ANSEL HERZ: Does not wear a helmet, says cycling is dangerous because of the system
Yes, it is true. I don't wear a bicycle helmet. Before your face explodes in a flaming ball of rage-spittle at me for being irresponsible: I'm telling you this because my editor asked me to write about how I don't wear a helmet, not because I want to use my platform to tell other people what to do. (I made the mistake of sort of doing that in a post on Slog, The Stranger's blog, back when I was a wee intern. The post's title? "Why I Ride Fearlessly Without a Helmet.")
Not wearing a bike helmet is my personal choice—a choice I believe adults in Seattle should be free to make without the threat of substantial fines from the city government, which insists on carrying on with a mandatory helmet law. For one, the data on helmets is mixed. The Feds have recently repudiated a 1989 study, for example, done in Seattle, which claimed that helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent. That's the study on which our mandatory helmet law is based. And wherever there are helmet laws, fewer people use bicycles—even though getting greater numbers of cyclists on the road is the single best way to increase bicyclist safety.
Helmets probably do reduce the risk of head injury somewhat. And mouth guards, studies show, reduce the risk of concussions and trauma. But I don't want the city to make us all wear mouth guards all the time.
It'd be particularly outrageous if the city tried to force us to wear mouth guards while providing us with badly designed, hazardous courts and fields—say, placing them near or around construction yards with metal machinery swinging about. But that's what's going on with bicycles. The city forces everyone in Seattle to wear helmets as they ride in the streets, but it won't fully fund and build its own infrastructure plan, the Bicycle Master Plan, to make Seattle a minimally safe city in which to bicycle. Berlin, in contrast, has many miles of dedicated bicycle lanes, and most Berliners forgo helmets while cycling. They're not terrified all the time of being maimed or killed by cars.
Yo, Mayor Murray and city council: Commit to making Seattle a safe place for cyclists by following your own goddamn plan (one that costs an eighth as much as that clusterfuck project to build a single underground tunnel-highway downtown, by the way). If you fund and build the Bicycle Master Plan, then I'll reconsider the pros and cons of helmets, and when I do, I'll be making a free and informed choice—democracy! But I refuse to wear a helmet because a stupid, backward law tells me I have to. Until then, if I get in a serious accident—which hasn't happened to me in more than a decade of frequent, defensive urban cycling (and again, that's just me, I know not everyone has that experience)—feel free to assign the lion's share of the blame to the craven, highway-obsessed politicians.
DR. BARAK GASTER: Wears a helmet, hopes never to see your brain injury
I'm a primary care doctor who takes care of patients who have permanent brain injuries from head trauma, a fate many would consider worse than death. Nothing is more precious than your brain. Which you want intact.
Given reasonable chances of an accident and that a helmet could give you a normal life afterward instead of a life of moaning and drool and incontinence and pressure sores on your buttocks, you want the normal life instead. Horrible bike accidents happen every day. Some people walk away from them. Some people don't. You want to walk away.
Some people make a big deal about the "controversial" evidence. The best scientific review, published in the reputable Cochrane database in 2009, found that wearing a bike helmet reduces the risk of serious brain injury by 75 percent. So keep your brain smart. Wear a helmet.
BRENDAN KILEY: Usually wears a helmet, though the gesture is more about superstition than conviction
Forget the helmet and consider a wig. Dr. Ian Walker of the University of Bath has conducted several studies over the years measuring how close drivers get to cyclists when passing them. (He did this with an "overtaking sensor" he created—if you want to build your own, he's published the plans at drianwalker.com.) In a 2006 study, Dr. Walker found that British drivers allow 3.3 inches more room if the cyclist is not wearing a helmet—and an additional 2.2 inches if the cyclist is helmet-free and has long hair. (He also found that large vehicles such as trucks and buses got significantly closer to cyclists than normal cars.) "We know helmets are useful in low-speed falls, and so definitely good for children," Dr. Walker said in an interview after publishing his results, which have been debated but never contradicted by a similar experiment. "Either way, this study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely in the first place." Insert "helmet hair" joke here.
DR. IAN WALKER: Rarely wears a helmet, suggests you think about gas masks
If your answer to the dangers of traffic is a helmet, you're asking the wrong question. It's not a question of whether a helmet would make a difference if you are hit by a car or truck: That vehicle should never have hit you in the first place. We shouldn't spend our energy trying to make a collision possibly a little bit less bad when we could put our efforts into preventing that collision from happening at all. It's also the wrong focus for a moral reason. Take the example of passive smoking: We could "solve" that problem at a stroke by making nonsmokers buy and wear gas masks all the time. This would, in a sense, "work." But if you suggested that idea, everybody would instantly see how unfair it is to demand the innocent victim purchase and use a product to protect themselves when the risk is forced upon them by others. Sure, bicycle helmets might be useful off-road or when riders fall over by themselves, but to say they're a solution to the dangers forced onto them by motorists is just like the example of the gas masks.
ELIZABETH KIKER: Used to ride without a helmet, learned from that mistake
I wear a helmet because as a kid who loved to ride bikes, I got three concussions. Each time, I was footloose and helmet-free, and each time, I really regretted it. These were the rollicking 1980s, when helmets weren't as ubiquitous as they are now, but we did have them: I just didn't wear them. By the third concussion, when I was 13 years old, I realized with what sense I had left that a helmet was just a really smart decision. I've fallen off my bike a few more times since then, but I haven't had another head injury—knock on wood. Here at the Cascade Bicycle Club, we strongly encourage all road users to adhere to traffic laws, and city law dictates that bicyclists must wear helmets. In addition, whenever we're sponsoring a ride, we require all participants to wear helmets to promote safe and law-abiding bicycling. (Elizabeth Kiker is the executive director of the Cascade Bicycle Club.)
CHARLES MUDEDE: Does not often ride a bike, would not wear a helmet if he did
Look, I agree with Dr. Walker: We should not wear helmets, because the problem has nothing to do with cyclists. It has everything to do with fast cars on our busy multiuse city roads, and this behavior (fast driving) is a consequence of the near complete disconnection between drivers and the world around them. Helmets make already disconnected drivers even more disconnected. They make drivers believe that safety is a matter that concerns the cyclist and not them and their machines. Whenever I get on a bike, which is not often, admittedly, I break the law and do what's right: no helmet. The number of cyclists who have killed drivers is zero or next to zero. The opposite is true for drivers, yet the law for helmets places the responsibility for safety on cyclists. This is ideological bullshit. We need tough laws to make automobile movement around the city slower. Not wearing a helmet is an act of protest against a system that shamelessly privileges the ownership of cars over bikes.
ANGELA GARBES: Wears a helmet—and her baby daughter will too
Two summers ago, I was in a bike wreck. It happened so suddenly—and the impact was so hard—that for a few minutes, I sat in the middle of the street in shock, unable to feel anything. The accident left me with two noticeable scars on my left wrist—scars that are still raised and angry-looking. Now the same wrist cries out in pain dozens of times a day from the strain of lifting my 2-month-old daughter to hold and feed her—and sniff her tiny baby head. Life changes quickly. The thought that someday I might not be able to breathe in my girl's sweet, musky scent—because something has happened to me, or to her precious head—is unbearable. I will always wear a helmet and you can bet my daughter damn will too.
NKO: Survived a severe brain injury, recommends helmets all in all
Having suffered a severe brain injury as a result of a bike accident (without a helmet), I'm still not sure a helmet would have saved my life—though Harborview certainly did. I was found on the street outside the downtown Central Library and woke up 12 days later with 10 years of dreadlocks missing, staples all across my dome, and a rat tail. Thank god the Harborview docs are better surgeons than they are barbers. I subsequently suffered two years of severe depression. To me, the statistics aren't that convincing that helmets help. However, until we adopt European attitudes toward cycling (fully separated lanes, patience), I'm an advocate for helmets. It's a war out there. It seems like every time I ride in the city (i.e., every day), someone physically threatens me with a car—it's terrifying. And always wear a helmet when mountain biking because, what, are you kidding? (NKO is a Seattle-based artist and adventurer, a cofounder of New Mystics, and the art director for Saint Genet.)
KATHLEEN RICHARDS: Doesn't ride a bicycle because she's superficial and hates ugly helmets
Let's face it—bike helmets are ugly. With that whooshy, plastic, cagelike design, they're the equivalent of wearing a really hideous sneaker on your head. If you're at all concerned with aesthetics, bike helmets are the sign that you've given up. You've lost all hope.
Which is why the skateboarding-style helmets of the Portland-based company Nutcase seem like a nice alternative. They come in a range of fun designs (you've no doubt seen the watermelon helmet around town) and look more like oversize hats than aerodynamic bird nests. Kids wear them. Adults wear them. Everyone looks (slightly) less dorky. Problem solved!
But try googling reviews of Nutcase helmets, and one of the first results you'll see is a 2012 Consumer Reports study that ranked the helmets very low—"poor," in fact—on the test of absorbing impact. A similar style of helmet by Bern received the same rating.
Still, even those who are aware the helmets may not be as safe as others don't seem fazed. Tom Fucoloro, who runs Seattle Bike Blog, said he was aware of Nutcase's bad safety rating, but he wears a similar style anyway and expects others to continue to do the same. "It's pretty clear that it's not the safest helmet you're ever going to buy," he said. "But it passes the minimum government safety standards. For me, that's good enough."
The bottom line is, if you're like me and dorky helmet aesthetics are all that stand between you and a bike, maybe you should consider tricking yourself into wearing a stylish helmet that's at least a little safer than nothing. "Our approach to safety is to make helmets that people love so much that they choose to wear them, not out of discipline, but because they love the expression of it," said Nutcase's Philip Mascher. "And the side benefit is it might save your life in the process."
ELI SANDERS: Has wrecked without being hit by anything at all, wears a helmet
Only the hardest of heads would turn the helmet debate into a referendum on some grand political theory or other. Harder still is the head that seeks personal martyrdom in order to prove an urban planning point. And whatever the different studies tell your brain about the relative benefit of wearing a helmet under this or that condition, the fact remains: Your brain is inside your skull, and no matter how hardheaded you are, your skull is not harder than cement or steel.
When I was a bike messenger in downtown Seattle a bunch of years ago, no one with any experience acted like wrecks could be avoided. The old-timers warned the newly hired: It's not about skill, it's about odds. The longer you ride, they said, the more certain it is you'll slip on a hill, or get doored, or find yourself pinned between two Metro buses with no way out. Notice that not all of these possibilities involve other people's malevolence or indifference. The world is full of chance, bad luck, and human fallibility—including the fallibility of experienced riders on clear streets.
I know because it happened to me earlier this year. I was riding down a side street in the University District, not one moving car on the road, and while going over some ripples in the pavement, one of my hands slipped off my handlebars. It seems like a small thing, but it set off a cascade of error and overcorrection that ended with me going over my handlebars and landing on a parked Car2Go. This was no one's fault but my own, and it hurt like hell. Every part of my body hit either car or concrete, but the only part of my body that didn't hurt or bruise later was my head, on which I'd had a helmet. I'm a sturdy rider, but this was not the first time I'd crashed. While doing the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic, I was once in a group of cyclists—a safe place to be, according to some studies—when a rider in front of me fell. Unable to stop in time, I went over his bike and then over my handlebars. When I was a messenger, a slick sewer grate got me one day. And as Ansel knows, because it happened in front of him, this summer I was pointing to a landmark in the Ballard "missing link" section of the Burke-Gilman Trail, hit an unseen bump, and bam, down I went. There is no urban planning solution or political program that would have prevented all of these accidents.
Maybe in some folks' ideal reality, there'd be no human error and, to account for random chance, the entire world would be like one of those kiddie playgrounds where the synthetic ground is so bouncy that it doesn't hurt when you fall. Sorry, that's not the world in which we live. So I wear a helmet for the same reason a climber uses a rope, a sailor wears a life vest, and a cold-water surfer puts on a wet suit: There are limits to what the human body can survive, and limited ways to increase the odds that you can enjoy a glorious, slightly-risky thing your whole long life and end up with something else killing you instead.