Here is an article on helmets by Elisabeth Rosenthal , Sept 29, New York Times, ts worth a read.
spectacular Sunday in Paris last month, I decided to skip museums and
shopping to partake of something even more captivating for an
environment reporter: Velib,
arguably the most successful bike-sharing program in the world. In their
short lives, Europe’s bike-sharing systems have delivered myriad
benefits, notably reducing traffic and its carbon emissions. A number of
American cities — including New York, where a bike-sharing program is
to open next year — want to replicate that success.
So I bought a
day pass online for about $2, entered my login information at one of
the hundreds of docking stations that are scattered every few blocks
around the city and selected one of Vélib’s nearly 20,000 stodgy gray
bikes, with their basic gears, upright handlebars and practical baskets.
I did something extraordinary, something I’ve not done in a
quarter-century of regular bike riding in the United States: I rode off
without a helmet.
I rode all day at a modest clip, on both sides
of the Seine, in the Latin Quarter, past the Louvre and along the
Champs-Élysées, feeling exhilarated, not fearful. And I had tons of
bareheaded bicycling company amid the Parisian traffic. One common
denominator of successful bike programs around the world — from Paris to
Barcelona to Guangzhou — is that almost no one wears a helmet, and
there is no pressure to do so.
In the United States the notion
that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries
is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded
as irresponsible, like people who smoke. Cities are aggressive in helmet
But many European health experts have taken a very
different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a
bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your
risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare —
exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.
On the other
hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear
helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more
obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer
ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe
bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam
and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the
fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule.
really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a
sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many
health benefits,” says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of
applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney.
He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the
benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.
“Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear
helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots
more injuries during those activities.” The European Cyclists’
Federation says that bicyclists in its domain have the same risk of
serious injury as pedestrians per mile traveled.
Yet the United
States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that
“all cyclists wear helmets, no matter where they ride,” said Dr. Jeffrey
Michael, an agency official.
Recent experience suggests that if a
city wants bike-sharing to really take off, it may have to allow and
accept helmet-free riding. A two-year-old bike-sharing program in
Melbourne, Australia — where helmet use in mandatory — has only about
150 rides a day, despite the fact that Melbourne is flat, with broad
roads and a temperate climate. On the other hand, helmet-lax Dublin
— cold, cobbled and hilly — has more than 5,000 daily rides in its
young bike-sharing scheme. Mexico City recently repealed a mandatory
helmet law to get a bike-sharing scheme off the ground. But here in the
United States, the politics are tricky.
Shaun Murphy, the
bicycling coordinator of Minneapolis — which inaugurated the “Nice Ride”
bike-sharing program in 2010 and expanded to St. Paul last year — has
been pilloried for riding about without a helmet. “I just want it to be
seen as something that a normal person can do,” Mr. Murphy explained to
the local press this past summer. “You don’t need special gear. You just
get on a bike and you just go.”
In New York, where there were 21 cyclist fatalities
last year, the transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, is
always photographed on a bike and wearing a helmet. The administration
of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has nonetheless rejected calls by
Comptroller John C. Liu for a mandatory helmet law when New York's 10,000 cycle bike share program
rolls out next year, for fear it would keep people from riding. Still,
the mayor says helmets are a “good idea,” and the city promotes helmet
use through education and with giveaway programs.
In the United
States, cities are struggling to overcome the significant practical
problems of melding helmet use with bike-sharing programs — such as
providing sanitized helmet dispensers at bike docking stations, says
Susan Shaheen, director of the Transportation Sustainability Research
Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
advocates say that the problem with pushing helmets isn’t practicality
but that helmets make a basically safe activity seem really dangerous.
real benefits of bike-sharing in terms of health, transport and
emissions derive from getting ordinary people to use it,” said Ceri
Woolsgrove, safety officer at the European Cyclists’ Federation. “And if
you say this is wonderful, but you have to wear armor, they won’t.
These are normal human beings, not urban warriors.”
In fact, many
European researchers say the test of a mature bike-sharing program is
when women outnumber men. In the Netherlands, 52 percent of riders are
women. Instead of promoting helmet use, European cycling advocates say,
cities should be setting up safer bike lanes to slow traffic or divert
it entirely from downtown areas. “Riding in New York or Australia is
like running with the bulls — it’s all young males,” says Julian
Ferguson, a spokesman for the European Cyclists’ Federation. And that’s
in part what makes it dangerous. (Many European countries do require
helmet use for children.)
In London, where use of a new
bike-share program is exceeding all expectations, the number of riders
in suits and dresses is growing, Mr. Woolsgrove says. And more Londoners
seem to be leaving helmets at home.
We may follow a similar pattern. In her study of nascent bike-sharing programs in North America
— including Montreal, Washington and Minneapolis — Dr. Shaheen found
that the accident rate was “really low.” A large majority of
participants strongly agreed that they got more exercise since the
program started. And helmet use in bike programs tended to be far lower
than among the general public.
Another study this summer
found that only 30 percent of local riders using Washington’s Capital
Bikeshare program wore helmets, compared with 70 percent of people on
their own bikes, said John Kraemer of Georgetown University, the study’s
author, who supports helmet use.
Before you hit the comment
button and tell me that you know someone whose life was probably saved
by a bike helmet, I know someone, too. I also know someone who believes
his life was saved by getting a blood test for prostate specific antigen,
detecting prostate cancer. But is that sense of salvation actually
justified, for the individual or society? Back in New York I strapped on
my helmet for a weekend bike ride in Central Park. But I’m not sure
I’ll do the same two years from now if I’m commuting to work on a mature
Citi Bike system.
Mr. De Jong, who grew up in the Netherlands,
observes of Amsterdam: “Nobody wears helmets, and bicycling is regarded
as a completely normal, safe activity. You never hear that ‘helmet saved
my life’ thing.”
Source The New York Times
Read all comments posted at the New York Times here.