While protection may seem obviously paramount, there are conflicting forces at work. For instance, bicycle ridership drops considerably when helmet laws are enacted, or even when wearing a helmet is advised.
Updated: August 16, 2012 - 9:40 PM
As a 15-year-old Minneapolitan who frequently bicycles for transportation and recreation, I was puzzled when I learned that Minneapolis bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Shaun Murphy doesn't wear a helmet when biking because he "doesn't want the activity to appear dangerous or scary" ("King of the road," Aug. 7).
It seemed to me that wearing a helmet while biking was common sense. Letters to the editor (Readers Write, Aug. 8 and 11) followed, decrying Murphy's lack of head protection. I later read in Jon Tevlin's column "Bike helmet debate hits evocative fork in road" (Aug. 12) that "it's bad public policy to promote the wearing of bicycle helmets," according to Griff Wigley, a Northfield biking advocate. When still more letters to the editor appeared (Readers Write, Aug. 15) I decided to do some research of my own.
The first thing I learned was that the bike helmet debate has been going on for decades. The second thing I learned was that Wigley and Murphy have a point about "bad public policy."
Bicycle ridership drops considerably when helmet laws are enacted, or even when wearing a helmet is advised. Why? Some people simply view helmets as inconvenient, but the primary reason is thought to be that these campaigns cause potential riders to view bicycling as less safe.
The classic example is Australia's helmet laws. Laws requiring all bicycle riders to wear helmets were put into effect between 1990 and 1992 in each of the Australian states. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 1986, 1.68 percent of workers biked to work. Ten years later, in 1996, after national helmet laws were in effect, only 1.24 percent biked to work. Approximately 26 percent fewer people were bicycling to work, presumably due to the helmet law.
People on both sides of the helmet debate will tell you that fewer cyclists on the road is a bad thing; more people cycling is good. With more bikes on the road, drivers are more aware of the bikes. In fact, the most effective way to make cycling safer is simply for more people to bike.
A 2003 paper argued that, on average, when the number of cyclists doubles, the total number of injuries increases by about 32 percent. The risk of injury per person is reduced. Here in Minneapolis, we've done even better.
According to a Star Tribune article ("As bicycle use climbs, rate of crashes with vehicles falls," Feb. 11, 2011), from 1998 to 2008 the number of bike crashes per year in Minneapolis dropped by a quarter, even as the number of cyclists rose "from 3,000 in the 1990s to about 8,000 in 2008." (For the purpose of census data, a bicyclist is someone 16 years or older who uses a bike as the main way of getting to work.)
Even without a helmet, the health benefits of cycling appear to far outweigh the risks. A 2010 study quantified the benefits and risks of cycling. The study concluded that the benefits, such as physical activity and less air pollution, outweigh the risks by a factor of seven.
There are other ways to increase safety on a bike. A bike light, for instance, makes a rider much more visible at night. For there to be civility between cyclists and motorists, both must obey traffic signals and signage. Running a red light is just as bad on a bike as it is in a car -- but both bikers and drivers must remember that on a bike, you lack the protection of a metal cage.
How much difference does a helmet make? Almost everyone can agree that wearing a helmet during a race, when mountain biking or when performing stunts on a bike is important.
The debate is about whether a helmet is necessary on short, local rides. With helmets, we must strike a balance between personal safety and scaring would-be cyclists away.
Instead of arguing, though, I'd rather we all simply enjoy living in one of the most bike-friendly cities in America.
Seth Colbert-Pollack will be a sophomore this year at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.
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