Cycling In The Cities: Confessions Of A Helmetless Rider

Ok. I’ll admit it. I broke the “rules” the last two days. I didn’t wear my helmet on my bike commutes to and from work. On Monday it was a true oversight that I realized when I was about five minutes from my house and I didn’t want to turn around. Today it was a choice. I know, I know. I can hear the brain injury team at Hennepin County Medical Center giving me the tisk, tisk right now. According to the Minnesota Safety Council, bike helmets have been proven to reduce the risk of brain injury by as much as 85% during crashes.

State Representative Phyllis Khan introduced a bill this year that would’ve required helmets for riders 16 and younger but it didn’t go far. So for now, Minnesota is one of 29 states (map here) with no laws requiring bike helmets. The only rule I broke by not wearing a helmet was what I call an “It’s the right thing to do” law… as in don’t smoke, eat your veggies and drink in moderation. Yeah. We’re all so good at following those rules.

Do you even remember what it felt like to fly down the street on your bike with the wind blowing through your hair? It’s about as close to feeling like a kid as I’ve come in my 30s. For a few days I enjoyed feeling a little wreckless and I lived to tell about it. And as I was writing my confession in this blog a friend named Raul walked into my office to chat about how enjoyable it was to ride in today’s cool weather. I said, “Yeah and I got to feel the breeze without a helmet!” He quickly scolded me and reminded me that he got a little lax about his helmet use a few years ago until he got smoked by a car on a downtown street. His brain is as in tact as it ever was, thank goodness. But boy is Raul a buzz kill.

There is actually a small movement out there of people who believe the societal pressure to wear a bike helmet has sucked the fun out of it and is, in part, ruining the effort to get more people back on their bikes. I’m not about to join the movement. I just wanted to feel like a kid again, if only for a few days. Tomorrow I swear I’ll ride by the “rules.”

Angela Keegan Benson is the Assistant News Director at WCCO-TV and a mother of two. On August 1, 2011 she began her quest to live one full year as a bike commuter. Follow along as she figures out how to mesh the cycling culture with the demands of parenthood and an affinity for 4-inch heels. And yes, she’s committed to sticking it out through February storms. For more Cycling In The Cities, follow @Angela_Keegan on Twitter.

  • Chris G

    Is this the same blogger who commented yesterday on how easy it is for car drivers to become distracted and hit bikers? Your obligation is not to yourself to wear a helmet – your obligation is to your children.

  • angelakeegan

    Yes it is, Chris and you make a good point. I did wear my helmet today.. and will continue to do so. Thanks for reading & commenting.

  • Paul W

    I just saw that you are writing this blog about biking to work. It reminded me of the blog Baron in the Winter which was a guy who rode his scooter all year to work. Have fun!

    As for the helmet, I grew up before helmets and until I had a child I didn’t wear one. Once my son was born everything changed. The responsibility for someone else forces me to wear one. Now, I still dream of riding without one but alas it is just a dream…

  • Alex de Jong

    I’m in the Netherlands and I’ve never worn a helmet in my life, while cycling. The number of cycling related deaths here is below 10, for the whole country, annually. I don’t think cycling is a dangerous activity. Actually there is research that points to the fact that drivers behave more reckless around cyclists with helmets and give cyclists without helmets a wider berth. Also, annually, in the US, 12000 people die incidents falling off stairs.

  • Tad Salyards

    Great blog, Angela, and thanks for contacting me via email after seeing my son and I on the way into work this morning. You may have noticed that neither my son or I wear a helmet while cycling. This was an absolutely agonizing decision, especially when being made in a country like the USA where safety issues often lack any semblance of scientific data or common sense in favor of knee jerk reactions.

    You quoted the “85%” reduction in brain injury reduction study in your blog. This study was debunked years ago as being highly biased and flawed in its analysis. In fact, a recent Norwegian study concluded that after taking into account the increased risk of causing injuries to the neck and face when wearing a helmet, that the effect of helmet use is very small or negligable.

    As parents we obviously want to keep our children safe. However, cycle helmets are designed to protect that top of the head in a collision where the rider crashes or fall off his/her bike. They are not designed to help in a bike/motor vehicle collision. Many Anglo cyclists wear helmets primarily due to concerns related to getting hit by a car, yet the helmets are of very little use in this scenario.

    The only indisputable fact about helmets is that when their use is mandated by law, whether it be for children or adults, the number of cyclists goes down. This has huge impacts on public health and the safety in numbers effect. As Alex points out, the Dutch never wear helmets and have the best safety record in the world. Safety is achieved with proper cycling infrastructure, not by putting our faith is foam hats that are of questionable scientific efficacy.

    At the end of the day, I want my family and children to have a positive experience with cycling and wrapping them in bubble wrap and stressing helmet use is contrary to that goal. I chose to protect my children by riding a slower bike, chosing safer routes and moderating my speed. Avoiding a crash is the best medicine versus fixating on mitigating a crash as a foregone conclusion.


    • angelakeegan

      Great info, Tad. That 85% stat is still widely reported as fact… which I find interesting. I also discovered that it was very hard to find good data either way on the issue. Obviously a lot to debate here but anything that reduces the number of cyclists on the roads is a bad thing in my book.

  • Liz Pearson

    Hey there biker chick. How is it going? I wish you all the luck biking in the winter months that will be upon us sooner then we would like. But for now, let’s all enjoy some food on a stick.
    – Love your “hearts and arrows stand” partner :)

    Can you guess who this is? Reflect back to the day on 34th and Girard.

    -I guess I have to include my email- its going to blow my cover.

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