How America’s Bike Helmet Fixation Upholds a Culture of “Unfettered Automobility”

By almost any quantifiable safety metric, the helmet fixation has failed. People bike at low rates in the U.S. compared to international peers, and suffer higher injury and fatality rates per mile of cycling.

Photo: City of Chicago
Photo: City of Chicago

In the United States, official bicycle safety messaging heavily emphasizes helmet use. In a way, it’s worked: American rates of helmet usage are high. But by almost any quantifiable safety metric, the helmet fixation has failed. People bike at low rates in the U.S. compared to international peers, and suffer higher injury and fatality rates per mile of cycling.

It’s not a coincidence that bicycling remains dangerous in our helmet-obsessed safety culture, according to University of Heidelberg professor Gregg Culver. Emphasizing helmets as a singular solution to bike safety — rather than designing streets for safer car speeds or better bike infrastructure — upholds a political structure that favors “unfettered automobility,” Culver argues in an article published this month in the journal Applied Mobilities.

To analyze the attitudes of American public officials toward cycling and bike helmets, Culver conducted a qualitative analysis of official bike-related texts posted online by the planning departments of 25 U.S. cities. His intent was not to single out planning departments, but to use their materials to illustrate broader political dynamics. He determined that American governments have an “exaggerated and arguably misplaced fixation with helmets.”

Phoenix used this insanely graphic comic strip to warn kids to wear bike helmets -- an example of the "threat of violence" technique many cities used to in reference to bike helmets. Photo: City of Pheonix
Phoenix used this insanely graphic comic strip to warn kids to wear bike helmets — an example of the “threat of violence” technique many cities used in reference to bike helmets. Photo: City of Phoenix

While none of the 25 cities devote especially long tracts to helmet use, all but one (Atlanta) mentioned them. In general, Culver reports, they prioritize helmets over other safety measures in a few key ways.

Helmet use was typically right up front in cities’ bicycling materials, mentioned either first or among the first safety measures.

Admonishments about helmet use were also given special emphasis with exclamation points, italics, or other punctuation, while other safety measures were not. The city of El Paso’s bike page, for example, warns cyclists to “WEAR YOUR HELMET!”

In official visual representations of cyclists, helmets are a given. “There is a prominent helmet orthodoxy presented in these images which ties bicycle helmets to happy, safe, and responsible cycling,” Culver writes. And these images “work to reinforce the unique focus on the bike helmet.”

The tone of helmet-related messages also stood out as especially moralizing, advancing the notion “that helmet use is not a legitimate personal choice, but instead is a moral duty for cyclists.”

In an extreme example, the city of Phoenix used an extraordinarily graphic comic to illustrate the dangers of not wearing a helmet to children. The images show a cyclist’s head split open and brains spilling out on the sidewalk.

Among the 25 cities, only Minneapolis characterized helmet use as a personal choice rather than a moral duty, noting that helmets are not legally required in Minnesota.

Why such emphasis on helmets? Culver says it’s a reflection of the dominant car culture. “The helmet fixation redirects attention away from the overarching problem of vehicular violence, assisting in its denial.”

“It redistributes blame,” he writes. “By constantly reinforcing the need for cyclists to feel responsible for their own safety (akin to the manner in which jaywalking was invented in the early 20th century), this helmet fixation serves to redistribute blame back onto the victim of vehicular violence.”

But Culver did observe some progress in the messages cities put out. He reviewed 20 cities in 2015 and 25 cities in 2017. During those two years, he noticed some cities shift from “more aggressive admonishment and threat of violence to more mild forms of admonishment and suggestion.”

In the 2017 review, Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco all prominently displayed photos that included some bicyclists not wearing helmets. Since some of the photos appeared to have been staged, Culver determined that city officials are not as determined to present helmet use as a moral imperative.

  • CaresAboutHealth

    Discouraging cycling – a low-cost, healthy and environmentally-friendly form of transport – is bad for public health. A recent study found that people who cycled to work had 41% lower death rates overall and had a 46% lower risk of developing heart disease and a 45% lower risk of developing cancer.

    Wearing a seatbelt in a car is nowhere near as inconvenient as wearing a bike helmet – you don’t have to carry it around when you park the car, it doesn’t mess up an expensive hairdo, it doesn’t make you hot and uncomfortable in what would otherwise be considered superb cycling weather and there’s no additional weight to strain the neck or make the head feel heavy.

    There’s a big public health downside to discouraging cycling that more than outweighs any possible safety benefits of helmets. Is the same true of cars and seatbelts?

  • CaresAboutHealth

    The trouble is that helmet laws reduce cycling, and that in the eyes of politicians means there’s no need to build expensive infrastructure!

  • CaresAboutHealth

    You are ignoring the fact that making cyclists feel obliged to wear helmets discourages cycling so politicians are less willing to spend money on cycling infrastructure.

    Even worse, with fewer cyclists to campaign for and help design the infrastructure, what gets built is often more inconvenient and less safe than cycling on the roads, so even more people are discouraged from cycling.

    I’ve seen more examples of inconvenient bike paths (where cyclists have to give way at every intersection so it takes twice as long as cycling on the nearby road and cyclists are exposed to even more car pollution) and dangerous bike lanes (that force cyclists to ride in the car-door-opening-zone, or cross many driveways were cars reverse out without looking for cyclists) than good facilities.

    You seem to be confusing helmet use (where cyclists are allowed to choose whether or not to wear a helmet) with the sort of fixation discussed in paper that discourages cycling by making cyclists feel obliged to wear helmets, or worse still results in helmet laws.

  • Roger Bombardier Jr.

    Knock on wood so far I’ve been very glad to have a helmet during a hand full of off-road crashes. General urban riding, and path riding, I recognize that going without is probably ok. I have worn mine so long it feels natural.

  • John Harshbarger

    Actually it’s been proven in other countries that when you mandate helmets ridership plummets. Countries with high ridership also have low rates of helmet use.

    The united states as a whole may be spread out, but that’s not the case within cities where most utility riding happens. In many major cities the streets also predate the automobile so they in fact could not have been “made for car travel”.

  • John Harshbarger

    No good reason to wear a helmet. Just look at the Netherlands. They have far more people riding and very few wear helmet. Yet the injury rate is vastly lower then the united states.

  • TKeen

    No real harm in wearing a helmet, although on very cold days here in Toronto I’ll wear my thick furry hat instead. I very rarely fall and sometimes falls are of the slow ‘bike starting to slide out from under me’ sort. That being said, protected bike lanes are the best way to go. But Toronto is mired in car culture as deeply as any other North American city so our bike lane system is a patchwork.

  • steveintoronto

    The real question would be forcing everyone in a car to wear a helmet. Guess how far that would go? And yet it would vastly reduce the number of head injuries (if helmets are indeed effective) for road use. Far more than cyclists.

  • tomciviletti

    Because the peril of sitting in an auto surrounded by padding and airbags is similar to that of sitting on a bike surrounded by asphalt, concrete, and steel?

  • Those stats about lower death rates and better heart health are deceiving, I’d say, because the population of bikers selects for healthier people from the get-go.

  • CaresAboutHealth

    The researchers say that “Analyses were adjusted for sex, age, ethnicity, Townsend deprivation index, comorbidities (longstanding illness, diabetes, hypertension, CVD, cancer, and depression), body mass index (coded as categorical variable based on the World Health Organization classification), smoking, dietary intake (alcohol, fruit and vegetable, red meat, oily fish, poultry, and processed meat), time spent walking for pleasure, time spent undertaking strenuous sport, time spent in light and heavy DIY, level of occupational physical activity, and sedentary behaviour.”

    In other words, the benefits were seen in people who didn’t have any longstanding illness, diabetes, hypertension, CVD, cancer, or depression at the start of the study.

    The authors of the study point out that: “The risk reductions associated with active commuting are likely to be related to their contribution to overall daily physical activity, and potentially to cardiorespiratory fitness, for which the associations with lower mortality, CVD incidence, and cancer incidence are well established.”

    As the authors say, the most likely explanation is that regular cycling keeps people healthy.

  • I was going a lot faster than if I had been walking then slipped, and it’s harder to put your arms out to break your fall, so I think that having more protective equipment to protect against the increased kinetic energy while cycling is appropriate.Best road bike helmet

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