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.

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

  1. Medical establishment has been silent on all the deaths,injuries, pollution,NOISE +health problems from DRIVING forever!!

  2. my friend fell from a bike wearing a helmet and is now a paraplegic
    i feel safer without a helmet but then i avoid traffic as much as possible

  3. I think a fixation on helmets is also related to a few other things.

    1. There is a preference for individual action over collective action. Getting a handful of people to go out an buy a helmet seems easier than rethinking our whole approach to transportation.
    2. The helmet thing worked really well with motorcycles, so we should do that again.
    3. Bicycling is seen as a form of fitness and recreation, so the more special gear you can get, the better.

    The article made me wonder what share of bicycle accidents are single vehicle accidents, collisions where the bicycle was at fault, or collisions off of the street. I can’t imagine going mountain biking without a helmet.

  4. Right. The fact that there are plenty of situations where a helmet will not help you does not mean that we ought to ignore the simple falls that become serious only if your head is unprotected but result in no serious injury if you have your helmet on.

  5. Wearing helmets (a really good idea) should not be confused with helmet mandates (a really bad idea). Safetycrats think helmet mandates are a silver bullet, and regulators who buy that argument are less likely to invest in programs that can reduce the risk of a crash occurring in the first place, such as bike lanes, segregated lanes, awareness campaigns, etc. There’s common ground with motorcyclists on this point (perhaps a joint initiative is possible?) http://www.americanmotorcyclist.com/About-The-AMA/voluntary-helmet-use-1

  6. Helmet laws for cyclists are no more a deterrent to riding than seatbelt or car-seat laws are for drivers.

    Well, the evidence from countries that introduced mandatory helmet laws is that they do decrease cycling.

    Seatbelts are an entirely different safety measure, though that is also debatable:

    http://www.john-adams.co.uk/2007/01/04/seat-belt-legislation-and-the-isles-report/

    https://systemicfailure.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/mandatory-helmet-laws-are-like-mandatory-seatbelt-laws/

    http://john-adams.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2006/failure%20of%20seatbelt%20legislation.pdf

  7. The dumbest way to wear a helmet is on the handlbars, Yet I see this all the time. If you’ve got one, strap it on. If not take your chances, because it’s a long way to fall and there’s many ways to go down. There’s a string of personal stories by bicyclists about their head injuries (obviously the ones who aren’t vegetables) at bikehelmet.com (could be wrong about the site name) and the common theme is ‘I woke up in the ER, don’t remember how I fell.’ Very few involved motor vehicle collisions, mostly surface conditions.

  8. Rugby might count. Soccer has plenty of concussions. Statistically motorists should all wear helmets, because vehicle crashes are a leading cause of TBI.

  9. Ferdinand, I’m afraid your anecdote proves absolutely nothing. If you repeat the fall in exactly the same way but without a helmet and then suffered injury, that would be a very small bit of proof, but still nothing compared to studies which have examined millions of cyclists.

  10. About half of all bike crashes are single vehicle. About half of all crashes between a car and a cyclists are recorded by the police as the cyclist being at fault. Per League of American Bicyclist stats.

  11. Helmets are not primarily intended to protect cyclists from autos but instead from falls. If you run a light and get hit by a speeding car your helmet isn’t going to do much.

  12. Your feeling is leading you astray from the real threat. There have been zero cyclists killed by cyclists in NYC in at least a decade. The cars are the real threat.

  13. An excellent article, but if I could add something? Cycle helmets cost peanuts to produce are sold for $100s, and can’t be taken back when they fail, because the manufacturers include a disclaimer saying that they won’t protect in certain circumstances. Basically they are a licence to print money, probably more profitable than drugs, but with absolutely no risk.

  14. There’s a huge difference between blowing a red light without even bothering to look versus slowing down, looking, and stopping if anything is coming. The latter is what most cyclists do. Yes, it’s still technically illegal, but it’s not putting you or anyone else in danger. Same thing with wrong way riding. You can do it dangerously or carefully.

    Is there a reason you don’t want to follow the traffic rules when you’re riding?

    Perhaps because it’s safer for a cyclist to pass red lights and get out in front of the pack of cars before the light turns green? And then you have practical reasons, like stopping and waiting out every red light in NYC will double or triple both your trip time and the amount of energy you use.

    There are fewer good reasons for wrong way riding but in some cases you either avoid a long detour or a dangerous route by riding the wrong way.

    The key here is whether or not cyclists act responsibly when they pass red lights or ride against traffic. No cyclist here condones dangerous behavior but not all illegal behavior is dangerous (and not all legal behavior is safe).

  15. Nobody is suggesting you do away with bicycle helmets altogether. What we should do away with is governments and cycling advocacy groups taking a stance on helmet use. Their position should be neutral, neither pro nor con. And there should be no mandatory helmet laws for any age group. I wonder if our childhood obesity epidemic is caused in part because of child helmet laws? I can say with 100% certainty if I had to wear a helmet while riding back when I was a child, I would have had zero interest in cycling. That would have had life-long repercussions for my health as cycling was the only sport I enjoyed enough to participate in regularly.

  16. There are very few reliable statistics about bicycle safety or lack of. Limited studies, biased police reports, not much interest, zero funding of bicycle and pedestrian improvements, but salmon cycling (riding against the flow) has been identified in those few studies as a high risk for motor vehicle collisions with riders. Drivers are looking for oncoming traffic when turning or entering intersections. Which is why these bi-direction cycle tracks so popular right now, will prove another poorly thought up “bicycle safety” solution, like bike lanes, separate but unequal paths, and maybe even Share the Road,which I coined in 1981.

  17. It’s not a large country, but there are still far more road miles than fietspads (bike paths) and cyclists must share those roads or ride in the ditch. Of course there are cycling injuries including TBI, and some Nederlanders do wear helmets.

  18. Also worth noting is how many people think a helmet saved their life if it cracked. You always hear nonsense like “that would be my skull if I wasn’t wearing a helmet”. This kind of reasoning is wrong on so many levels it isn’t even funny. For starters, a human skull more resembles a coconut than the flimsy plastic shell of a bicycle helmet. Second, bicycle helmets only can absorb impacts if the styrofoam between the head and plastic shell compresses. The styrofoam can only compress if the shell stays intact. When the shell cracks, the styrofoam generally also breaks up. At that point the helmet can no longer do its job. A cracked helmet isn’t a sign that a helmet saved your life. Rather, it’s a sign the helmet failed. If a helmet fails on the first impact, it’s worthless for any subsequent impacts.

    This isn’t even getting into the fact an intact bicycle helmet really only is designed to absorb the energy from a stationary, or near stationary, fall.

  19. Good GAWD. Not sure why I bothered commenting, since y’all are obviously not interested in any other point of view. When I said “accident” I wasn’t referring to a crash involving an automobile… that’s why I used the word “accident” – and yes, they do happen. And the fact that a helmet doesn’t protect you in all situations, or that many people have suffered falls without sustaining a head injury, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be wearing one. Obviously, y’all have never spent any time working with people who have suffered brain injuries – go volunteer at Craig Hospital, it might change your perspective.

    Ultimately, I just think that focusing on helmet laws as the root of all evil is a total straw dog – and I find these posts and arguments really tiring. I’m no fan of cars… I drive under 1000 miles per year, but you can’t make everything into a war of cars vs. bikes (or “motorists” vs. “cyclists” if that makes you happier.) When it comes to promoting bike infrastructure and cycling culture, I personally think we need all of the allies we can get, and when you focus on crazy battles like this one, what you end up doing is alienating a lot of people – and I don’t see how that accomplishes anything.

    Probably time to unsubscribe from this blog now, since y’all are obviously much more interested in perpetuating the culture war than in actually solving problems.

  20. The key though is cycling has a lower rate of TBI than many other common activities for which we wouldn’t even think of asking people to wear a helmet.

  21. Because of the horsepower wars. We’re so obsessed with 0 to 60 times that modern cars have far more power than they need. A larger engine needs a heavier frame to cope with the power. The extra weight of the frame in turn dictates a still larger engine and so forth. If not for this nonsense, a 4-passenger car could weigh a few hundred pounds.

  22. This is an argument for better helmets, with more impact absorption, cooling elements, built in lights, Do you remember leather racing helmets? Are they going to come back like vinyl records? Somehow I doubt it.
    Aerogel might be the right material.

  23. Most of those walking injuries are among frail seniors, most at home or nearby. Maybe they should wear helmets to bed, because getting up to go to the bathroom is a major cause, along with falling in the shower. Make it hard to wash their hair.

  24. Helmet use is a good indicator of how bike-friendly a community is. Adults don’t wear helmets in places where they feel safe riding a bike.

  25. They could be made out of paper mache or like Nerf footballs, except the dogs chasing them would chew them up. Actually lighter vehicles could be encouraged by charging weight fees, more weight does more damage to roads.

  26. It seems to me we would save more lives if we emphasized proper bike handling and defensive cycling instead of wearing helmets. The safest crash is one which never happens. I’ve read tons of these “a helmet saved my life” anecdotes. Just about all of them involved falls even a mildly experienced cyclist would have been able to avoid.

    It gets even more interesting when you look at statistics. The risk of TBI while cycling is about half what it is while walking, and yet nobody would seriously suggest wearing helmets while walking. Note the low TBI includes all those amateur and child cyclists who could have easily avoided falls with better training. If you look at the rates for experienced cyclists only, then cycling is likely 20 or 30 or 50 times safer than walking.

    Maybe you could make a case for a clumsy kid just starting to ride to wear a helmet, but it’s hard to make a case that average kids, and especially adults, need to wear a helmet every time they ride a bike. For utility and regular recreational cycling, helmets just aren’t necessary.

  27. I feel like getting doored and wiping out over poor street lighting are also examples of #4. Especially in the case where you were forced to ride in the door zone. But I’m including the second one because with pedestrians too, “they were wearing dark clothing” yada yada is often used as an excuse when the real issue is a lack of sufficient street lighting. I live in a residential neighborhood where parts of the walk home are DARK and it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing black or pink, it’s too dark for drivers to see people.

  28. Agreed. Even with the new streetlights, in some places trees block them. The only viable answer is for a cyclist to have a very bright headlight. Unfortunately, mine is OK (about 150 lumens) but I really should get something brighter, or perhaps make one myself. I shelved a bike headlight project a few years back for lack of finding a suitable case for the batteries which fit on my handlebars. Maybe I should give it a second look.

  29. This one might fit the bill:

    https://hovding.com/

    I like the concept in that it has none of the drawbacks of regular bike helmets like blocking hearing/vision, or causing overheating, or even aesthetic drawbacks like looking dorky. This is a helmet even a helmet loather like myself might seriously consider as there are zero downsides, and it looks like it offers better protection in real-world crashes.

  30. Funny thing is my mom fell a few times, including once about 5 years ago where she hit her head on the ceramic tile wall in the bathroom, and yet suffered no major injuries. The worst fall was one where she had a cut above her eye. The doctor found no evidence of any concussions afterwards. That said, bike helmets would work really well protecting seniors from falls even if they’re not great for their intended use of protecting cyclists.

  31. I just read through each and every reply. All were respectful, well reasoned and supported. Many are very interested in another point of view. Many pick apart Angie’s writing and others find it right on. That’s kinda how it works…..

    I’m sorry that you find counterpoints so intimidating. Thanks for the work you do, your perspective and please, hang around. There’s some important work happening here.

  32. I for one hope you’ll stick around. The word “helmet” does seem to summon a lot of vitriol, which has always amazed me. Your comments are excellent, and I suspect they are appreciated by readers who don’t themselves wade into posting comments. There’s essentially nothing you can say in defense of helmets that won’t draw a full on flame thread–and it’s not just streetsblog. Take a look at Wirecutter’s helmet review comments.

  33. The medical establishment (I’m one of them) are generally quite ill-informed about the real issues behind cyclist and pedestrian safety. Most docs aren’t trained in public health (I happen to be) and tend to look only at individual, end-user kinds of preventive efforts instead of thinking about structural and population-level issues. Same reason pediatricians talk about car seats, but don’t emphasize that what we should really do is organize our communities and lives to get kids out of cars altogether. The funding structures that determine research priorities–which determines career success–reinforce this. It’s a lot easier to do ANOTHER helmet-education kind of research study than try to do something around changing the built environment–grant reviewers are more familiar with it, it’s easier to grasp, and it’s easier to accomplish on a grant timeline, usually a couple of years (I’m the idiot who attempts it…probably to my demise).

    So yeah, listen to your doc about your blood pressure medication or your flu shot, but put their advice on preventive measures in context.

  34. they may not prevent some injuries like spinal cord and concussion, but still i think wearing them makes sense.

    obviously getting run over by a car isn’t going to be much better because of a helmet.

  35. Thanks for the comments. I assume you agree with me then, and were simply elaborating the basis for it?

  36. Well, I think the fact that the medical establishment has focused on it is probably due in part to the dominant car culture. Not because they have some ulterior motive (though some research funders probably have–a question I’d love to look into sometime), but because that sets the societal and cultural norms in which the research has been conceived and conducted. The medical/research establishment has had a windshield perspective problem itself.

  37. If you intended to convey that the medical establishment was uninformed, your original post failed to do so.

  38. I wasn’t commenting on whether the medical establishment is or is not informed. Rather, I simply mentioned the medical establishment as the source of the “fixation” rather than the culture.

  39. Doctors and other health care providers are certainly a creation of their environment, and they, like everyone else, see the world and its problems through the lens of their own experience. I think that speaks to why the health care community doesn’t advocate for alternatives to auto travel. I’m not convinced that is why they advocate for helmet use. Said another way, I don’t see them ceasing advocacy for helmets even if they begin to advocate for cycling more generally.

  40. Just to be clear, I’m not leaving because someone disagreed with me or offended me. It’s just that the focus of this blog seems to have gotten away from information and advocacy, and taken a decided turn towards “let’s all get outraged together.” Don’t get me wrong, I understand the anger and frustration, I just don’t think that it’s a good way to affect societal change, and it’s certainly not the kind of energy that I want to surround myself with.

    I have NEVER understood how or why riding a bike became part of the culture war, but it certainly has. And while, if forced to pick a side in this battle I would certainly be on yours, ultimately I think the whole us vs. them paradigm is hopelessly flawed and doomed to failure. So continuing to participate in the battle just makes me part of the problem.

  41. Look, I’m not saying that I think everyone should be required to wear a helmet – if you want to win a Darwin award, go for it. But the whole idea that helmet laws are some sort of nefarious plot cooked up by the automobile industry to keep people off of bikes is just bat shit crazy. And IMHO fighting helmet laws as some sort of twisted form of bike advocacy is not only a waste of time, it perpetuates the idea that people on bikes are entitled idiots who view themselves as above the law. It doesn’t help the cause.

  42. I have also been hit twice by wrong-way cyclists. Both times I was on my bike, and both times I was knocked to the ground. (Luckily I was not hurt in either case.) So I agree that this is a problem.

    However, while I absolutely deplore the act of wrong-way riding, your comment of feeling in greater danger from fellow bicyclists than from cars is not sensible. Bad bicyclist behaviour such as this does not amount to a greater danger than that which is created by automobiles operated by incompetents and sociopaths.

    Indeed, we should understand that, even a car operated legally and responsibly poses a far greater danger to bicyclists and pedestrians than an illegally-operated bicycle does.

    When bicyclists break traffic laws, they are typically not endangering anyone. (And again please realise that I say that as someone who has twice been struck by such bicyclists.) The harm that these badly behaving bicyclists are doing is to bicyclists’ interests in general, as they stoke the anger towards cyclists within an already hostile general public, which in turn makes it more difficult to get politicians to back pro-bicycle measures.

  43. The jury is already in on helmet laws. Regardless of the motivation of the people who pass them, the fact is they do discourage ridership. That alone is a good enough reason for bike advocates to oppose mandatory helmet laws.

    I’m not seeing how not wanting to wear a bicycle helmet makes a person an entitled idiot. Statistically, cycling has a lower risk of TBI than a lot of other common activities for which we would never think of asking people to wear helmets. It’s on the basis of this intellectual dishonesty that bicycle advocates fight helmet laws and also the idea that riding without a helmet is somehow asking to win a Darwin award. In all the great cycling countries most people don’t feel any need to wear a helmet. On top of that, studies on bicycle helmet efficacy show that at best helmets are neutral with regards to safety.

    Now if cycling was really dangerous with a much higher risk of TBI than other common activities, and if study after study showed that helmets prevent or mitigate injury , then maybe fighting helmet laws wouldn’t make any sense. However, that’s not the case. Cycling is a low-risk activity and helmets don’t significantly decrease this very low risk.

    A good analogy here would be asking people to wear lightning-proof suits all the time on the chance they might be struck by lightning. It would make no sense given how low the risk of getting struck be lightning is. The risk of TBI while cycling is comparable.

  44. I don’t consider riding a bike either a statement or part of a culture war. It’s just a physical activity. The reason some comments draw ire has to do with the often magical properties assigned to a piece of styrofoam by a small subset of cyclists. Those are the ones who instigate others by insisting that any choice other than to wear a helmet is morally wrong, extremely dangerous, works against the interests of cyclists, and so forth. A helmet is a piece of protective equipment, period, just like knee pads, with a set of inherent limitations. While I respect anyone’s choice to wear a helmet or other protective equipment, I expect the same respect in return for my choice to NOT wear such equipment. Moreover, if a person is going to appeal to others to wear a helmet, then at least justify your appeal with solid science and statistics, not emotion and anecdotes. If the science and statistics don’t support your side of the argument, then perhaps it’s time to rethink whether or not it even makes sense to try to convert people to your side.

    Or put more succinctly, the problem is helmets have become like a religion for some people. When that happens, any contrary viewpoint is viewed as heresy regardless of the facts. That’s really what drives these comments when the subject is bicycle helmets (or to a lesser extent cyclists obeying traffic laws).

  45. Stop with the stupidity.

    If a helmet cracks, it most definitly saved your head. The helmet endured enough of a blow to crack; and that blow could have done something similar to your skull.

    And there is no “first impact” and “subsequent impacts”. We are talking about one blow. Then you throw the cracked helmet away and get a new one.

    The resistance to common sense is enough to make one despair.

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