Is Boston's Bloody New Helmet PSA Bad for Cycling?

The shaming of helmet-less bikers continues, but this ad seems more likely to discourage people from biking than anything else.

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Boston Biker

The shaming of helmet-less bikers continues in Boston this month, with this new PSA from the Boston Public Health Commission. It seems oddly out of sync with the BPHC's other helmet campaigns, which are pretty silly.

Boston Biker, which drew our attention to the ad, compares the disturbing imagery and fear-mongering to New York's anti-smoking campaign. Frankly, even if lack of a helmet were the biggest safety threat to bikers (I might nominate out-swung car doors or drivers who don't use turn signals) I'm not sure this is the best way to promote helmets. Will a helmet protect your mouth from hitting a car door?

The ad seems more likely to discourage people from biking. (If we're going to show photos of mangled cyclists, as BB points out, why not target them at the drivers who are responsible?)

More widely, I think the emphasis on helmet wearing in American cycling culture at large -- witness the ridicule for actor Matthew Modine in New York a few years back -- is misplaced. Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote a great piece in the New York Times a couple weeks ago elucidating the arguments for bicycle cities where people don't wear helmets. (World travelers may already have had Rosenthal's revelation that in Europe, where people do not wear helmets, there are way more people on bikes. More people on bikes makes biking safer.)

Or, if you're looking for a longer, broader, and more passionate argument, see the video below. As Mikael Colville-Andersen, who runs the Copenhagen blog Cycle Chic, says: "Welcome to the culture of fear." (Skip ahead to minute 3:58.)


Courtesy Ted X Copenhagen

HT Boston Biker

Image courtesy of Boston Biker

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.