The Well-Tempered Bicycle Commuter: The Great Debate

By Steve Chambers

Wear a helmet to protect your noggin, or coast free?

Within the world of bicycle commuting, virtually no other topic creates as much discussion and dissension as that of bicycle helmets. Depending on your choice of statistics, helmets reduce injuries or not; benefits of wearing helmets outweigh disadvantages or vice versa; helmets encourage or discourage riding techniques; and helmets promote or discourage more cycling.

What usually gets lost in this debate is whether helmet use should be mandatory. There isn’t much debate that helmets help protect the head––If you’re going to hit something hard, such as the road, with your noggin, would you rather do it with a helmet or without? Where viewpoints diverge is whether everyone who rides should be compelled to wear a helmet.

The argument most frequently advanced in favor of mandatory helmet laws is the common sense one offered above: Hitting something with your head hurts less if your head is protected. Setting aside arguments based on choice and assumption of risk by responsible adults, the countervailing position points to a number of arguments, all of which have been documented in various studies:

Cars pass closer to cyclists wearing helmets than they do to those without. The thinking of the motorist seems to be, “This guys is protected; I don’t need to give him as much room.” Interestingly, one of these studies showed that cars pass even closer to men wearing helmets than they do to women. One researcher found that by putting a wig under his helmet, he got more clearance. There was no study of what wearing a skirt plus a wig did for clearance.

When helmets are mandatory, there is a drop in people cycling. This seems to be a reflection of the attitude that people will choose not to cycle rather than cycle but break the law. This is significant, opponents of helmet law say, because the health benefits of cycling are well-documented and the overall risk to a person from not cycling exceeds the risk of cycling without a helmet.

Focusing on helmet use diverts attention from other, more positive safety measures, such as designated bike lanes, better education for cyclists and drivers, reducing road dangers and development of cycling skills for riders.

In Holland and China, where a large percentage of the population get around by cycling, almost no one wears a helmet. This is true, helmet proponents retort, but it’s a simplistic argument because in those countries cycling is a traditional form of transportation and there is a well-established infrastructure for bicycles. Purely because of the large number of cyclists on the roads, motorists are more aware of bicycles, proving there is safety in numbers.

The debate is not likely to be resolved soon and, as long as helmets are not mandatory, wearing a helmet remains a personal choice. For those who choose to wear helmets, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, there are various safety standards. Since 1999, by law all helmets manufactured for the U.S. market must meet the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) standards. Look for a sticker or label saying the helmet you are considering buying meets CPSC standards.

Second, a helmet only works properly if it is fitted and worn properly. Helmets come with foam inserts that make them fit the right way. Read the directions and take the time to adjust the fit.

Ideally a helmet will have a smooth surface so that in case of an accident the helmet (and your head that’s inside) will slide across the road. Fabric covers or protrusions on the helmet may cause it to snag, twisting the head and resulting in neck injuries. Along these same lines, if you use a visor or a helmet-mounted rear-view mirror, both should attach to the helmet with some sort of fastener, such as Velcro, that will come off in a crash.

Thicker hair or hair styles that incorporate braids or beads present problems. Apart from a few helmet styles with ponytail ports in the back, there are not models that deal with this issue. Another problem is that, since heads come in all shapes and sizes, “one size fits all” isn’t the rule. Treat buying a helmet like buying a pair of shoes: It’s necessary to try on several styles to get one that’s just right.

By definition, helmets are protective, and their design is based on that purpose primarily, sort of like an egg. Still, we at CATALYST believe there is room for riders to express their individuality with their helmets just as with other aspects of their lives, so we hereby announce our helmet-decorating contest. Send us pictures of your decorated bicycle helmet. We’ll publish our staff choices in upcoming issues. Send your photos to or send to our Instagram at @catalyst_magazine.

Want more of the June 2010 issue? Go here.

This article was originally published on May 28, 2010.