When I’m with my bike, “Where’s your helmet?!” is a real popular question from just about anybody who feels entitled to exercise passive-aggressive judgment in question form. Thankfully, I don’t feel the gall to ask total strangers “Do you really need another martini?”, “How about salad instead of fries?” or “Are you sure about the tank top?” – even after it’s clearly too late.

When I was a kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, riding a bike was fun, not serious. In our early years, we rode upright on Huffy Dragsters and dirt bikes, doing fast turns, going down hills and catching air on crude homemade ramps on the driveway. And sometimes we fell. When we fell, whether sideways or front-ways, our hands met the ground. We didn’t wear special bicycling clothes, and none of us wore any of these motorbike helmets.

I was the youngest of five when I learned to ride a bike in the mid ’70s. My oldest sibling, my sister Tracy, had an upright Schwinn. Between her bike, my bike, my other siblings’ bikes in the garage and most of the other bikes in the neighborhood, the mode of cycling was upright. Still no special cycling clothes, still no helmets.

Then, in 1979, a hit movie called Breaking Away came out. Suddenly, all across America, recreational cyclists wanted to be like the Americans in the movie, who wanted to be like the Italians in the movie: a rendition of pro racers hunched over ten-speeds. In the hunched-over position, riders weren’t looking around anymore. They were now face-down, limiting their periphery to forward and down, putting every other direction in a blind spot. In those pre-Armstrong days, the racer model that was spreading like the flu had amateur riders flirting with speeds that only seasoned professionals should reach in a controlled environment – not an environment shared with cars or pedestrians.

Upright Dutch-model bikes started to become passé, written off as uncool, old lady, Wicked Witch of the West bikes. The newly popular model, the racer model, started to permeate the culture, becoming what Americans think cycling meant: cycling meant racing, or some derivative thereof. Out of necessity and with thanks to the racing influence, helmets entered the scene because cycling started to become dangerous, literally.

Enter the Armstrong Effect…

From the time Lance Armstrong took his first major victory in the early ’90s, cycling culture in America has been dominated by racing. Drunk on it, actually. Not only does everyone suddenly need a helmet, but we also need specialized gear and tight Lycra clothes with taint padding. The bikes themselves are razor-thin, feather-light contraptions, helping the non-professional rider go even faster. It’s all about the extreme… extreme lightweight, extreme racing, extreme speed, extreme tension on the face of the rider. And apparently extremely dangerous all of a sudden.

Then there’s the phenomenon known as “risk compensation.” Grant Petersen explains it perfectly in his book Just Ride, but I’ll try to summarize it here. Risk compensation is a psychological phenomenon that consciously or subconsciously affects our behavior when we wear protective equipment during a perceived dangerous activity. In football pads and helmets, kevlar vests, snake boots and, yes, bike helmets, we behave differently – with an increased sense of invincibility or recklessness, as if the protective gear is some kind of insurance against misfortune. As someone who was once a helmeted practitioner of the racer model and now an unhelmeted practitioner of the upright Dutch model, I can ascertain that there is a remarkable difference in how I ride.

If wearing a helmet makes one feel safer and more secure on a bicycle, then by all means wear one. And if one is training for a triathlon or an iron man, by all means wear one. (Just keep the speed entitlement out of the crowded metropolis shared by cars, pedestrians, children, dogs and other bicyclists.)

The data on the safety and reliability of bike helmets is a conflicted mixed bag. One statistic in which I’d be particularly interested is one that shows a breakdown in bicycle head injuries based on the type of cycling that was practiced: Of all bicycle head injuries, I’d love to know the percentage of victims who practiced the racer/messenger/daredevil model as opposed to the slower, upright, Dutch model. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a statistic we’ll ever know, but I think the distinction is legitimate and important.

I’m not anti-helmet, but I am anti-propaganda when it comes to companies capitalizing on fear and the perpetuation that bicycling is or even should be perceived as a dangerous activity. Because it shouldn’t be. When it comes to enjoying a bicycle, I will leave the specialized gear, the specialized clothes, the specialized bikes and, yes, the helmet to those intoxicated by the Armstrong Effect. This recovered daredevil has retired into a sane, sober and civilized model of cycling, and I’m loving the ride, just like I did when I was a kid. Without the helmet.

NOTE: As a commenter, you are a guest in my house. While the web is a fabulously democratic medium, georgehahn.com is not a democracy. I am genuinely happy to inspire any kind of dialogue, whether in agreement or disagreement with my point of view or that of another commenter, provided that the dialog is expressed in a civil and respectful manner. Every comment is moderated. Any that fail to meet this simple requirement will never see the light of day. So don’t even bother.


  1. Arend Jan

    great piece George !

    I live in Amsterdam [NL] and ride a bike like you; no one wears a safety helmet … It’s just common sense to be a bit careful in the citycenter.
    And BTW it looks ridiculous on a bike like ours….


    • George

      Amsterdam is a model cycling city. You guys do it right! Thank you, Arend.

    • Anthony van Osch

      What North Americans don’t know when they point to the Dutch as an example of safe, helmet-less riding is that the Dutch cycling infrastructure is unimaginably more developed that anywhere in North America and that European third-party vehicle safety standards are far and away more developed and stringent than here. North America is the Third World if you’re not behind the wheel.

  2. A helmet is not a fashion accessory. Although it could be. Nothing passive aggressive about asking where your helmet is? It’s showing they care. Brain injury is just one fall away. And I never met a biker who hasn’t had a fall. It’s still your choice. And the hair does look good!

      • Actually I thought Stuart’s comment showed polite disagreement. People are allowed to disagree, right? There’s a fundamental disagreement between you and the people who are asking you about your helmet, which is whether or not a helmet actually keeps you safer. You have to keep in mind that the asker firmly believes it is safer to have a helmet and that you are risking your life by not wearing one. Imagine instead that they saw you walking across an old footbridge that’s rotting and on the verge of collapse, and they tell you not to walk on that bridge. They’re pretty sure the bridge is unsafe, but they don’t know whether you know it, and they don’t want you to die when it collapses under you. Would it be rude for them to tell you the bridge is not safe? I can certainly see that it would get extremely annoying to be asked all the time, but I can’t conceive of how it could be rude for a stranger to be concerned about your safety. Sort of touching, really.

    • John Harshbarger

      It is a VERY rude thing to ask and quite frankly it’s none of your business. The science behind the helmet is a bit fuzzy anyway, to put it lightly.

      And I have fallen, but never on my head. I have had worse falls walking, that time hitting my head, so should I wear a helmet when walking? If you are going to try and force the idea of a helmet because of the minuscule risk as a cyclist then you also have to apply it everywhere there is nearly an equal or greater risk.

    • Francis Noergaard

      Would you ever ask a person in a car if they knew, that beeing obese is dangerous and can cause heart-attacks, and that bicycling would lower the risk???

    • I agree with you Stuart. All of you who do not, I refer you to this article written by a doctor in the emergency department of a major hospital in Sydney, Australia . While I do dream of a city with the right education and infrastructure to make cycling safe without a helmet, I fail to understand why people are so opposed to them as though they are infringing on their ‘freedom’.

      • George

        Amadeo… The article you cite seems to frame cycling as a racing activity. There is no reference to racing vs. just riding (yes, it matters), and all the photo visuals in the piece are of racers. It further confirms the notion that bicycling is a high-speed activity in which its participants look and act like Lance Armstrong, from the garb, the gear, the bikes and the speed. If I were riding an 8 lb. carbon fiber bike going 30 miles per hour, I’d wear a helmet, too. I also mention the impact of the cycling model in my piece, an important distinction that your link fails to address. Of all head injuries incurred by bicyclists, I want to know the percentage of victims who practiced the racer/messenger/daredevil/speed-demon model as opposed to those who practiced a slower (-15 mph), upright, Dutch model of cycling. It’s an important distinction – a distinction between cycling that elevates it to a dangerous model and cycling that dials it down to a slower model.

    • Francis noergaard

      Stuart, is it passive aggressive to ask an obese car driver, why he/she doesn’t ride a bicycle? It is connected with allot of serious health risks to be obese and inactive, so you are just showing that you care. Hart attack and diabetes is just one more inactive day away, and I have newer met an obese driver without some chestpain now and then.

    • No, you’re wrong, it is passive-aggressive and it’s a statement entirely rooted in egotism and thinking that you know what is best for others. It’s not “caring”, it’s self-righteousness disguised as caring. As a grown man I don’t need to be questioned about what I’m doing as long as I am not biking like a self-absorbed, entitled d-bag which, ironically, many helmeted bikers seem to do regularly. Just today some coward almost whispered “get a helmet” to me as I biked past him. I in fact do have a helmet but I had left it in my truck when I took it into the shop today. All of this falls under the very simple rule that some of us never seemed to learned as children, MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS! My town is filled with these middle-aged white know-it-alls who seem to think that it’s okay to yell, “fix your brake” when my hand-brake squeaks or say cowardly little quips like, “where’s your helmet?” and being tiresomely clueless enough to think that somehow they’re doing me a favor by harassing me when I’m just trying to bike to and from work. Keep your not so humble opinions/viewpoints to yourselves, us grown ups don’t need to hear about how much you “care” about us. Hey, “Where’s your ability to STFU!?”

  3. David Gebel

    Never thought about the “Breaking Away” effect. Yes, my Schwinn and I rode hundreds of teen and college miles without a problem. Well put, George. I don’t like wearing my helmet in the city, but do it because I’ve come to feel “I’m supposed to”. My only concern are the crazy drivers around me which raise the collision risk. This was not the case in my neighborhood grownng uo.

    • John Guay

      I rode in traffic in the early to mid 70’s in DC, and it was not not safer then. In fact, the streets were much meaner compared with now. I did not wear a helmet then and I don’t wear one now, and I ride almost daily and fast (for exercise purposes).

  4. David talks about the other important variable in the helmet issue. You can’t control the other hazards around you.

    Having trained and raced during time when the leather “hair net” was being displaced by the modern high density foam helmets I definitely experienced the passive aggressive rhetoric first hand. It makes a lot of sense in the high speed world of road racing and even in the recreational environment when there is a diverse range of bike handling ability.

    In the town bike situation one needs to go with what they are comfortable with. Situational awareness is key. On the busy streets of Manhattan, traffic maybe only going 5-10 mph, there’s time to react. Don’t let those parked cars fool you though, doors open without warning and from personal experience they can cause a world of hurt.

    I’m not going to be a hypocrite here, I do ride without one once in a while. When I do, I’m not listening to music, I’m hyper aware of road hazards, and I scan the parked cars ahead. I’m OK with the amount of risk (people die sleeping in bed for cripe sake.)

    At the end of the day it’s a (very) personal choice just the same as choices we make about what we eat or wear.

    • another Eric

      You should be very careful whenever you ride. A helmet isn’t going to prevent getting doored. From what you’re saying it sounds like you ride carelessly when you have the helment on.

      • Looks like you’re pretty good at passing judgement from the internet. You don’t know me or ride with me so I think you should keep your judgements to yourself. Yes, I have been doored from the left (yes, I was riding on the right side next to the curb) when a passenger exited while traffic was stopped. This was only time in 12 years of riding almost daily that I’ve ever had an injury as a result of an automobile.

  5. Great article. I too grew up in the ’70s and ’80s when cycling was just a normal everyday activity that required no special clothes or bogus ‘safety equipment’. All that has changed since then, apart from the selling of cycling as a high-risk sport, is the huge growth in the numbers of cars on our roads. It is not cycling per se that is dangerous, but cycling in a limited space where you are competing with much faster and heavier motorised vehicles that is the problem. The best thing we could do to improve cycle safety would be separate cyclists from motor traffic wherever possible and practicable through proper infrastructure such as separated cycle tracks etc. As for falling, I have taken many a tumble on my bike but have never come close to hitting my head. It is absolutely automatic to put your hands out in such cases – which is why I do always wear gloves when I ride. I have however hit my head several times when I’ve fallen down stairs after being pushed. Perhaps I should have been wearing my ‘stair helmet’ at the time?

  6. Great article!

    I am a helmet wearer, whether on my hybrid or my road bike. I see it is a choice (& a habit at this point: I feel weird not wearing it).

    I find that I am constantly defending non-helmet wearing cyclists to people who don’t cycle: they should wear a helmet! it’s safer! But it doesn’t really improve your chances of survival/no traumatic brain injury when meeting a vehicle at speed. A woman was recently killed while cycling in my town: no manslaughter charges are being filed because she wasn’t wearing a helmet & she didn’t have lights on her bike (it was 2am, the lack of lights while cycling on a city street seems … well, wrong, but that is another article). BUT she was struck with such force that a helmet would not have saved her life. So why does her killer get leniency because of this? Physics easily proves it would have made no difference (& it certainly wouldn’t have aided the drunk a-hat in seeing her). This aggravates me.

    I wonder if my wearing a helmet (and others who aren’t really “racing” wearing helmets) contributes to this idea that not wearing a helmet is wrong as well. If we all stopped wearing them, would that become the acceptable thing? I think of Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I rolled into both cities on long bike tours wearing my helmet – for about 30 seconds before I took it off because of the looks I was getting. All that basically said, “idiot.”

    • another Eric

      Yes, please stop wearing helmets, it’s definitely sending the wrong message to the world at large.

  7. Your hyperbolic argument asking people if they wear a helmet while driving a car is similar to those gun nuts who ask if cars should be banned because cars kill people. You sound like a crazy diva.

    • Except that the anti-gun argument says that something should be banned because it might hurt somebody else while the anti-cycle helmet argument is saying that people shouldn’t be forced to wear something that might possible benefit them alone. Which makes it a completely different argument.

    • Francis Noergaard

      You are more likely to get head-injuries when driving a car than riding a bike…why not wearing a helmet in the car then?? It would save a lot of lives!!

  8. Jim Moore

    Nice article George. Yeah the passive-aggressive thing happens to me too (in Australia). At least it forces me to practice Zenning out from the outside world whilst riding. And you’re looking good on a good-looking bike. I personally would have to wear socks for comfort (wide feet that rub on shoes) but that’s not me saying that you should! BTW what colour socks would go with that suit?

  9. Helmet or no, whatever, but shoes without socks? C’mon: a Breaking Away-effect, Lance Armstrong-effect, Greg Lemond-effect, or a Ride-as-you-Damn-Please effect should teach you NOT to do that. Proper sock height, once worn, is another post topic.

  10. Alex DeLarge

    As long as you don’t bike salmon, I don’t care. Come at me in the same lane and I won’t be “passive” anything.

  11. I agree….so much fear perpetuated including friends telling a story 3rd hand about someone being hit by a taxi! I’m over it and glide carefully through the mixture of feet, wheels, and carts and arrive home safely. And, don’t text and ride!

    • I am not related to George…but, maybe cousins way back…but I agree with him. Leave the helmet on the shelf in the store!

  12. But you can be passive-aggressive when I have to pay for your medical bills with my higher premiums. Go get your head broken open in a third world nation; but until then do what is responsible for your community.

    • George

      I’m riding a bike, not driving a car.

  13. Paintbrush

    How about mounting a bell on your handlebars to alert us pedestrians that you’re about to ride up our back. Nothing personal, just a pet peeve. Every good cyclist really should have one.(And it’s required by law.)

    • How about you just pay attention to the world around you? When a car comes up behind you or passes you when you are driving, do they need to notify you, too? Stay to the right unless passing. It doesn’t just apply to driving.

    • I’m not sure how it is everywhere, but I was brought up to walk on the opposite side of the road so I could see oncoming traffic. It’s my biggest pet peeve to have pedestrians walking/jogging in the bike lane with their back to the flow since that is a lane of traffic. How about crossing the road so you can see what’s coming at you??

  14. Dr. Avery Jenkins

    Well said, George. I, too, am a lifelong cyclist who rides helmet-free. I’ve discussed similar points in my blog, http://www.averyjenkins.com/?p=1136 and while I’ve yet to write my helmet-free manifesto, it is coming soon.

  15. Badassderson

    As with all safety rules, they are for the lowest common denominator. Car drivers are heavily tested to follow traffic laws and are required to wear seat belts and their cage needs to meet safety standards. Motorcyclists are required to take extensive bike handling tests, road tests and wear a DOT certified helmet. Both also are required to pay through the nose for insurance etc. Bicyclists don’t have to take driving tests, no insurance and the only piece of safety gear required is a foam hat…
    I usually don’t wear a helmet unless I am in a downtown high traffic kinda situation. But I also wouldn’t complain if I got a wee ticket for my insubordination.

    • Katherine

      Car drivers in the US have a huge sense of entitlement, and even if they have taken a driving test, they don’t necessarily remember the rules that govern car-bicycle interactions (things like, pull all the way into the other lane if you want to pass a cyclist, do not honk simply because you are behind them and they are not going as fast as you think they should, do not throw beer cans at the cyclist). Even though bicycles are considered vehicles, drivers often resent them being on the road. I have been told things like, “You don’t pay a road tax. You aren’t supposed to be in the road,” and “Get on the sidewalk where you belong!”

      Most cyclists over age 16 also have driver’s licenses, and so they HAVE taken driving tests, and they should know that they have to stop at red lights, not go the wrong way down one-way streets, and obey all the same laws as if they were driving a motor vehicle.

      I really think lack of driver education in the US is one of the gravest hazards to cyclists who share the road with them.

  16. What I don’t understand are all the people who dress up in helmets and reflective gear, and then proceed to ride like a lunatic! If they didn’t place themselves in such dangerous situations (jumping red lights, cycling on the near side of trucks/buses, going so fast) then they wouldn’t need protective equipment.

    I ride to work every day in the same clothes that I wear in the office. And the only protective gear I use are waterproofs – because the Irish weather is definitely something you do need protection from.

  17. Ed Redbird

    Well there is cyclist the upright kind and the other type
    Boy racers and drifters are not drivers as such are they.
    And as upright is the only cycling there is; NO HELMETS (as opposed to biking and racing )

  18. Neil Davis

    Approximately 700 people a year die on bicycles in the US. Of those, close to half are under the influence of one substance or another. There are close to 4 billion bicycle trips per year in the US. Bicycling is a healthy activity with minor but real risks that can be further minimized by safe riding. We discourage people from riding when we over emphasize the importance of helmets. Ride on, helmet or no, up to each one.

  19. I appreciate the historical background and thinking about the origins of helmets in our pastime; the comparison/ inherent dangers of face-down riding vs. heads-up riding is spot-on. Had a colleague ask me this afternoon “Where’s your helmet?!” (first words out of his mouth when we met) Seems like every time I decide to take a short, slow ride somewhere on our campus I bump into someone that knows I’m the manager of our campus bike shop and apparently supposed to be wearing my helmet at all times when riding. It is quite annoying indeed. (I asked him “Where are you going with that ruler?” which was in his hand) Anyway, our page about bike safety represents my approach to bike safety: picking the right place to ride is #1, #2 is riding in a safe manner, then #3 is wearing a helmet followed by making sure you’re seen (bright clothing, bright lights). I used to have helmets at the top out of my knee-jerk reaction to what’s expected of such a page, but decided a while ago that too many people just start w/ helmets and end there or perhaps stop listening/ reading at that point. So now I spend a lot more time and energy talking with people about those other very important elements of staying alive on the streets. http://msubikes.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/bike-safety-tips/

  20. I suppose that the only helmet-free bike junkies that are commenting are the ones that are still alive are not hooked up to machines in a vegetative state. Comparing cycling in the US to Amsterdam is ludicrous – US cities are totaling lacking in infrastructure that adds an enormous safety factor to the AMS experience. Work in a trauma room for a weekend in any US city and you would sing a different tune.

    • You are really exaggerating the risk here. I work in an ER. Do you?

  21. i am a helmet-wearing cyclist. i commute to work via bicycle nearly 95% of the time. i am a cautious cyclist, obeying the laws of traffic as i should. one day, i left my office on my hybrid at 5:15 as usual. as i went over some railroad tracks, my bike went one way while my body went another. fast forward 5 hours later…i finally “come to.” while i was awake and talking those entire 5 hours, i have no recollection of them whatsoever. i can’t even begin to imagine what would have happened to me had i not been wearing a helmet. i truly believe it is a personal decision to wear or not to wear. because of my experience, i will never ever get on my bike without a helmet.

    safe cycling!

  22. As a bicycle fashion blogger, I struggle with this debate all the time!

    I usually wear a helmet when I ride in the city, but I don’t *always* wear one in my personal style shoots.

    But most of my readers want to know where to find cool helmets. And I regularly post about good-looking options. I try very hard not to use scare tactics when discussing helmets though.

  23. i see first time riders daily on new bikes, blithely disobeying every traffic law and safety common sense, yet thinking they are protected merely by putting that shiny plastic cap on their head.
    maintenance checks anyone? skills class?

  24. George Hahn

    As a commenter, you are a guest in my house. I am genuinely happy to inspire any kind of dialogue, whether in agreement or disagreement with my point of view or that of another commenter. My only requirement is that you express said opinions in a civil and respectful manner. I moderate every comment entered, and I will not publish anything that fails to meet that very reasonable requirement. If you cannot control the urge to be uncivil and disrespectful, take that crap to YouTube where anonymous, misspelled vitriol thrives. Not here. Thank you.

  25. You’ll look so cool when you’re all mangled riding your bike post a 3 month stay in ICU. Oh wait, you’ll have brain damage and won’t be able to ride. Too bad

  26. A helmet saved me from either death or serious brain injury once. Good luck going helmet less.

  27. Humans are designed to survive falls at walking and running speeds. When I ride a bike that is aerodynamic and I can surpass those speeds I wear a helmet. I also ride an upright slow pedaling cruiser quite often or my old 1950’s (upright) gentlemen’s tourer, in those cases I rarely exceed running speed, I do not wear a helmet.

  28. I’ve never been in a bad car accident, so I guess I don’t need to wear a seat belt ever again. Sound like a ridiculous argument?
    I also rode without a helmet in my youth without injury, but I also used to have BB gun fights with my friends, amongst other dangerous activities. Neither killed or injured us, but most certainly could have, and now I’m older and smart enough to know better. I don’t care if you’re in Amsterdam or New York, or whether you do triathlons or take beach cruises, a fall from a bike can cause injury and death, and a helmet is a smart way to mitigate that risk.
    Lastly, your only worry seems to be yourself. Imagine the horror and lifelong trauma a person would feel if they opened their door or bumped you with their mirror, and had to watch the fire department rinse your grey matter into the gutter. No wearing a helmet might not prevent all injury on a bike, but in no way could it ever increase your chances either. Seems like a no-brainer to me, which is exactly where you’ll end up if you continue to put fashion over safety.

  29. I use a helmet for a number of reasons. First, it’s a great place to mount a mirror; seeing behind you in traffic is critical. Second, I’m acquainted with some folks who have walked away from collisions that trashed a helmet. Third, I’m surrounded by cars. Most of the drivers are alert and thoughtful, but a few are careless to malicious. My two pence.

  30. Katherine

    I don’t know where you all ride, but where I live (hrrrmph NewHavenConnectitcutIamtalkingtoyou), I wear a helmet and a supremely dorky bright yellow safety vest, as do most of the runners I see on the sidewalks. I am not a hot-dogger or daredevil by any stretch of the imagination, but I see car-car accidents on a weekly basis, and I have come close to being hit by drivers running red lights, not stopping at an intersection where there is a “no turn on red” sign for them, at an intersection where they have a stop sign and I have the right of way, and when I am taking the lane and they are yakking on a cell phone. I think, every time I get on my bike, “Today could be the day I get hit by a car.” No matter how safe we are as cyclists, no matter how much we take the lane, use bike lights and turn signals, all it takes is one driver with inattentional blindness or too little patience, and a cyclist’s life can change in an instant. If you get hit with enough force, of course you are worm food, no matter what you were wearing, but in the event that it’s a survivable collision, I’d rather have whatever small measure of extra protection might be gained by wearing the helmet. I have taken care of totals as a nursing student, and the only thing less sexy than a bike helmet and neon yellow clothing is an acquired brain injury.

  31. Helmets are designed reduced penetrating trauma of a high psi load which happens only in rare and specific circumstances like your head hitting the edge of a curb. They are not designed to reduce deceleration trauma of the brain in blunt force impact. The reality is that they save lives rarely and reduce concussions even more rarely. Broken styrofoam does not mean your life was saved. No one wants to hear this.

    I hate anecdotal evidence from nurses and docs in ers. You want data? Look to the ski industry where every single wreck involving ski patrol over decades is documented w the same form across the country. Check out the sugarbush white paper and a similar study out if Sweden. Resilt? Helmeted users were actually more likely to be killed, and serious head trauma is generally accompanied by serious thoracic trauma. Again, no one wants to be bothered by facts or physics, because they don’t make sense and are counter intuitive in this case.

    I wear a helmet for soft tissue protection and bc as someone noted above, if I don’t there will be an immediate assumption that I’m at fault if a car hits me.

  32. There was also an interesting article that describes the inefficacy of helmets and what they are actually designed for in the last Bicycling Magazine (the mag with the red logo).

    All this said I wear one, but I’m not under any illusion that it’s going to save my life.

    George’s point to rider position and field of view is very much on point and one that’s rarely if ever discussed. Thanks, George.

  33. Katherine

    Thanks for this article! I always give my sister a hard time about not wearing a helmet (I think because I was in a bike accident). That being said, I’ve never heard this argument from the point of comparing not wearing a helmet to having extra drinks or making unhealthy food choices. I guess we all take risks with our health in different ways. If anybody commented on my food or beverage choice, I would think that to be wildly inappropriate. However, until now, I’ve had no problem putting my two sense in about people about not wearing helmets… Sorry, I will stop.

    • Rebecca Albrecht

      I began riding a bike in 1959 and rode without a helmet for nearly 30 years. I then wore a helmet for twenty years until a trip to the Netherlandss and I haven’t worn one now for six years. I use to be that person who would say after someone had been in an accident, “were they wearing a helmet?” I always made sure my kids and husband wore a helmet. My response now to the helmet question is ” Do you wear a helmet when you are driving in a car or walking down the street? Plenty of people have head injuries in motor vehicle accidents or while out walking.”

  34. I have recently been in an accident with my bike and am sure happy to say I was wearing a helmet. I was also uncontrollably flying through the air. Not a hair damaged on my head, but we cannot say that for the rest of my body. Just a week before this accident, I was cycling in Cincinnati on a borrowed bike. I have chosen to borrow a helmet as well, and was explained on a spot that in Cincinnati, “only children” would do that. It is the culture. I was then a ridiculous European woman cycling through Cincinnati for a day. You sure impress with your witty writing about childhood and stuff. Breaking Away came out? I understand. In fact, I think that one glance at the photo next to this article really explains it. “Companies capitalizing on fear” – nah, it cannot really be “companies capitalising on safety”, because we are all into conspiracy theories (I thought that is so passé).

    But to take a question on the helmet as an insult and then to fight against it is taking it a step too far. If I would ever imagine asking a stranger about a helmet, that would be for 2 reasons: 1. I would like more of us cyclists wear a helmet. No, the risk is not the same as descending on the stairs. Doing so, we are a good role model for others and create a culture, where someone is not ridiculed, because they are choosing a helmet. They are no longer strange or objectivized by fear, but proudly taking safe precautions. 2. I would ask you this question because I might be trying to make a conversation (though the style is perhaps a bit provocative), or find some starting point.

    I have my personal reasons to wear a helmet while cycling. I am an avid cyclist and can say that I had a couple of accidents in the last 2 years, all caused by forces, objects or persons I could not control. My current bank savings did not occur from a lottery, they came from an interesting organ we call brain. Brain is my personal investment and as such, I think it is a bit smart to protect it. To prevent myself to be seriously brain injured is a bit a must. But in the end, of course it is up to you, if you hate being a role model, a whistle blower or having hair tucked in in a funny way and a bit sticky from sweat. Many other people choose to do the same and if those conspiracy theories, based on fear, turn out to be true, these people are more likely to go extinct anyway. So I dont have any problem with that natural selection.

    • Alan B'Stard

      Risk compensation in *car drivers* was proven in a study using ultrasound distance meters. Cars passed closer and did more dangerous manoeuvres when the biker was wearing a helmet.

  35. CopenhagenCommuter

    To each his (or her) own…. Happy cycling 🙂

  36. This is THE best commentary on helmets that i’ve heard in an a long time. No one seems to want to think about helmets in context. It’s almost as bad as abortion talks. Whether you’re for or against, it’s all emotion and what-ifs. I totally agree with your pro helmet-choice model.

  37. I commuted 14 miles across London for close to 20 years. I got knocked off once and my helmet didn’t prevent my broken coccyx. I also slid off on a dusty bend and again a helmet didn’t prevent the extensive road rash from ankle to armpit on the left side of my body (damned impressive injury though with blood dripping along the road for the last mile home – my wife went nuts!). When racing I broke my collar bone twice – the helmet really helped. I now ride a Dutch style roadster with no helmet and couldn’t find it if you asked me. As has previously been commented you as likely to suffer a serious head injury as a pedestrian and MORE likely as the occupant of a car. Cycle helmets may make you feel safer but frankly unless you are doing BMX stunts or downhill mountain biking they have a limited effect.

  38. Although it rankles a little when people ask where my helmet is, it does at least give me an opportunity to educate them. Im even more irresponsible, because I don’t make my son (age 10) wear one either, which cause some “interesting” dialogue with his school head teacher, but she got the point.

  39. In the traffic, when people ask me that question, “Where’s your helmet?!”, my answer is quite simple: “if you do not run over me, I won’t need it”.

  40. Imma Annoid

    Well laid out and well written article. It *is* about having common sense when you ride.

  41. Nice article, i’m glad it’s getting people thinking. In many cases it is absolutely your choice. I think in a society where there is universal and socially funded healthcare, and helmet use is legislated ,you do have an obligation to society though..

  42. I totally respect your decision not to wear a helmet. Some of my best friends don’t wear helmets…
    I choose to wear one riding in London and always have. Virtually the only time I fell off I was in park – riding very slowly – the lock slung over the handlebars tangled in front wheel… and I landed on my head. Putting aside the question of any protection against brain-shaking, the helmet saved my scalp and face from a painful scraping. My pride was however badly injured!

  43. I think helmets are useful, but I hope not to test mine, but I wear one just in case a car hits me, it happens really and or I hit a tree , as I mountain bike in the forest. That is right I take my custom made bike into a wooded area and ride, but note, if you ride with me we stay as a group and stop to take a look around. I do ride with other bikers that will not ride with MTB riders without a helmet, but if you want to risk a head injury fine, but I hope your insurance will cover the nursing care so they can look after you and yes you will have somebody to think for you at the same time, so really it is a win win. Helmet or good insurance or both, lets not over do it please, but seriuosly poeple get hurt, injuried and killed while riding the common bicycle. I would recomend you wear safety gear not only yourself but the ones you take care of or provide a safe enviroment, so should you just eat the ego, wear the helmet and if it is hidden complaint aboutyour hair gets messy then we need to talk.

  44. I wear a helmet now as I’ve got used to it whilst mountain biking on the glorious South Downs (Sussex, UK).
    I have found that all the paraphernalia involved with bike riding in general has become part of the fun, I love it, I even wore Lycra pant things when doing a 3 day charity ride up there last Summer. For me, it’s part of the fun. However, on the lovely bike path that goes from Brighton to Hove I don’t see why any specialist clothing is necessary. When it rains, a rain coat, when its sunny, shades. It doesn’t matter what we wear but how we cycle. If we cycle dangerously we will be likely to come a cropper. If we are aggressive then we may well hurt other people too. Cycling has to be one of the coolest things we can do, it’s simple, healthy, exhilarating and has a low impact on the environment. I just love it!

  45. Great article. I wear one at times and not during other times. I love it when non-riders feel the need to question my decision. Sure, I may put down the bike and I may hit my head, but obesity is 100% fatal.

  46. Hugh Morrison

    I usually reply to the question ‘Why aren’t you wearing a helmet?’ with ‘I try not to fall off’. Good road sense and defensive cycling will protect a rider far more than a plastic hat. I touch on this a little in my book ‘The Slow Bicycle Companion’, but it’s an uphill struggle to convince anyone (outside the Netherlands and Scandinavia) that cycling isn’t a terribly dangerous activity that requires protective clothing.

  47. I am wondering how you would react George if they made it law to have a helmet on. I know in most states in Australia it is law with an $A100 fine if you do not comply. This is the extract from QLD Department of Main Roads:

    “You, and any passenger you are carrying, must wear an approved, correctly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet at all times.

    The only time you are exempt from wearing a helmet is if you:

    *are carrying a doctor’s certificate stating that you cannot wear a helmet for a stated medical reason over a specified period
    *are a paying passenger on a three or four wheeled bicycle.”

  48. My helmet has saved my life, or at least severe brain injury in an accident which was for the most part unavoidable. I broke several ribs, and the force of my head hitting the ground was only intensified by a whiplash effect, which sent me into shock — all while wearing a helmet. I’m entirely a solitary cycler, and I’ve never seen or heard of “Breaking Away”. I wear a helmet because some people very close to me made it apparent that although I may never need it, to need it and not have it is essentially a severe lack of wisdom. I only use the drops which is what I assume you mean when cyclists “hunch over” in extreme wind conditions, or when I get a sore back from too long in the same position. If you only ride casually, and stay below (let’s say) 18 mph, then I can understand how you can afford your very popular perspective; but if I had your same mind-set in all my days of riding a bike, I strongly doubt I’d be able to read about your opinion, much less share my experience with you.

  49. I don’t wear my helmet for me, I wear it for my friends and loved ones. Because if something happened to me and I WASN’T wearing a helmet when I could have been, I couldn’t bare the thought hurting my friends or family because I felt like I’d be fine without one. The majority of the time, yes, I’m sure I’d be fine riding with no helmet. However all it takes is someone else making a mistake just once to leave you with an injury.

    I totally trust myself on a bicycle. I don’t trust the people who are oblivious of my existence when I’m riding.

    It’s just like wearing a seatbelt in a car. What legitimate reason do you have to not wear one?

  50. Chip Mefford

    Just for the heck of it,
    being a firmly committed helmet agnostic, I solved the helmet dilemma by using a helmet mounted mirror.
    I’m completely addicted to the mirror, and feel blind without it.
    So I wear a helmet. Solved the whole question problem.

  51. Andrew St Pierre

    Well stated. I enjoyed your viewpoint and agree with it. But I would have enjoyed it even if I had disagreed with it…

  52. Looks like all the bogglers are bikers, so regardless of right or wrong helmet use, there seems to be some passionate responses. I just love being able to go just about everywhere possible.
    The biggest disappointment about Helmets is they only last 2-3 years, just imagine the inside of the foam casting is made up of styrofoam with small pockets of gas, this gas finds it way out after a period of time, thus the pockets of gas that act as cushion become air with no pressure, e.g the air bag is deflated.
    So this is a bit of a scam 🙁 but I fell off my bike in the alps and found a 1-2cm stone wedged into my helmet, so I threw the helemt out and purchased another even on the grounds that it will only last 1-3 years. So please consider to wear a helmet and be safe on the roads or single tracks. Dream of epic rides live it ! ride it ! and love it !

    • another Eric

      This is not about epic rides, you’re in the wrong place for that. I would agree that helmets are probably a good idea for road racing and single track riding, especially when done my amateurs.

  53. As another person that only wears helmets for sanctioned races, it absolutely drives me crazy when I get those catty comments from people as well! I work with a lot of people in bike shops – and I work in advocacy. So, I have done a lot of research on helmet stats. If I felt the pros/cons outweighed, I’m an adult. I can make an informed decision. Personally, I’ve decided that off-setting my center of balance with weight for something that only protects against abrasions really… meh. And this is coming from an epileptic. Who’s been in dozens of crash. I feel like I am more likely to hit my head if I have added weight to my head. I don’t give a shit (At a personal level I do feel badly that you have experienced personally what you have, because I have as well had many severe injuries: broken back; fractured scapula, snapped achilles tendon, various other surgeries, current ongoing PT) but I don’t give a shit about your personal sob stories to try to sway non-helmet wearers. Show safety data – specifically, Australia does the highest level of data testing. Check it out.

    Whenever anyone asks me where my helmet is, I ask them where their gloves or eye protection are. You’re more likely to get debris in your eyes or tear your hands on the road in a crash than crack your head unweighted. (And don’t even get me started about open-toed sandals.)

  54. “And sometimes we fell. When we fell, whether sideways or front-ways, our hands met the ground.”

    Learning to fall was one of the most important things about riding our bikes. Especially when flying off of our home made ramps.

  55. There’s something very ineffective about sarcasm combined with a straw man argument, but that’s just my opinion.

  56. I bike for fun ” upright biking” and I have biked at high speeds “race” if someone chooses to be ignorant and not wear a helmet it is a choice they have to decide for themselves. However you still choose for yourself…. the ground, pavement, car, always wins against the rider. The arguments of walking down a street or a flight of stairs may be valid to all those who like to argue … However you like to spin the article when you see a 14 year old with a serious head injury that they recieved because a helmet was not cool and now they need to learn to walk again maybe you might consider how a helmet might of helped.

  57. I live in Switzerland and have to bikes – a city version I use for getting around the town and for moderate distance sightseeing trips and a mountain-bike I use mostly on the trails. I almost never use a helmet for the first one and almost always use it for the second. I don’t do road racing, but if I had a bicycle for that as well I’d probably use a helmet. It makes perfect sense to me and anecdotally evidence shows that I’m in majority on it here.

  58. I ride a recumbent trike and wear a helmet so that I can place lights, fore and aft, at the highest point, namely, on top of my helmet.

  59. I agree that wearing a helmet is a choice. Not in my family, however. I wear one, my husband wears one, and all our kids will wear one as long as they are under our roof. As a child in the early 80s, I watched as a schoolmate went through brain surgery after brain surgery. He’d had a bike accident, no fault of his own. He hit a chunk in the road and flipped over the handle bars. He began to sneeze, and clear fluid would pour out of his nose. He’d knocked holes in his brain, and he didn’t know it. He eventually died.

    He wasn’t racing, he wasn’t goofing off, he wasn’t trying to do tricks. He was biking home after school. And he died because, back then, none of us wore helmets.

    I respect riders’ rights to choose for themselves. For my family, though, there is no option.

  60. yeah i used to be arrogant and not wear a helmet till i decided to buy one as riding in the city where i live is quite dangerous. Week after crashed into a cab head first. The damage on my helmet looks bad. Sure on my head it would have been a lot worse!

    • George

      Thank you for reading. Your comment tells me 2 things: 1.) If you hit a cab head-first, one must deduce that you were going a considerable speed and hunched over your bike, practicing the racer model of cycling. I neither practice nor advocate fast riding or the racer model of cycling in the city. 2.) The fact that you had an accident after you started wearing a helmet confirms the theory of risk compensation I describe in the piece.

      Respectfully, your arrogant author.

  61. John Coleman

    This entire article is B _ L L S H_ T. I just returned from a 13 day stay in a hospital in Dallas, Texas from a head injury I received from a bicycle crash during a road racing event while wearing a Giro Atmos helmet. As a professional engineer I know just a LITTLE BIT about physics. When my head impacted the asphalt the helmet dissipated the energy from the impact and broke in numerous pieces. Better the helmet, than my skull. Without it, I would be pushing up daisies in the cemetery. Go ahead and ride without you SKID LID and let me know what suit color you want to be buried in.

    • George

      Operative word: RACING, i.e. a bicycling model in which I don’t participate and which I do not condone for non-professionals. You and I are involved in very different activities as far as I’m concerned. The hard-on for speed and bicycling as an “extreme” sport is a gene that eluded me completely. As I said in the article, it’s an important distinction and it does matter. Race on, right past me, in that ridiculous TRON outfit.

  62. James Strattan

    Thanks for this witty and nostalgic piece, though certain words of input appear less tactful than others . . . I, too, cycle in a suit, though I look a bit doltish by comparison, based on the sideways glances I receive!

    To the nay-sayers quoted above, if I do get hit, at least I’ll be wearing a respectable suit. 🙂

    Thanks again, Sir.

  63. Rode for 20 years until one day while talking with a fellow cyclist who was wearing a skidlid I noticed that a 4×4″ chunk of skin was gone from his cheek. A short conversation later about how it happened I bought a helmet and have never regretted it though in the next 30 years I have not really needed it either while on the road. It has saved my noggin once or twice while riding singletrack mountain bike trails which is where you would probably say that was a good idea. My riding is not quite so upright as yours but I am not a racer either. I have a Rivendell and am familiar with Grant’s approach. Just ride – helmeted or not. I just don’t feel right without it anymore. And, yes, even though I am not a ski racer either I wear one then as well. Whether skiing, motorcycle riding, or bike riding, it really is more to protect me from the person or vehicle that I could not avoid then from my own need for speed.

  64. After 8 years of being a community advocate of lifestyle cycling, maintenance, and safety, I recently *stopped* wearing my helmet for some of the reasons cited by the OP. I specifically started riding while helmeted after a friend was hit by a drunk driver on her bike, sans helmet, and went into a coma, coming out much later with brain damage. But the thing is that she, and most other cyclist friends I know who’ve had serious accidents, were intoxicated while riding. I myself would ride my bike drunk on a regular basis and never had an accident. The one time my helmet saved me from brain damage was while being kicked in the head repeatedly by a group of transphobic queerbashers.

    The first bit of research that suggested my sense of security from riding with a helmet was false was the study that showed how much closer cars pass cyclists when they’re wearing helmets. The second was from reading Grant Petersen’s book Just Ride, which reveals the tests and standards for bicycles and shows how ineffective they are in real-world riding.

    Bicycle helmets are designed to reduce the risk of concussion while traveling at speeds of 5-12 mph and striking flat, inanimate objects. My highest risks of brain injury while cycling are when I’m riding at speeds greater than 15 mph and usually from moving cars that are also moving at greater speeds.

    I still wear my helmet when riding around the city at night because of decreased visibility and increased chances of drunk drivers (and pedestrians and other cyclists). I aim for high visibility, I travel sober, and I ride risk-aware, sometimes employing techniques such as Grant Petersen’s suggested “safety swerve.” In the weeks since I’ve stopped wearing a helmet, I’ve already noticed how much more berth most passing motorists give me. The reasoning being that the more sporty, confident, and competent I *appear*, the less I’ll be given safe minimal clearance.

  65. David Howard

    Great article, and I completely agree with you.

    I live on the Upper West Side, and commute by bike. In the mornings, I ride with my three kids to their schools– none of us wear helmets. The only time I wear a helmet is when I get on my fast stream-lined racing bike where I would have more of a tendency to lose control and go over the handlebars.

    Now I am in battle with obnoxious sniveling parents and teachers at my middle child’s school (a so-called “progressive school”) who threaten to call child protective services (feeling justified also because there is an NYC law requiring helmets on children under the age of 13 which I have never seen enforced).

    I am so sick and tired of hearing those “No Helmet???” comments– and have heard quite a few in the last few days.

    Like you, I grew up in the 70s, never wearing a helmet. While I have heard people makes claims about helmets “saving their lives”, I have trouble believing that to be the case on the upright frames we commute on.

    What I really find is that it is not that the people care about your safety; it is that they must feel inferior enough to want to make some kind of statement using either safety or the law as their pretense to feel superior, or that maybe they are trying to identify who is a friend or a foe.

    So when I start putting all the comments together, then thinking about how “safety before play” has entered playgrounds; it appears that people are trying to expand the contrived and controlled environment of Disney World on us.

  66. Just say “because I’m riding a bicycle…” that pretty much covers it.

  67. Yep I ride a Dutch bicycle and I’ve never worn a helmet. I think even when I was under 16 (and my parents not knowing the law or caring much) I received a helmet and would wear it for 20 min before ripping it off. Actually I’ve been so out of touch with the concept that when I went to British Columbia and rented a bike and was given a helmet (it’s the law there for all ages and I don’t feel like getting ticketed) I did not know how to put the stupid thing on. It reduced my peripheral vision, my hearing ability, and general ability to turn my head.

    In any case I agree with everything. I hate getting into debates with other cyclists as to why they choose helmets and I don’t. Their answer is that they value their brains and not their vanity to which finding a rebuttal is obnoxious and in vain. Their experiences shape their safety perceptions. The biggest hurdle is lack of safe cycling infrastructure in North America, which is dominated by one thing: vehicular efficiency. Everyone else is a second class citizen and it’s why, until laws change, drivers will get away with murder.

    I want to address one earlier stupid comment I saw on here and I apologize in advance for not reading all of them but it’s too early in the morning right now: this individual was deftly trying to sarcastically say like what, ban cars too because they kill people? I’ll have you know that a century ago, that almost happened. Automobiles were killing people left and right and were demonized and ostracized. The only reason this invention and subsequent business survived was that they changed how people understood streets. The companies went on a massive marketing trip to a) shame jaywalkers b) herd pedestrians into a new concept called a crosswalk where they are predicted to exist c) herd children into another new concept – a playground and d) generally get people out of the way of cars. Because people in cars don’t like people in their way. And now our society passively accepts death as a consequence of this new mobility. And on mackinac island in michigan, cars ARE banned. And life goes on and people don’t die. It’s amazing.

    So before someone tells me that I have to wear a helmet because I can’t control the actions of others (aka other people seem to feel they have a right to drive like maniacs and assholes without regard to anything), I’ll take my chances. My chances are lower than if I was in my car with the rest of these texting/drunk/distracted drivers on the road. I can’t control who runs a red light. I can’t control gramps hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake and smashing into a store. I can’t control meteors. I’m not going to irrationally be afraid of everything. In the end, infrastructure and law has to change to penalize motorists harder and it will. It’s slowly coming to.

  68. An intrigued helmet-wearer

    Just a question: would you find it rude if people asked WHY you weren’t wearing a helmet (with genuine interest), rather than where it is or something else that indicates their belief that you should be wearing one?
    As a cycle commuter and a firm believer in wearing helmets while biking and snowboarding, I would be interested to know how many people don’t wear helmets because they have made an informed decision not to, and how many people do not because they think it’s cool or they just haven’t gotten one or just have a fatalistic attitude of what happens, happens (that last one will probably cause someone offense, sorry, just the way I feel).
    I suppose many of the people on this thread would say that it doesn’t matter and it’s their choice – which it is – but I think the distinction is important, and there are interesting discussions to be had. I’ve never really thought about not wearing a helmet before, but although I’m intrigued by it after reading this and several other articles, the attitudes expressed in the article and comments have made me wary of approaching anyone not wearing a helmet for fear of the backlash.

  69. I suppose it’s none of your business that I don’t wear my seatbelt when driving. Or that I don’t make my daughter ride in carseat. I also disabled my airbags so that I’m a sure to drive more carefully.

    • George

      You’re absolutely right. None of my business.

      • I obviously didn’t expect that sort of consistency in your opinion. You just earned a ton of respect from me.

  70. Great article! I grew up in bike friendly Europe and hardly ever wore a helmet, even when I moved to California. I wore a helmet once in a while while biking for transportation to be “responsible” (never believed in its ability to save my life) but stopped wearing one a few years ago. Aside from helmets being uncomfortable and annoying, I never found a need to wear one when cycling like a sane person on an upright bike at 12mph.

    People I know ask me from time to time where my helmet is. These same people never question any decisions they make behind the wheel, which are more dangerous (exceed speed limit, distract themselves with phones, drive while “buzzed”)

  71. Wow. I’m glad I stumbled upon your site, George (even though it’s 2017, and I shouldn’t expect any answer from you). I thought I was reading an ebook, or something. Very well, artistically stated.

    You know, it’s a shame casual cycling is belittled nowadays. Road bikers tote conspicuous consumption (cutting-edge bikes made for every-second-counts scenarios) and their hierarchy of attire (their tight-fitting jerseys).

    It’s all in the interest of performance, not design, really – I know. But still…it kinda seems otherwise. Anyway, it’s been proven, in man vs. bike, that man is the biggest factor in victory.

  72. great article – spot on
    when we rode in Copenhagen, no helmet
    when we rode up and down the Col De Tourmalet, helmet
    riding on roads in thickly settled MA, helmet
    on a bike path with family, no helmet
    think for yourself, use common sense

    just found your site, really enjoying it, and haven’t even got the fashion articles