Our news intern Ansel is smart, he's a good writer, a swell guy—also very earnest—and we like him a lot. But I gotta disagree with his whole philosophy about riding a bicycle "fearlessly without a helmet."
Yesterday, Ansel pointed out that certain research, which finds wearing a helmet is effective at preventing head injuries, contradicts other research. For instance, one famous study out of Seattle in the 1980s found they reduced head injuries among riders by 85 percent—but those results were anomalous and aren't much cited anymore. Moreover, wearing a helmet is a capitulation to fear of being hit by vehicle, and it's a "protruding sign strapped on top of your head of submission to the status quo," he wrote. Because Ansel wants the city to be safer for cyclists, he went on, he embodies that reality by riding without a helmet.
Like I said, Ansel is swell (and lots of comments on his post hurled personal insults he didn't deserve—he didn't say anything mean to others). But still, I think he's wrong on this.
While the data is decidedly mixed—I'll cede that—of the credible studies, many seem to show significant-to-modest reduction to head trauma among cyclists who wear helmets. And we can quibble over just how effective they are, but let's just say instead of 85 percent percent reduction in head injury, it's instead just 50 percent... or even 15 percent.
Those thin odds of saving my brain are good enough for me.
Natalie Wynn: After her bicycle accident.
I ride a bike all the time. And while I'm a radical liberal—a borderline socialist who doesn't drive—I don't think I'm kowtowing to power by strapping a helmet to my head. Even if it was the only style of helmet on earth, I'd wear a giant helmet shaped like a GOP elephant chugging a can of Coke. It's just about my safety. I don't ride "fearlessly," as Ansel does without a helmet, I ride "fearfully" and "defensively" with my helmet all the time. And not just because I'm afraid of cars—although collisions have been rising—I'm also afraid of accidents without cars. I'm afraid of taking a turn too fast and hitting something, skidding out on gravel, hitting a weird groove in the road, or even a mechanical error on the bike. Or I could be afraid of hitting a streetcar track—just like what happened to Natalie Wynn on Tuesday afternoon.
Wynn—in that photo there—was riding southbound on Broadway when she had to cross the streetcar tracks. Hitting them at too acute an angle, her tire got stuck and she went flying. She hit her knees, but most of all her head, on the pavement. She wasn't wearing a helmet. She normally wears a helmet all the time, she says, but she just moved and it's in a box and couldn't find it. "I fully support wearing a helmet," says Wynn. "I got in a serious accident a couple years ago in Portland, in which I smashed my head into the pavement really hard and had to go the the hospital with a concussion."
"I decided to get over how unattractive a helmet is and how seemingly inconvenient it is and decided I wanted my brain intact and I wanted to live a little longer," Wynn says.
I agree with Ansel that riding a helmet should be a secondary offense—that a rider can only be ticketed if he or she is stopped for another violation—but that's not an argument to ride with your brains one accident away from becoming road paint. It's almost inevitable that a cyclist will fall at some point. Helmets aren't a guarantee of safety, but even if my odds are slim benefiting from a helmet, I'm wearing one. It's not just because I'm afraid, it's because I hope to live a long, normal life.