Helmet Ethics

Somehow, a few people hereabouts missed the two posts I wrote in November about my new attitude toward bicycle helmets.

Two things: I am not engaging in a helmet “boycott,” nor am I suggesting that anyone adopt my criteria for his own.

I had a phone conversation yesterday with a person I work closely with on bicycle advocacy issues. This person was concerned about what I’m up to regarding wearing a bicycle helmet. I basically said the same things I wrote in the posts linked above. But then the conversation took an interesting turn that really struck me because it points out an ethical dilemma. A few premises of this dilemma are that I am person known in the community to be a bicycle advocate, that people read and trust Carbon Trace, and that my actions can influence the actions of others.

Thus, the dilemma: If I choose not to wear a helmet (sometimes), people may see me and think that it is OK not to wear a helmet and thus put themselves in danger (i.e. If an experienced utility bicyclist doesn’t wear a helmet, then I don’t need to). If I choose to wear a helmet, I make bicycling look more dangerous than it is and thus discourage people from using a bicycle as basic transportation (i.e. If bicycling is so dangerous that an experienced utility bicyclist wears a helmet, then it is too dangerous for me).

I usually resist dichotomies because there are nearly always third (and fourth and fifth, etc.) ways to consider an issue. We could also construct other dichotomies from this situation based on differing interpretations of what wearing a helmet means and/or what I mean by wearing one or not (i.e. a rhetoric of bicycle helmets). But I find this dichotomy interesting and perhaps even instructive. Considering that it also involves media, i.e. this blog, I’m thinking of tossing this to my media ethics class for their thoughts.

I believe adults must make the choice to ride and the choice to wear a helmet for themselves. We are individually responsible for our own safety on the road.

That said, I’m doing a lot more wondering about my ethical responsibility here.

At the moment, however, my behavior has not changed. It’s a sunny, mild day. I rode to work without a helmet.

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Comments 5

  1. Scott Loveless wrote:

    I almost never wear a helmet, simply because I don’t want to. And that reason alone is probably as good as it gets. Conversely, “what does it hurt?” is probably the best reason to wear one. The late Ken Kifer wrote an excellent article on the subject and came to, basically, those same conclusions.

    While I would never insist that someone going for a ride with me _not_ wear a helmet, I also demand the same respect from others. As such, I don’t do organized non-competitive rides on public roadways that require a helmet for participation.

    Your example to others is not “someone who doesn’t wear a helmet”. I see your actions as those of a responsible adult who made an educated decision. Riding your bike in a legal manner and helping others to do the same is the best way to be cycling role model. I think you’ve shouldered your ethical responsibilities quite well.

    Posted 28 Apr 2010 at 11:46 am
  2. Andy Cline wrote:

    Scott… Yes, I’m familiar with the Kifer article. And i agree — it is excellent. Thanks for you thoughts.

    Posted 28 Apr 2010 at 11:53 am
  3. A.J. wrote:

    I too have been riding more sans helmet now that the weather is pleasant. I think the biggest factor is percieved risk of danger. When I started biking around Springfield, I would always have my lid on, but the percieved risk goes down. That’s because skill/experience/data show that utility cycling isn’t a dangerous activity when proper attention/safety is applied.

    Cycling like beer: there are a lot of flavors and styles. Cruising along with a basket full of groceries doesn’t require the same ingredients as a race or mountain trail or BMX trickery or brakeless fixed-geared death traps. Helmets almost denote some sort of sport or danger aspect that doesn’t really exist in utility cycling. A helmet is really to protect your skull from your own actions. You point out many times, that other European countries scoff at our “love affair” with bicycle helmets. A helmet is no substitute for safe riding.

    Uninformed people must assume a helmet will protect them from a careless driver, which is silly. Motorcyclists fall into the same realm. A helmet will help you if you wipe out. It won’t win the battle of car vs skull. Of course if helmets looked as cool as the link’s, it might be a different story all together.

    I don’t envy your position, Andy, but I would think a big part of being an advocate is educating. Stressing the how and why utility cycling is safe –which you do in droves–is what attracts people.


    Posted 29 Apr 2010 at 9:05 am
  4. John Romeo Alpha wrote:

    I wear a helmet almost all the time not because the types of cycling I do are inherently dangerous, but because, very rarely but not never, strange things called “accidents” happen to me, and I am not willing to assume that another one will never happen again. The decision to wear a helmet indicates that one believes that an accident (a rare, odd, unexpected, sometimes inexplicable event) will never happen to them, or that if it does, it will be outside of the design envelope of a bicycle helmet. I have experienced a couple in my many years of riding, both well within the design envelope of bike helmets, both very strange/unexpected events, and am not willing to assume that I will never have another one again.

    Posted 30 Apr 2010 at 12:40 am
  5. Rod wrote:

    Dallas Texas has a mandatory helmet law for all ages, therefore I rarely ride in Dallas…but…if someone hits you, and you’re not wearing a helmet, it may make it harder to get retribution.

    Posted 01 May 2010 at 4:39 pm