Former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (center) wore a helmet for the unveiling of the city's Bcycle bike-share system. But do any of its users? Ed Andrieski/AP

American cities’ preoccupation with helmets might undermine more effective ways to protect cyclists.

American cyclists have long been beset by a paradox: Despite wearing bicycle helmets at one of the highest rates in the world, they also have among the highest rates of cycling accidents and fatalities. There’s no doubt that city officials spend a lot of time talking up the safety benefits of helmets. But could the way they communicate that message actually be undermining overall bike safety?

That’s the question geographer Gregg Culver of the University of Heidelberg set out to answer in a recent study. There’s already plenty of evidence that helmets aren’t key to preventing injuries and deaths. Countries like Denmark and Germany, where very few cyclists wear helmets, have proven that building separated bike infrastructure, reducing car speeds, and attracting large numbers of cyclists (the “safety in numbers effect”) are the most effective ways to keep cyclists safe. But since helmets obviously do prevent some injuries, and it’s cheap and easy for a city to say so, that often becomes the focus of bike safety efforts. So Culver looked at how that message is getting across, and why it’s not working

“We’re obsessing over helmets, but we’ve already sort of skipped over the problem,” Culver said. “The actual problem is people getting hit by cars.”

The study begins by describing discrepancy between helmet use and cycling safety.

In 2012, it was estimated that 29 percent of American adult cyclists always wore a helmet, while another 15 percent occasionally did. By comparison, only 1 percent of cyclists wear helmets in the Netherlands. Yet the fatality rate is four times higher per kilometer traveled for American cyclists compared to their Dutch counterparts, and three times higher than for German and Danish cyclists, who also wear helmets at substantially lower rates. What’s more, these countries have seen much more significant improvements in bicycle safety in recent years. The Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark saw cycling fatalities decrease 60 to 80 percent between 1980 and 2008. The U.S. saw only a 10 percent decrease over that period.

The persistence of America’s bike helmet fixation, despite its apparent ineffectiveness, could be tied to how embedded it is in the official discourse on cycling. As the association between helmets and bike safety is reiterated and reinforced by trusted authorities, it becomes “common sense knowledge that we never question and think about,” Culver said.

Culver analyzed the cycling sections of the official city websites for 25 American cities. These include the core cities of the nation’s 12 largest metro areas and 13 additional cities selected to provide regional diversity. Out of these 25 cities, 24 specifically include information on bike helmets. (While he has not done a formal comparative analysis, Culver has anecdotally found that “almost none” of the German city websites he has visited mention bike helmets).

However, some of the cities seem to promote helmets in a more constructive way than others. Culver identifies four tones in the official discourse on bike helmets: suggestion, enticement, admonishment, and the threat of violence. The last two might have the effect of discouraging cycling, by making it appear even more dangerous than it is, and stigmatizing those who would prefer not to wear a helmet. “If you keep talking about danger, eventually, people in their heads associate it with danger, so maybe fewer people cycle because of that,” Culver said.

A particularly egregious example comes from Phoenix, whose city government site includes a series of graphic novels on bicycle safety, the first of which is about the importance of wearing a helmet. It’s a gruesome tale, as the comic’s cover demonstrates:

(City of Phoenix)

While few major cities actually require adults to wear helmets, a number of the cities analyzed make it seem like cyclists have no choice. On Philadelphia’s bike FAQ webpage, the response to the question, “Do I really need to wear a helmet,” reads, “Yes. Everyone should wear a helmet on every ride, no matter how short the trip is.”

The depiction of helmets in these official documents can also reinforce stereotypes related to what cyclists look like. A number of cities primarily depict lycra-clad recreational cyclists—a vision of cycling that is neither financially attainable nor particularly appealing to a great many city dwellers. By contrast, other cities depict cyclists of various races and genders in street clothes, some wearing helmets and others not. Culver cites the following promotional image from Minneapolis as a positive example of cyclist representation.

(City of Minneapolis)

While this poster from Minneapolis emphasizes shared responsibility for cyclist safety, the way cities talk about helmets often has the effect of foisting the onus of bicycle safety on cyclists and their decision whether to wear a helmet. However, in reality, other, systemic measures would be much more effective. “To solve this problem is really easy: just build more bike infrastructure everywhere and take it seriously and reduce car speeds… That’s easy to do, technologically speaking, but it takes a whole lot of political and cultural will to do it.”

Admonishing cyclists to wear helmets, on the other hand, is cheap, and serves as the path of least political resistance by reinforcing the auto-centric status quo. This abdication of responsibility is “akin to debating whether mandatory bullet-proof vest laws for city-dwellers would reduce the severity of gun violence in U.S. cities,” Culver notes in the study.

Besides this metaphor, there are other reasons why the language around bike helmets is particularly relevant today. Neither docked nor dockless bikeshare is conducive to helmets, yet they have proven to be safer than traditional bikes, perhaps because of their ability to produce the safety in numbers effect. The growing popularity of these new cycling technologies could be contingent on the continued normalization of riding without a helmet. If the cycling scene is really on the brink of a revolution in the U.S., planners, advocates, and city leaders will need to watch their words.

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