Friday, April 3, 2009


Over the last few weeks I've seen a few different pieces on bike helmets in the blogs and newsfeeds I follow. Some, like this picture/post from Fritz are on the more humourous side:

and some, like pieces related to the accident, head injury, and unfortunate death of Natasha Richardson (there has been some discussion that the injury could have been lessened or prevented if she'd been wearing a helmet) are more serious. A third, also UK related, is from a recent High Court case:
Many cyclists were seriously concerned when a High Court Judge recently remarked that cyclists who suffer head injuries when not wearing a helmet may not be entitled to full compensation if it can be shown that a helmet would have reduced or prevented their injuries. After all, it is not compulsory to wear a helmet whilst cycling and there is no clear or conclusive evidence to support the view that compulsory wearing would either advance the cause of cycling, or necessarily improve cyclists’ safety on the road.
As I said, all of this got me thinking. Granted, helmets are one of the taboos of cycling blogs, and discussing their use is enough to start flame wars on even the most well-moderated forums, but I'm going to wade into those waters anyway. As in last week's post on licensing, I'll discuss the reasons I see for government action on helmets, and then give my opinions on each.

There are two major arguments that are used to justify helmet laws, whether for bicycles or motorcycles: protecting the riders and protecting the system. (In this case I am using "system" to cover everything and everyone involved in providing medical care to an injured rider who is uninsured and otherwise unable to pay for their own medical care.) Both of these are the same reasoning that led to mandatory seat belt use laws. The first derives from the belief that the government has a role in protecting us from our selves, and the second derives from the fact that there are more than a few people in the US who are unable to pay for their own medical care, meaning that it falls to uninvolved people (the taxpayers) to pick up the tab.

The first argument is one I have issues with. I don't believe that the government has a role in protecting me from my own choices. If I want to ride without a helmet it's on me. In fact, I agree with the High Court case mentioned above, and I've felt that was the better approach for a long time. Don't want to wear a helmet or seat belt? Fine, your insurance can then pay out less if your injuries are aggravated by your actions. It's the same thing that happens with drivers' insurance - you drive like a twit (as in, you get pulled over a lot, demonstrated poor behavior) your rates go up. That's called negative reinforcement and it's a great way to teach people not to do dumb things.

The other argument is a tougher one. I'm a taxpayer and that means that I'm partially liable (a wee tiny bit) when uninsured people are injured. To minimize that liability, I like the idea of requiring people to be safe. The question is - how far do you take it? Helmets on bikes make you safer than not, but then what about helmets in cars? or helmets for skiers? It rapidly becomes a slippery-slope argument, which makes me uncomfortable.

All in all, I agree with encouraging helmet use but not mandating it. Unlike a lot of cyclists, this extends to children. Parents should (and I would if I had kids) require their kids to use helmets, but I disagree with the government stepping in to force the issue.

A great way to look at it comes from the WashCycle, a blog covering cycling issues in Washington DC:
Wearing a helmet is like wearing sun screen. It protects you and only you from something harmful. Except unlike helmets, the efficacy of sun screen is not in question. And it helps you without some bizarre occurrence. The financial benefits of everyone wearing sun screen is probably higher than for wearing helmets. The same could be said of condoms. But, I don't hear anyone talking of mandating the wearing of either the way this article seems to encourage mandating helmet use.

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