During a trip to Amsterdam last year, I was pleasantly surprised to see more bicycles on the road than cars. Most riders were dressed in suits and ties or skirts and stockings, their dress shoes pushing the pedals as they moved sedately along wide, clearly marked paths that paralleled the motorized traffic lanes.
And, I noted, not a bike helmet in sight.
According to a recent New York Times article, many European cities--and a few American ones like New York and San Francisco--are trying to coax greater bike ridership by easing helmet laws.
If not requiring a helmet encourages higher ridership, that’s a good thing: More cyclists mean better health, less obesity, and a greener environment. But some would say a bare-headed bike ride can also be viewed as an act of insanity, akin to smoking or playing with a loaded gun.
To Patricia Buttenheim, a critical care nurse with the healthcare group, Private Health Management, not wearing a helmet shouldn't even be an option.
“What do you call someone who doesn't wear a bike helmet?” she asks rhetorically. “An organ donor.”
Buttenheim says cyclists who don’t protect their heads risk traumatic injuries that might otherwise be avoided with proper helmet use. Even a low-speed fall has the potential to scramble the brain in a permanent way.
“You can still have head and neck trauma when you’re wearing a helmet but at least a helmet significantly minimizes the risk, which is certainly worth the investment,” she says.
The other side of the argument is that cycling is inherently safe and requiring helmets unnecessarily puts people off the activity. Case in point: Nearly 30% of Dutch commuters always travel by bicycle, with an additional 40% claiming they sometimes bike to work. Yet the percentage of injuries and fatalities in Amsterdam are a fraction of what they are in the U.S. and in U.K. cities where bike helmet laws are much stricter and less than 2% of commuters use a bicycle.
I love the idea of encouraging Americans to be more active. Taking a bike out for a quick spin is a great start. But it seems to me that we haven’t embraced the idea of ceding some of the road to cyclists. To drivers who brake suddenly or make last minute turns, cyclists aren't even an afterthought. Cycling lanes aren't prevalent or as safe as they are in places like Amsterdam. Even other cyclists aren't necessarily looking out for the well being of their fellow road warriors.
Cycling in most major American cities sans head protection is probably too risky a proposition. They may be uncomfortable, bulky, and inconvenient, but wearing a helmet seems a small price to pay to protect your health.
This invisible helmet may provide an alternative for some. Sure it costs $600 and will only deploy once upon impact to serve as an airbag for the head and neck. But for riders who are willing to risk traumatic brain injury for the sake of vanity, this might be a good compromise.