Over here you have the Truth. It's a crazy-looking, unidentifiable object. It's somehow slimy and gritty at the same time. It even smells like -- ah jeez what is that?! On the other hand we have the Easy Answer. It's a shiny, clean-smelling little box. Metallic, right angles, glistening in the sun. It even has a little handle on top for your convenience. Which of these will get picked up, and which will get carried to the back lot on the end of a stick and buried under some leaves?

People gravitate toward the easy answer, even if the answer is wrong. Maybe even if they know the answer is wrong.

For a few decades now, bike helmets have provided that seemingly easy answer for concerned parents and busybodies from coast to coast. It's right there at the top of every list of bike safety tips and directives, masquerading as the most important one. Wear a Helmet -- the triumphant tip. But it's far from the most important one. In fact there is plenty of evidence suggesting that the whole helmet idea could be counterproductive from a general public health standpoint. It's quite possible that Wear a Helmet shouldn't be on the list at all; it definitely should not be on the top.

The helmet issue turns out to be very complicated. [See the BICYCLING RESEARCH PAGE and the HELMET SECTION in particular to peruse some of the available research.] Observed facts about bike helmets rarely coincide with our most commonly held assumptions, and there are funky unintended consequences to deal with. That's messy stuff. People don't like it. They don't want to let it in to ruin their happy-time. In contrast the simplified, posterized version of the helmet idea has been so powerfully attractive that it sucked all subtle and messy rational thought into its black hole and gripped it for eternity. It's not as if the great thinkers of our generation had been working tirelessly day and night on the bike safety problem before arriving at the helmet solution -- faced with apparent complications in the fabric of reality, do-gooders, mommies and others striving to do the right thing lunged toward the bike helmet and latched on as if it were a lifeboat in a stormy sea. There wasn't much thinking involved. A faulty consensus emerged, actually more like a church, with worshippers prostrate to the shiny bike helmet idol at its center.

Did it work? Did bike helmets Save the Children? Well, kids don't ride bikes nearly as much as they did in decades past, that's for sure, so there are fewer children injured or killed in bike wrecks. Mission accomplished, according to some. It's interesting how closely the sharp decline in kids' bicycling matches the steep ramp up of childhood obesity (and X-Box thumb injuries). Did we trade some juvenile bike wrecks for lifelong heart disease, strokes and cancer? That's messy, messy stuff, don't think about it.

Interestingly, bike helmets have also provided easy answers for people not directly concerned with promoting safe bicycling.The helmet nannies, most of them, don't even ride bikes themselves. Not at all. What they do is drive. And when they see someone riding a bike out there on the street, they think to themselves, man, that guy is a crazy person. I would never do that. And if they see someone riding a bike while not wearing a helmet -- double take -- that there is an affront to civilized society! That is a hostile act! Incredibly, unacceptably dangerous, and downright irresponsible. But this here, what I'm doing -- swerving all over the freeway at 70 mph while trying to keep a hot mocha latte from slurping onto my pants suit -- is not dangerous (on any one of many levels) or irresponsible, and of course would not require any sort of protective headgear. A mandatory bike helmet law serves these non-bike-riding citizens by confirming their modal biases, and, in turn, their basic lifestyle choices, for which they are always catching grief. In this way proposals for helmet laws pick up steam from outside the bicycle universe.

With society engaged in some degree of (1) irrational exuberance about the effectiveness of bike helmets and (2) semi-conscious hatred of bicyclists, proposals for mandatory helmet laws for kids will be viewed as political easy pickins. Such is the case with a recent proposal in Colorado. House Bill 10-1147 starts off with a directive for state agencies to collaborate with advocacy people to create a comprehensive education program to further the state's codified embrace of bicycling and walking. As the exact nature of this is not specified -- could result in advancement of Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School programs, maybe public service announcements, bike safety seminars, who knows -- we just fill in the blanks with our personal favorites, all the lovely things we would like to see; thus the bill can be viewed with positive enthusiasm by people with somewhat differing agendas. That's good politics. To guess what this 'education' would ultimately entail, however, we need to look back at the history of such things -- 'Always Wear a Helmet' at the top of the list -- and the rest of this proposed bill, which is nothing but helmets. Helmets are still considered to be synonymous with Safety, to everyones' detriment, including the children.

HOUSE BILL 10-1147 (pdf)

Colorado House Bill 10-1147 would mandate helmets for kids under 18 -- not just on bicycles but on skateboards and skates and scooters as well, an important expansion of the helmet regime. On the other hand, there would be no punishment for violators, and it is specified that a violation can not be used to determine liability or sanction in a civil suit. These exceptions point to a few fissures of rationality in the concrete wall of helmet worship, at least some realization about the potential for insidious consequences with MHLs which could monkey-wrench one's political triumph. This version of the MHL is also interesting in that it would apply to 18-and-under rather than the typical 16-and-under. So here we would actually be discouraging bike commuting by young workers of driving age, in favor of putting them onto the highways in their Hondas with aftermarket exhaust, careening at 70 while 'sexting' and scarfing McMuffins, proven deadly dangerous to themselves and everyone on the road with them. Oh, and playing their rock-and-roll music. Dang kids.

Hey, it seems like an easy answer to me: One of the best ways -- easiest ways -- to improve this country, right now, on multiple levels, profoundly, would be to encourage transportational bicycling among 16-to-18 year-old would-be drivers. House Bill 10-1147 goes the opposite direction. One stated goal of the legislation is to reduce health care costs. History shows us that helmet laws do the opposite. Opposite, opposite, opposite. But figuring these things out would require facing some messy corners of the truth, and people just aren't up to it. It's much easier to be counterproductive while carrying the shiny box. Messy truths are bad politics.

The Senate sponsor of this bill, who was born with the improbably delicious name of Bob Bacon and was thus predetermined to spend his life pandering under a dome somewhere, talks of his 'obligation to protect' vulnerable road users. Really, sir? Then we'd better stop jerking around. Introduce laws to lower speed limits on city streets; create 'Bicycle Boulevards' and install Super Sharrows. Step up enforcement against irresponsible driving, take steps to eliminate police bias against bicycling accident victims, and aim education not just toward novice bicyclists but at the bulk of drivers, through the medium of television. Don't give out driver's licenses to people who don't understand the rights of bicyclists or other basic traffic principles. There are lots of things that can be done to make the streets safer -- strapping helmets on kids isn't one of them.

There are other thought black holes sucking up the bicycle cosmos right now, unfortunately. Jacobsen's very popular Safety in Numbers Theory (there is a little chapter on this in The Cyclist's Manifesto), and Forester's Vehicular Cycling dogma both serve similar functions, trick easy answers to which confused, well-meaning novices flutter like moths to a flame. In fact if you're looking for confused bicyclists these days you know exactly where to look. Mandatory helmet laws, blind Euro-envy in facilities planning and 'vehicular cycling' dogmatism. Currently, these are the gathering points for the lemmings of bicycling advocacy.

 

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