Should I Wear a Helmet Today?

bakfiets_naparstek.jpgThe Naparstek boys riding last year’s Summer Streets event… wearing helmets.

Sarah’s "Too Much Emphasis on Safety" post yesterday brings up the question in the headline above.

A Canadian Broadcasting TV crew doing a documentary on biking is filming me as I take my two sons to school on our Dutch cargo bike today. While the kids always wear helmets, and I do too when I’m commuting or riding longer distances, I often don’t bother to wear one when I’m taking the kids to school in the bakfiets (also known around our house as the Cadillac Bikescalade). 

There are a few reasons why I tend to go helmetless. First, I’m a pretty careful, slow-riding cyclist in general, and even more so when I’m carrying kids. The ride to school is a short trip on residential streets marked almost entirely with bike lanes in a neighborhood where motorists are relatively respectful and aware of bikes. Walking across a street at an intersection with two young kids in tow often feels more dangerous.

Second, getting the kids out the door in the morning involves quite a bit of schlepping and hassle as it is. My own helmet sometimes just gets lost in the shuffle (as does my four-year-old’s lunch). If the two-year-old is whiny or we’re running late I’m not turning back to get the helmet. It’s all about momentum.

Finally, I just don’t like the way the helmet looks when I’m riding the bakfiets. This is less and issue of fashion (because lord knows I have no fashion sense) and more, I think, an issue of public perception. The bakfiets gets a lot of attention out there. We almost have to build in an extra ten minutes to every trip to account for all the passersby who stop us and ask questions about our unusual bike. Even though I know that I am putting myself slightly more at risk by not wearing a helmet, a part of me likes the idea that I’m showing that it is possible in New York City to walk out your door, hop on a bike and run a neighborhood errand without having to suit up like you’re getting ready to play tackle football.

The first time I ever saw a cargo bike in action was on my U.S.-German Marshall fellowship trip to Copenhagen in 2006. In Copenhagen I saw people using cargo bikes to cart their kids all over the place. I rarely saw an adult wearing a helmet. It made an impression on me. This lack of protective headgear — or any special bike gear, for that matter — is one of the things that, to my eye, made biking in Copenhagen seem so remarkably convenient, casual, safe and part of regular daily life. It didn’t matter what you’re wearing. In Copenhagen you just hop on a bike and go.

The sheer sense of normalcy conveyed by streets filled with helmetless, kid-toting Danish cyclists seemed to me to do more to encourage bicycling and promote safety than any personal equipment or piece of infrastructure I’d ever seen back home. And the numbers back that up. Somehow, despite the lack of headgear, Danish, German and Dutch cyclist injury and fatality rates are a fraction of our own.

We know from the work of Peter Jacobsen
that one of the most surefire ways to make urban bike transportation
safer is to increase the number of cyclists on city streets. There are
a lot of proven and effective ways to encourage more people to get on
bikes. Compelling everyone to strap a styrofoam shell to their head is
not one of them — at least not in the world cities with the safest streets for cyclists.

Yes, I’m still going to continue to wear a helmet on the vast majority of my bike rides and I’d encourage every New York City cyclist to do the same. While cyclists have achieved a real safety-in-numbers effect in Copenhagen and are beginning to do so here, New York City streets are still mostly dominated by aggressive, unskilled nincompoops in overly large motor vehicles.

Still, I’m leaning toward wearing a dignified hat on this morning’s bike ride rather than a helmet.