Why Would — or Wouldn’t You — Wear A Bike Helmet?

As bike sharing gets more popular, public health officials are concerned people are on bikes without helmets.

As bike sharing gets more popular, public health officials are concerned people are on bikes without helmets.

By Micheline Maynard

When I bought my bike this summer, everyone I told about the purchase was adamant: you have to get a helmet. They were so insistent that I stayed off it until I had gone to REI and brought home a helmet ($32, on sale).

Many public health officials are concerned that as bike sharing spreads across the country, head injuries also will go up, as I wrote this week for Al Jazeera America. There are some pretty compelling statistics to that effect.

Greg Kagay, one of the backers of Curbing Cars, is a dedicated cyclist who’s been wearing a helmet since he had a bike accident in high school. He is eager to try out bike sharing, but he’ll only do so when wearing a helmet.

However, there are also some people who think the concern about cyclists wearing helmets is way over blown. One of them is Jana Kinsman, who is among the best known cyclists in Chicago, thanks to her project, Bike A Bee.

I talked with Kinsman at length for my AJAM story, and she presents a strong argument that helmets are not the point. The bigger issue, she says, is that bikes, cars and pedestrians all need to coexist.

“In other countries, it’s much more an acknowledged part of transportation,” she said of cycling.

Kinsman was not wearing a helmet in August, when two men in an SUV pulled up next to her bike and a backseat passenger grabbed her messenger bag. He dragged her with the vehicle, letting go only when she crashed into a parked car.

She was treated at a hospital for contusions, road rash and cuts to her legs, arms and hips. Kinsman said she was mentally shaken for a week afterward, and it took about a month for her injuries to heal. But the incident did not keep her off her bike — nor make her into a firm helmet convert.

“It wouldn’t have mattered,” she said. “I could have been wearing a bubble suit” and the passing motorist still could have grabbed her.

Kinsman said she feels safe riding without a helmet because of her cycling expertise. “I feel confident in my ability as a rider. I also feel I know the roads and the path that I travel,” she said. “I think that the approach of ‘We need to get helmets for people on bike-sharing’ is a very Western-medicine way.”

But she thinks cycling safety is “a good thing to talk about,” a belief that’s shared by many bike sharing programs. All across the country, systems are conducting bike safety clinics for their riders, hoping to keep a lid on accidents.

Kinsman said all cyclists, whether on their own bikes or ones from bike-sharing systems, can benefit from improvements like the dedicated bike lanes that have been installed in Chicago and other cities.

“The ideal is that there’s bike sharing in Chicago means more cyclists are on the road, people start slowing down, and the roads are safe for everybody,” she said.

So, on one hand, we have Kagay, who won’t get on a bike without his helmet, and Kinsman, who believes there are more considerations involved. Where do you come down on helmet use? Take our poll, and share your views in comments.


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