Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

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Washington Post "Myths" article lacks perspective

Summary: The article about bicycle myths in today's Washington Post is badly mistaken about helmets.

On April 3, 2016 the Washington Post published an article titled "Five myths about bicycling." "Myths" articles often exaggerate to elicit reader response. And the first myth is about helmet laws:

"Mandating helmet use is the best way to keep riders safe."
After an opening conceding that helmets work, "there are better ways to keep cyclists safe" is the straw man. Of course there are better ways, and across the US we are pursuing them.

".. legislating helmet use can distract from the many policy interventions that would actually help more."
The author lacks perspective. Before helmet advocates began promoting helmets in the 1980's there was not much activity to improve bike safety. Now we have the most concerted effort to improve bicycling safety in our history, addressing facilities improvements, cycling education, bike share programs and safer bikes themselves. Every state department of transportation and many local governments including DC have bicycle coordinators to improve bicycling conditions. Bicycle questions appear now on drivers' permit exams. Our Federal government is funding bicycle transportation improvements of all kinds through transportation funding with hundreds of millions of dollars at an unprecedented rate. The League of American Bicyclists kicked off in 1999 its most comprehensive safety initiative in more than 100 years of operation, and for the first time we have a complete traffic engineer's handbook of standards for bicycle facility construction. Cycling organizations here had been trying to produce results like that for more than a century without success, and the growth of these activities has occurred here concurrently with the growth of helmet promotion and use. Blurred focus is not a problem here.

"Building dedicated infrastructure to keep bikes away from cars is a more effective way to save lives."
There are physical and fiscal impediments to that strategy. Saving lives requires ensuring that bicycles have a legitimate place in our traffic where dedicated infrastructure will never exist. It requires changing our culture and our legal system to penalize failure to respect cyclists' rights and vulnerabilities. It requires a real effort to reduce DUI driving. European successes are not just facilities-based.

"And studies show that when drivers see cyclists in helmets, they behave more recklessly, driving closer to pedalers and increasing the possibility of accidents."
The "studies" that "showed" that result have been discredited for misinterpreted data.

"Mandating helmet use also tends to reduce overall ridership, since some people would rather skip bicycling altogether than risk punishment for not wearing a helmet."
Really? Where is the evidence for that statement. Even this myths article has no reference to "studies." How many riders in DC do not use the Capital Bikeshares bikes because they do not have a helmet with them? Seattle has a very successful bike share program where they provide cheap helmet rentals at the bike stations. We have a page up on helmet considerations for urban shared bike programs.

This article introduces its own myths. It might be boring if it did not.

We have a more comprehensive page responding to other distortions about helmets.