities involved pedestrians while cyclists' numbers approached 14%. The long and short of it is: you should be most worried about getting in an accident with a car when you're in a car. Amongst the car-free, cyclists fare the best by far. I think these anti-helmet folks are the ones with the perception that cycling is more dangerous than it is in actuality. I also think that the data they're working with may measure incidents that occur predominantly amongst "sports and leisure" cyclists. "Utilitarian transport" cyclists who wear helmets may very well be guarding against the unseen pothole or the road that's full of debris or slick with reemerged motor oil during a hard rain. Simple precautions simply addressed with helmet use.
Now that we've dispensed with the morbid preoccupation of car-on-bike traffic accidents , there's the matter of mandatory helmet laws to attend to. I'm concerned about anything that discourages people from cycling. Apparently, Australia provides us with a case study revealing the negative effect of mandatory helmet laws on cyclist numbers/growth. Let's let learn from this. American politicians would probably just use mandatory helmet legislation to obscure all that they fail to do in furthering cycling and pedestrian infrastructure anyway. However, helmet use saves your brain and cyclists who choose to wear helmets don't scare off the ones who don't (as long as they're not alarmists like some of the anti-helmet folks). Mandatory seat belt laws, front and side airbags, rear view cameras, and "lane assist" systems that prevent you from drifting out of your lane or riding too closely to the car in front of you haven't sent motorists screaming and running for the hills. Perhaps helmets don't represent danger to would-be cyclists, but rather the ugly, oddly-configured helmets widely available in chain stores and bike shops represent the costume of lycra-clad, hydration pack-bearing, endurance athletes and they just don't want any part of it. Who knows and who cares? As long as there are bikes and asphalt for all of us, we can all find our way on the road--lycra or no lycra, helmet or no helmet.