Helmet obsession not helping

Today I received in the mail the new issue of Yes! Magazine. The prior issue featured me to illustrate bicycling as a resilient idea for a future without oil. As I munched on French bread and sipped wine in a delightful mood, Mr. Dottie handed me the magazine and pointed to the Letters to the Editor section with no comment. Uh-oh.

Wear a Helmet

My husband bikes to work year-round and I tote our two girls (one and three years old) in our bike trailer all around town. I was pleased to see Resilient Idea #3, a full-page picture of a stylish and burly biker in the snow, but wouldn’t a helmet be wise?

Lesley W., Newberg, Ore.

I’m sure Lesley is a lovely woman, but she ruined my appetite.

First, “burly?” – adjective: large in bodily size; stout; sturdy. Ahem, inaccurate description! Painful to vanity!

Second, it’s a portrait. I’m standing next to my bike. In fact, my helmet was in my basket. Context, people.

Third, it’s obviously off road, “along Lake Michigan.” When I ride on the lakefront bike path on my Dutch bike, I often go without a helmet. Free of the fear of getting creamed by a car does that to a woman. The studded tires and lights on my bike are much more important to my safety.

Finally and most importantly, a fixation on helmets does not help bicyclists. In any discussion about bicycling in mainstream or bike-specific media, some bicyclist always chirps about helmets. Helmets! Helmets! HELMETS! And the focus of bicycling instantly moves to danger – not fun or positivity or a damn smart way to get around.

Boooo, hissssss!

I wear my helmet most of the time. I wish the streets were safe enough for me not to feel like I have to. Sometimes I do not wear a helmet. Many bicyclists swear by helmets, while many others swear against them. But we all keep riding our bikes. Life goes on.

Fact is, bicyclists are losing the discourse battle and we are our own worst enemy (like the poor, beleaguered Democrats). Never underestimate the power of discourse. If every mention of bicycling is dragged into the ditch of “danger” and at the same time never gets around to mentioning, hey, motor vehicles and their drivers are the ones that create the danger – well, we’ve all lost.

Portandize said all of this much more eloquently and fully in his recent post, “The Downside to our Safety Obsession.” I suggest you check it out and then everyone stop chirping about helmets at every opportunity.

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87 thoughts on “Helmet obsession not helping

  1. Elizabeth says:

    An alternative to avoiding the helmet talk might be re-framing the discussion on more positive terms (and you guys certainly do your part here on the blog). There are so many pretty colors and patterns, cute city styles, and seasonal looks to pick from! Shopping for helmets is just as much fun to me as shopping for shoes. Why does the helmet talk have to be all car crashes and hospital visits?

    Also, ‘burly’ does not apply. Maybe she was trying to express that you look tough and picked the wrong adjective? But definitely feminine tough, not large/stout/sturdy tough.

    • J says:

      Right on, sister! This freak-out everybody has about helmets isn’t really grounded in fact.

      From a purely statistical standpoint, if my goal is to avoid an untimely death:

      It would be safer to wear a helmet at all times while walking, since I’m more likely to die on a per miles traveled basis as a pedestrian than a cyclist. (source: USDOT General Estimates System, 1989)

      It would be safer to wear a tyvek coverall and hospital mask, since 15,000 people died in the U.S. from MRSA last year, but only 750 cyclists.

      It is more important to wear sunscreen, since 11,000 people die from Melanoma every year, but only 750 cyclists.

      etc, etc.

      • Simply Bike says:

        Ok, everyone’s already said this but I was going to chime in with how NOT burly you are in real life (I can confirm that, people!) or in that awesome picture.

        As for the comment, I agree that it just gets so damn OLD to ALWAYS get hung up on that one aspect of cycling. There is so much more to cycling that we could talk about that it’s really frustrating to always return to this one dead horse, beating it beyond recognition.


    • Dottie and Trisha are completely unburly and that’s one of the great things about this blog. Maybe you should rename it The Unburly Bike Blog to avoid confusion in the future :)

      For the record, I don’t think it’s productive to badger people about helmets. At most, point out one you like yourself and then let people make up their own minds. Cyclists live longer, see Do the Health Benefits of Cycling Outweigh the Risks?

      • Janice in GA says:

        To the letter writer:

        “Burly… You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”

        :) You are NOT burly.

        And the focus on helmets also leads to things like this: a guy who hit a kid & killed him is suing the kids parents because the kid wasn’t wearing a helmet.

        • Bill says:

          Yeah, I am from the suburbs of Chicago but now live in Atlanta. Is it ever warm by the Lake, just kidding. You must be dedicated to ride in Chicago!

        • dukiebiddle says:

          I think people are making a bit too much out of that case. The media seems to be dancing around the fact that he is actually counter suing them for the wrongful death suit they have filed against him. When people are sued, they have a tendency to sue back – even when they have no valid excuse to do so. Not that I don’t sympathize with the parents, or think that their civil case isn’t valid; but I find their protestations over having to “hire” a lawyer to be disingenuous. Civil law is always ugly, and they are the ones that went civil. When you play in the mud you get dirty.

      • Frits B says:

        The Unburly Bike Blog, written by the Tubbies? Shame on you for even making the suggestion (and on me for writing what everybody must have thought).

  2. Bill C says:

    Amen, thank you! Everyone’s got a horror story (‘I know someone who stopped to look at the Grand Canyon, put their foot down in some loose gravel, fell backwards off their bike, next thing you know they’re re-learning the alphabet’).

    Look at head trauma rates (or lack of) in Denmark or Holland, where most people bike daily, most don’t wear helmets, and most never get hurt. Of course, yes yes, we know, their bikescape is safer and more developed, though it’s no paradise, they do have cars there too – and road debris and slick spots and potholes and texting pedestrians. But they also bike very differently than we do. It’s not just about the separation from cars, though obviously that makes a huge difference. It’s also about how you ride.

    Fortunately I live in a city (Washington DC) which has been becoming much more bike friendly. I don’t wear a helmet, so I ride to reduce my risk to a sensible level. I rarely ride in/near traffic; I ride upright (so I’m comfortable, can see better, and am less likely to pitch forward if I do crash), slowly; and always defensively, mostly on bike lanes, side streets or unpopulated sidewalks (where I slow down even more and completely defer to peds). It’s generally wonderful, relaxing/energizing, and joyous.

    I think many, if not most, current bikers in this country would not be willing to alter their riding habits (i.e. slow way down) to such a degree, even to be much safer for all of their body parts. And they hope their helmet will compensate. Who is making a bad decision?

    Put another way – people get hysterical in criticizing those who make adult risk assessment and choose not to wear a helmet. But those same people wouldn’t ride the slow-bike, citizen cycling, Dutch-style, cycle chic whatever, way because – well, they don’t want to do that. Spoils their whole idea of biking. It’s a hangover from the whole vehicular cycling philosophy, go fast and keep your lane, soldier!

    The best way to bike safely is to have vastly more people on bikes. So yes, let’s please stop scaring the hell out of people for no good reason.


    • Mer says:

      I am also a DC cyclist who rides upright and loves the feeling of wind in my hair. I find the helmet discourse annoying as well. But I guarantee, the first time you eat a door on our not so strategically placed bike lanes (or in traffic) that you will reconsider your position. This anti-helmet speak disturbs me immensely.

      • I’ve never “eaten a door” because I stay out of the door zone. Having said that, it’s a good idea to raise awareness of badly made bike lanes.

        Why Are We Building Bikes Lanes That Are Hurting People?

      • dukiebiddle says:

        Respectfully, I don’t really see any anti-helmet speak in either the posting or the comment thread – unless one considers ‘rider’s choice’ to be anti-helmet.

        As for dooring, in the event of a dooring a helmet has a far less than 50% effectiveness rating of mitigating a serious head trauma for an adult. Refusing to ride in the door zone under any circumstances, regardless of bike lane location, as well as refusing to filter, are both far more effective ways of avoiding a serious head trauma.

        • dukiebiddle says:

          Not that there is anything wrong with modestly reducing the likelihood and/or severity of a serious head trauma through the use of a helmet.

    • Janice in GA says:

      Bill said: “I think many, if not most, current bikers in this country would not be willing to alter their riding habits (i.e. slow way down) to such a degree, even to be much safer for all of their body parts.”

      Slowing down only works if you a) don’t have many miles to ride and b) have the bike infrastructure to support it.

      I ride primarily for transportation. There is very little in the way of bike paths/lanes where I ride, so I perforce ride on the streets. Some days I have to ride as much as 30-35 miles for transportation. I rarely average more than about 11 mph, but that av speed is made up of 5 mph uphills and 24 mph downhills, and trying to go fast enough to stay out of the way of traffic where I can.

      I really can’t afford to go any slower at those distances unless I want to be on the bike half of my day.

      • Bill C says:

        Janice in GA, agreed, my point is mainly concerning short urban trips. For longer rides, with traffic and/or sketchy bike paths as well, it’s a different story.

  3. SM says:

    My husband has been riding for leisure around our little city for years and has never worn a helmet. On Memorial day, my husband, my young son and I ride our bikes 2 miles to our special spot to watch the parade. I wore my helmet (out of habit) and so did my son. As we reached our location, i stopped to say hello to a so called acquaintance as my husband and son went ahead and parked their bikes at our location. This person asked me why my husband was not wearing a helmet. I replied that my husband never wears one. She Then proceeded to tell me that my husband was setting a bad example for all children. Let’s just say I would have liked to have taken my helmet and well… stuffed it down her… Or better yet, I should have told her to get off, her umm, burly tushy and set an example for her children by riding a bike and getting some excercise. Yes, helmets do have a place, but I agree, keep your ignorant comments to yourself.

  4. Carrie says:

    Not touching the helmet issue as posters above said it far better than I can, but “burly”? oh hell no – gorgeous, strong, and inspiring, yes! Way to go on a fabulous photo and mention!

  5. Tom says:

    I’m going to give the lady who called you burly a pass. I think she is just inarticulate and doesn’t understand the words she uses. I think she meant lovely.

    It may be the case that she just confused you with the trailer (possibly a Burley) that she uses to haul her kids around.

  6. Cherilyn says:

    File this under “consider the source.” Some folks need to tsk-tsk or finger wag when they feel threatened by someone biking in the winter and looking great.

    On the subject of helmets, did you see the airbag version by Hovding? Very innovative!

  7. Dave says:

    Amen, and thanks for the link. The use of the word burly just highlights the fact that we have a lot of people in this country running around spouting ideas that are not their own, nor have they been considered at all, but just regurgitated, and these people have also lost the use of their own language, because they’ve stopped thinking.

    I don’t care which way you (the general you, not you, Dottie) go on the issue, as long as you’ve made a carefully considered decision, and that you trust me to do the same, because I have.

    And yes, let’s just leave the helmets and safety gear alone and focus on what really matters (and not just for us, 33,000 people in cars died this year in the U.S. for the same reasons).

  8. trina says:

    i think i like you… a lot! thank you for this post and for that super great dress and for helping me want to ride my bike more and making me feel inspired to wear my hair in braids this week. :) You super “cute” girl you!

    also very timely as i was verbally accosted last week at work about the same thing. soooooo tired of being preached at and when i try and explain some of the actual research and reading i have done to come to my conclusion i get basically a “la-la-la-la-la i can’t hear you” fingers in ear type response.

  9. LC says:

    Hear, Hear!

    I wear a helmet too, for the same reasons as you, and I fully respect cyclists who do not wear a helmet. But I am so tired of this continuous argument of the H word… and of the even more tiresome “I am right, you’re wrong” arguments. I am baffled at how much lack of support and cameraderie there is amongst us bicyclists, who are a rarity on roads anyway. Surely we should just stick together, and lobby for more road safety by the ones that cause the real problems… aka the vehicles?

    You looked great on the photo, you always do. I really wouldn’t put any thought on the lady’s use of the word ‘burly’… plus did you know the origin of this word is from an old English word meaning “dignified, imposing”?… so I’d go for this latter definition :)

  10. philippe says:

    “Burly” made me smile… You’re readers
    know how un burly you are. But I guess the pic has a certain norse flair. The clothes, the blonde braid and of course the snow. And the tough expression.

    As for helmets : I sometimes wear one when mountain biking. Never ever for my commute. I’m just going to work, my life is not on the line.

    • bongobike says:

      I was gonna say, “norse flair” is right. With that determined look on her face and the cape Dottie looks like a Viking maiden on a mission. Maybe that’s what that commenter meant by “burly”. She needs to buy a thesaurus, though…

    • Niklas says:

      I was thinking the picture had a viking look to it as well :)

  11. Dave says:

    Great photo, great bike.

    Next time anyone asks “where’s your helmet” from a car or on foot, just ask them where there’s is.

    The benefit of a helmet is not confined to cycling. It protects your head just as much (or as little as the case may be) on your bike as it does in a car or on foot.

    If only motorists wore helmets we’d reduce head injuries by between 25 – 40%. Who’s the bad example now?


  12. Thanks for this posting, you are absolutely right. The focusing on safety aspects of cycling is a red herring. We all should
    focus moure on the positive aspects (saving money, space and the environment, and the sheer joy of cycling).

    There is nothing particularily dangerous in normal transport cycling, even more so on an isolated lakeside trail. Enjoy your rides (in fact i am a bit envious, that you can ride near the water all the time ;)

    The scaremongers are unfortunately a part of how cycling is seen (mainly) by non-cyclists. It’S the same here in Europe.

    And: You look so strong and proud in this picture, I absolutely love it!

  13. Nuresma says:

    We are with you!
    I can understand your uneasiness after that kind of comments but remember that a lot of people think your are great! And this is the truth! :)

  14. Kim says:

    You are absolutely right! It is time we stopped blaming the victims and pointed out that riding a bicycle can be fun and safe!

  15. Mer says:

    I’m really disappointed that you have posted this opinion. Especially considering that you were in a collision with a skateboarder not two weeks ago ON THE LAKEFRONT. You could have easily fallen and hit your head in that incident. Just because it’s off road, doesn’t make it inherently safe. People who don’t wear helmets don’t need any encouragement!

    • Frits B says:

      My 81 year old neighbor recently slid on a wet patch in his kitchen and cracked his head open. Should he have worn a helmet in his own house? He also lost control of his bike a few weeks ago on fallen leaves and fell: just a few scratches on his arm. No helmet (this is Holland) but his head never touched the ground.
      By all means wear a helmet when cycling, but don’t berate others who don’t.

    • Dottie says:

      “People who don’t wear helmets don’t need any encouragement!” – The only thing I am encouraging is for people to ride their bikes and stop dragging helmets into every conversation on the subject. Alarmist attitudes don’t help anything. I am sorry that you are disappointed, but I realize that everyone can’t agree with me all the time.

    • Dave says:

      “I’m really disappointed that you posted this opinion.”

      The only opinion posted here is that we should not be mindless regurgitators of alarmist propaganda. Sounds ok to me :)

      Note please that Dottie never said anything against wearing a helmet.

    • Herzog says:

      I almost got hit by a car that didn’t stop for me at a crosswalk, when I was walking near my house. Should I have been wearing a helmet, oh wise Mer?

    • Scott says:

      A person can easily fall and hit his head at any time. A pedestrian is KILLED by a car once per week, on average, in Chicago. But pedestrians don’t wear helmets. People don’t wear helmets when descending stairs even though they could fall and be injured. But if there are two wheels under you, no matter what kind of bike or how you are riding, now it is somehow reckless not to wear a plastic and styrofoam hat?

    • Treesounds says:

      You can seriously injure yourself in your bathroom.

  16. Trisha says:

    I can see this happening, down to Greg passing the picture, and it made me giggle.

    They must have been pretty low on letters to have let that one make it to print. As you say, a helmet is completely out of context in that portrait (unless I missed the ruling that requires one to be worn if you’re within a yard of a bicycle), so running it seems like a questionable editorial decision to me!

    • Treesounds says:

      Agreed. It’s the obligatory helmet comment, too easy. But the burly comment is funny. I think that writer just chose a word out of the air, like we do sometimes, whether or not it was the proper description.

  17. neighbourtease says:

    Burly is such a 1950s words. It’s like “husky” or something horrible like that. Obviously, you are not a burly person. IGNORE.

    The helmet debate is indeed a red herring. I do not wear one but I REALLY do not care if other people do. I have never been told to wear one, either. Which seems miraculous given other non helmet wearer’s experiences and the general culture.

    I agree with the commenter above who made reference to other people reacting out of fear. Although I haven’t dealt with specific blowback re helmets, I have dealt with many many people who say “you are crazy, that’s so scary” when they hear I ride my bike in NYC streets. I just say if it were hard or scary I wouldn’t do it because I don’t particularly enjoy doing difficult or scary things. Some people are REALLY scared of the world, though. And cycling seems to bring that out of people.

  18. Zweiradler says:

    Maybe she meant “burlesque” … not that that would make any sense. :)

    Great posting, thanks.


  19. David says:

    Helmet Wars are like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of cycling communities…. neverending, with periods of relative peace interrupted by bursts of people ritually reenacting the same arguments over and over again. Just try to let it go :)

    I’ve never met you, but you’re not shy about posting photos of yourself and one thing you’re not is burly. But perhaps you can take it as a complement, referring to burliness of spirit :)

  20. Great pic. You look like a Norse goddess! Perhaps, Skadi is the Goddess of Winter and of the Hunt.

    Thanks for reminding the Helmet Firster’s that there is more to safety than helmets. They can be very annoying. I think the lady got worried because the environment in the pic does look inhospitable. Or could just be a typical Knee-Jerk Helmet Firster reaction.

    BTW~ We had some freezing rain while I was inside listening to a band, last Saturday night. People were slipping and falling all over. Cars were slidding through intersections. My first thought was just to walk my bike home, but I decided to see how the bike would handle it. I didn’t have my studded tires on yet, but my Dutch bike handled fine on the icy surface. I do think there was some skill involved in keeping me upright and safe. Knowing what’s in front and behind you. Staying out of the cars way. Finding the spots the grip the tires. And going slow! I made it home safe and actually much faster than the cars did. The studded tires will go on this weekend, though.

  21. Treesounds says:

    Love that pic.
    Lesley doesn’t understand you are the writer of this “stylish bike blog”. And helmets, aren’t stylish, and nobody would post pics of themselves with one on? Would they?
    No, you take them off, then snap a picture.

  22. Treesounds says:

    Well, whether you’re wearing a helmet or not. Biking is not dangerous, not at all.

    You know what’s dangerous? Sitting on your ass and eating crap food, and not getting any excercise at all. Getting into your SUV to go and get more crap food, after sitting on your ass all day and having crap food for lunch. So, sedentary – bad. Biking – very good!
    Burly – good!

  23. Kate says:

    If you’re burly, I must be a behemoth.

    Actually, I’m surprised that the entire midwest hasn’t sunken into itself as a direct result of your and my collective weight.

    (For serious, though – I think maybe she meant “staid” or “healthy” “wholesome” or something more positive. The photo sort of has an awesome Scandinavian vibe, what with the Oma, your hair braid, and awesome cloak-like coat. And I guess “burly” might be an apt descriptor of a rural Scandinavian *stereotype*. So maybe be glad she didn’t call you “ruddy” or “hearty”. But still…FAIL.)

  24. Gram Bev says:

    I saw that woman’s letter Dottie. So, you are now a burly woman. ;)
    The woman ASSUMED you don’t wear a helmet just because you removed it for the photo. You know that little rhyme about the “A_S_S_U_M_E” word.
    :) kee hee!

  25. You are definitely not burly. Nope. Clearly Lesley doesn’t comprehend the meaning of the word, thus hindering her ability to use it correctly. Which in this case, is completely incorrect. I would say gorgeous, stylish, and fit. Hello! You ride a bicycle…. you are healthy! Dang that Lesley!

    I always get yelled at for not wearing a helmet, but I agree with you, let’s talk about drivers who are too impatient and self-involved to keep their eyes on the road. No one pays attention to the world around them, they want to blame someone else for their inability to keep their eyes open and share the road. My bike was in the shop for a while, and I had to walk to and from school… wasn’t bad, except for every time I crossed the street, someone always came inches from running me over…. it’s not bicyclists…. it’s crazy burly drivers in their burly cars!!!!

    Ok, rant over.

    I am sorry you had that sort of experience…. while it is easy to focus on the negative, because our society has conditioned us to believe we are never good enough…. try to focus on the fact that you look amazing in that magazine and you have more people on your side, than against you.

    I think you are great!

  26. Gram Bev says:

    Burly means chunky, period. My Dottie is slender and beautiful. Wearing three layers of clothing in winter while bike riding kind-of plumps a person up.

    Coincidentally, the person whose letter was after Lesley’s has the surname of “Burley”

  27. Gram Bev says:

    That is one of my favorite photos by the way. Gorgeous!

  28. jen says:

    I fell a year ago, had my helmet on; my head didn’t hit the ground but the brain jiggle gave me a concussion anyway. Go figure!

    And btw, take a look at all the photos from places like Amsterdam and Paris … nary a helmet in sight!

  29. Jim Phillips says:

    I wear a helmet to please my family and because I do feel it offers some protection if only modest. As for the Democrats…thank the gods!! I’ve had enough of “liberal” thank you very much!

  30. ridon says:

    the bike is burly. you’re hardly what i’d describe as burly. did the editors put a response to this letter, like these articles are only opinions of the writer and not a strict guideline everyone needs to follow?

  31. Jeff says:

    Helmets are a very Republican kind of approach to safety – i.e., every man for himself. Helmets vs. bike infrastructure, gated communities vs. adequate police, private clubhouses vs. public parks, private schools vs. public…

    Helmets are not evil, and I almost always wear one. But having the infrastructure that would get more bikes on the street would make me a thousand times safer than any helmet ever could.

  32. ladybug says:

    So..we spent a little time checking the literature- international and american. I think folks should choose their own options.If truely interested in research based information I guess it doesn’t take so long to find- there is an excellent selection on pubmed., the cdc and cochrane library.
    The advocate we found against helmets in the peer reviewed and published comments was a guy in Australia- he doesn’t actually run any experiments though which is tricky. Just for myself based on an evening’s worth of published reviewed medical research in the US.,Sweden, Germany and Netherlands I could find I probably won’t be advocating for the removal of child helmet laws any time soon!
    As for for the burly… aren’t we all beautiful on two wheels Dottie included? Safe riding and happy winter!

  33. Dr Paul Martin says:

    Imagine how it feels when you’re all forced to wear one by law when you know full well it will do little to protect you and that very law means fewer cyclists around you…

    Go Australia….

  34. ladybug says:

    So.. just want to say I wasn’t advocating more helmet laws- mention the Australian lit because it was some of the only negative helmet I could find. ride and let ride! lb.

  35. Hippiebrian says:

    I can’t agree with you more. Last week I got yelled at by a cyclist for not wearing a helmet. That cyclist was riding the wrong way ON THE SIDEWALK! Reqally? Is this where the helmet debate is headed, where someone who is riding as dangerously as possible can chide a cyclist who is following the laws and being safe for his/her choice in headgear?

    It’s our of control! Transportational cycling is basically a very safe activity, and the more we try to make it look not so, by wearing styrofoam hats, the more we detract others from trying it out. Remember folks, it’s the cars that are dangerous, not us!

  36. Jeanette says:

    Hippiebrain said “Last week I got yelled at by a cyclist for not wearing a helmet. That cyclist was riding the wrong way ON THE SIDEWALK! ”

    Almost the same thing happened to me — someone riding dangerously and endangering others, chastising me? Where does one even start, in responding to that?

  37. Vee says:

    I’m so late to reply. This reminds me of a few weeks ago I was in church. I was in the crowded hall having coffee and about to walk down to pick the kids from their classes. A acquaintance I see every now and then spotted me in the crowd. I wave and she shouted and ran over to me through the people milling. She came up to me and said. “I was you on your bike. But do you wear a helmet? You had a beautiful hat on. But please wear a helmet”

    I looked at her and said. “that is a helmet” she looked sho ked laughed and then said be safe as I walked on.

    Really? I haven’t see her since july and all she had to say was wear a helmet? A little annoying.

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