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. There is evidence that helmetted cyclists have considerably more collisions than those without, probably because of risk compensation. Would most of the incidents you describe have happened if you hadn’t been wearing a helmet and feeling confident because you were? The thing that keeps us safe is the constant feeling of danger, remove that and accidents increase.

    When I was doing my helmet research, I spoke to my classmates about it, some of whom cycled and wore helmets, and they all asserted that they did not change their behaviour when wearing a helmet, so I challenged them to do their normal daily trip without a helmet. All those who did so (some refused!) reported that they were much more careful without the helmet.

  2. In almost all circumstances riding a bike will be more beneficial than not riding one. The risks are low, similar to walking, but the health benefits are overwhelming, with the recent NICE report saying that it was the silver bullet for modern diseases. A BMA report from thirty years ago found that on average, regular cyclists lived two years longer and suffered less from all forms of illness, and the need for more people to get exercise has become more pressing since then.

    In the middle of an obesity epidemic set to bankrupt health systems, anything which might reduce exercise levels must demonstrate beyond all doubt an overwhelming case, but cycle helmets cannot do so. Therefore their promotion and constant calls for a law must stop as they are significantly damaging public health. And that’s just the direct effects, not including increased pollution, congestion and reduced sustainability.

  3. “Helmet use does not prevent or activel hinder the development of good bike infrastructure.” I have to disagree, but perhaps I’ve been around the block a few more times than you. As a cycle campaigner for something over thirty years, my observation is that the helmet is proposed as a fix for the risks faced by cyclists much more frequently than is infrastructure.

    The very fact that the coverage of the risks of cycling is dominated by helmets is a massive distraction from the methods that actually work, allowing those who don’t want infrastructure to derail any discussion. That this thread has generated so much correspondence perfectly demonstrates that.

    In any sane society, helmets would not even be discussed, and the overwhelming focus would be on making travel by bike safe.

  4. Well, I don’t know if elemenoh is sure, but I am, along with most people who have looked at the evidence. Holland and Denmark have very low helmet use, but cycling there is much safer than in Australia and New Zealand which have had helmet laws for over twenty years. Helmet use rates do seem to correlate negatively with the safety of cyclists.

  5. “2. The helmet thing worked really well with motorcycles, so we should do that again.”

    Actually it didn’t, and there is considerable doubt about motorcycle helmets. In the UK, when the motorcycle helmet law was enacted, the deaths of motorcyclists fell immediately, so the helmet proponents claimed it as a success. One doubter dug a little deeper and found that most of those deaths were prevented between the hours of 2200 and 0200, so unless the helmets became magically effective during those hours, the effect was due to something else. In this case, the something else was drink driving laws and the breathalyser, a far more logical explanation of the effect.

    Coincidentally, the seat belt law was introduced at the same time and the seat belt proponents also claim that the drop in the deaths of motorists was due to that, but the evidence is similarly lacking and disputed.

    The basic problem is that road safety measures, especially laws enacted by politicians, are never rigorously analysed, because so many people have vested interests. If they were, helmets, seat belts, air bags and lots of other safety measures that protect the person causing the problem would feature much less because they are not effective. If you wanted a really safe car, all the safety devices would be removed and a 12″ rusty bayonet would be poking out of the steering wheel.

  6. In the UK, in collisions between cyclists and drivers, the driver is at fault in about 70% of them, with cyclists being at fault in about 20%. Which is what you would expect given the relative risk, and why all the safety features of cars actually put vulnerable road users, pedestrians and cyclists, more at risk.

  7. Joe – Very good post – it amazes me when I read someone say “a helmet has saved me from death 5 times” because my thoughts are that the person should not go anywhere near a bike at all if they have had that many serious falls.

  8. concern trolls about an arbitrary axe to grind; a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. not to mention how wrong you are about police ticketing cyclists while killer cars go on.

    i’m sure you’re a biker in NYC though… lmfao

  9. I saw the same data. While some of the increase in deaths could be attributed to doing more races, the fact is helmets seem to have had no positive effect whatsoever on reducing the number of deaths.

    Yes, unfortunately the pros really have no choice as to whether or not to wear a helmet. However, some have been fighting the helmet rule. My guess is as we study the statistics, eventually the helmet rule will be revoked.

  10. News from Australia….
    After 27 years of mandatory all age bike helmets laws that are such a crap idea that 192 of the World’s 195 countries have not followed Australia has:

    * Near bottom of the World bike safety numbers.
    * Near top of the World obesity numbers.
    * Rider numbers that are so low that Government cannot justify a proper bike infrastructure.

    When the Government listened to Doctors and mandated all age bike helmets most parents took the message to be “cycling is too dangerous” and did not buy helmets but instead stopped buying bikes and drove their kids everywhere – now we have some of the World’s fattest kids and a majority of motorists who never having ridden see bikes as pestilence.
    (and just what Doctors know about road design and management has never been explained)

  11. You make a fair point about getting ahead of the (car) pack before the light turns green, but only because getting ahead is safer and not because stopping for lights adds time to the trip…and I don’t like having to slow down and stop anymore than the next person.

    My point is that we don’t live in a cyclist only society and we all have to obey the rules. If we rightly demand it for cars, we have to be willing to demand it for ourselves.

  12. Yes, these are called speed pedelecs, they support up to 45 km/h – but to reach that speed you have to be in a very good shape. Usually inside the city I make 30–36 km/h (we have also lots of streets with a 30 km/h limit so it is nice to keep up with all the other traffic). Faster is usually not realistic, maybe outside the city on an empty cycle path, downhill of course.
    The pedelec with max 25 km/h are just too slow for me. Support stops at 25 km/h, if you want to go faster you will pedal without any electric assistance and the bike is just too heavy to use without motor assistance.

  13. Some of us value evidence rather than myths, fairy stories and lies; is that a bad thing?

  14. Making cyclists feel obliged to wear helmets reduces ridership which reduces safety in numbers and increases risk compensation. Encouraging cycling in US cities (e.g. New York) has considerably reduced the injury rate per cyclist as well as improved health. For details search for: ‘Bike-share schemes improve safety – helmet laws do not’ BMJ

  15. Given your crash rate (many times worse than I’ve had in 47 years of using a bike as my main means of transport), I’m also glad you wear a helmet! However, that doesn’t mean that other people who enjoy less riskier cycling need to wear one.

    I’ve never, ever come been in a crash were a helmet would have helped, but I’ve been in several crashes and near misses that might not have happened if we didn’t have helmet laws, because having more cyclists on the roads would have encouraged motorists to look out for cyclists and treat them with more respect.

  16. You’re right, it’s not meant to be. Unfortunately, the mandating of helmet use has been (and still is) used as a substitute for better bike infrastructure in Australia

  17. >My point is that we don’t live in a cyclist only society and we all have to obey the rules. If we rightly demand it for cars, we have to be willing to demand it for ourselves.

    You’re right, we don’t live in a cyclist only society.

    I don’t demand anything from cars. Motorists on the other hand, I expect to operate their vehicles safely and within the law. Of course that means I hold myself to the same standards whether I’m driving, cycling, or walking.

    Now that does not mean each mode of transportation has identical laws, and they definitely shouldn’t. In some places cyclists can treat stop signs as yield sings and stop lights as stop signs if safe to do so. These places saw an immediate drop in motor vehicle collisions involving cyclists after implementing this legislation.

  18. A few years ago, I was walking down a quiet but steep street with no cars or bicycles, when I slipped on some wet mud and fell, hitting my head on the pavement curb.

    Luckily, I was still wearing my hockey helmet, which was badly damaged by the fall, though my head luckily wasn’t.

    If I hadn’t been wearing that massive plastic helmet with the transparent visor, I don’t know if I would still be here to write this fake personal anecdote.

  19. “t 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.”

    Yeah, car companies are just innocent people doing their art. They would never plot to make more money by protecting their monopoly on road space.

  20. I think it’s a very simple minded reaction. ER doctors see bicyclists coming in with head injuries. Their reaction is to just say “oh if the patient was wearing a helmet, they wouldn’t have been as badly injured.” But they don’t take this thinking to the next step to say “how could this crash have been prevented in the first place?” That should really be the primary goal/solution.

  21. Unfortunately there’s no real world evidence that bicycle so called
    helmets actually work as advertised. At speeds above around 20km/hr they
    switch over from being nominally protective against scalp in injuries
    due to linear only impacts to potentially causing brain injuries in any
    impact that has a rotational component. WJ Curnow’s paper “Bicycle
    helmets: A scientific evaluation” is an excellent read on this topic. A
    more accurate label for these items would be styrofoam bicycle hats.

  22. You need to better understand the mechanism for brain injury. Diffuse Axonal Injuries (TBIs) are caused by rapidly rotating the brain not by linear bumps to the skull. These styrofoam hats by virtue of their larger diameter can impart greater rotational forces to the brain than would other wise have occurred. They are also have a higher coefficient of friction which may grab as a person slides along say the road surface so yes maybe a bicycle helmet will prevent a bruise or even a minor contusion but they can, and have caused serious brain injuries.

  23. Good article, one short coming and maybe I missed it but there doesn’t seem to be any examination about how ineffective bicycle helmets are. WJ Curnow’s 2008 paper “Bicycle helmets: A scientific evaluation” is an excellent read on the topic. Serious brain injuries are caused by rotational forces not linear ones. Because of their larger diameter, (mostly) irregular shape (aero foiled with large vents) and their higher friction coefficients these styrofoam hat type of helmets can impart greater rotation forces onto the brain than would have occurred in some identical crashes where the rider was helmetless.

  24. You put a lot of faith in the prophylactic properties of bicycle helmets, have you ever read any quality evidence that they in fact work as advertised? The head of neurosurgery at Canada’s leading head trauma hospital says that bicycle helmets “are pretty well useless in attenuating rotational acceleration”. Rotational forces are in fact the cause of brain injury. Bicycle helmets are designed to mitigate, and only in a minor way up to about 20km/hr, linear impacts only. Above that speed they are more likely to cause a brain injury by imparting larger rotational forces than prevent a scalp one.

  25. I’ve been saying that for year with the qualifier that the possible reduction in minor injuries occurs in impacts below approximately 20km/hr (12mph) and the brain injuries start occurring above that speed. If you haven’t read it already WJ Curnow’s 2008 paper titled “Bicycle helmets: A scientific evaluation” is an excellent read.

  26. If they woke up in the ER it’s quite possible that the so called helmet itself sent them there. Brain injuries are caused by rotational forces not linear one. These styrofoam hat types of helmets have zero ability to reduce rotational forces and at higher speed can magnify them. I support my point of view on that opinion based on the claims of one of Canada’s leading neurosurgeons Charles Tator, what evidence do you have to support your claim?

  27. Thanks for reminding me, excellent paper. I’m sure I read it at the time, but a lot of beer has flowed under the bridge since then. And wine.

  28. What Culture War? This is a debate about amygdala driven perception vs hard evidence. The fact is helmets do not work as advertised and even calling them a helmet is a misnomer. Read some of the quality (ie not helmet manufacturer funded) research on the topic you will be surprised at how little protection they provide and how that in every country where their use is widespread the likelihood of brain injury to cyclists is higher.
    Someone one said you’re entitled to your own opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts.

  29. You’re faith in the efficacy of helmets is amygdala driven. If you want to make an informed decision as to whether or not to wear a styrofoam hat while you cycle you could start by reading the evidence gathered on these blogs;

    Like Marilyn Manson said in the film Bowling for Columbine (more or less it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that film), “there is always someone out there trying make you feel afraid so that they can sell you something to eliminate that fear”.

  30. Looking very narrowly at your experiences, the actual cause of brain injury is rotational force, (and not linear force), being transmitted to the head. I ask you how does a bicycle helmet address rotational force?

  31. You can’t be serious.

    My 10 year old car has a 2.2l engine that pushes 153hp, the engine alone has a dry weight of about 330lbs and the car weighs 2,991lbs. Current model Fiat 500’s come standard with a 1.4l engine that pushes 101hp and weighs 2,366lbs. To show how ridiculous the idea that a passenger car could weigh a few hundred pounds the Honda CBR 250R puts out a whopping 23hp and weighs 355lbs.

    There is no way you could make a 4 passenger car weigh a few hundred pounds.

  32. The last official estimate I saw was 0.1%, and having lived here for 1.5 years now, I would say that looks about right even today.
    And like burttthebike said, many people that you see wearing helmets on utility or hybrid bikes in the Netherlands are actually foreigners on holiday (mostly German tourists, and some Belgians). The reason so few Dutch people wear it is because it’s very safe to cycle in the Netherlands, and the vast majority of people do not feel the need to wear one. It’s also not promoted by the government or the leading organizations related to traffic management, etc.

    Contrast this to Denmark, where the government has been very actively promoting them for 10 years now. The Danes officially have a helmet usage rate of 35%. From my first visit to Denmark in 2005, I remember the helmet usage rate back then being about what it is now in the Netherlands (only personal observation of course). It was probably already a bit higher even then (perhaps 2-3%), but not much more.

    Interestingly, many of my Dutch colleagues also ride racing bikes. All of them use helmets when doing so, but none of them wear helmets when riding a utility bicycle to commute, go shopping or do a leisurely ride. None of them feel a helmet is necessary for that. But the attitude on biking without a helmet on a racing bike is overwhelmingly negative. Here, there’s even a separate term for racing cyclists. They care called “wielrenners”, as opposed to cyclists who are called “fietsers.”

  33. So, if I swing a baseball bat squarely at the back of your head, it would not cause brain damage, eh?

  34. So, I wonder how much of this focus (regardless of the form) ends up creating an impression that bicycling is simply dangerous/unsafe in peoples’ minds? Setting aside the head injuries being focused on, it’s not hard to mentally draw a conclusion that some of the injuries shown (scuffs, etc.) wouldn’t be prevented by simply wearing a helmet…

  35. At least with seatbelts, there’s the “hazard to others” point: A bicyclist who comes to a sudden stop not wearing a helmet is no more a missile than if he were wearing one. A driver who comes to a sudden stop not wearing their seatbelt is very much more of a missile than if he were wearing one.

  36. Clearly, cars are not bikes, and seat belts are not helmets. that does not make the analogy false, though. Cars and bikes are both common vehicles. Seat belts and helmets are both safety devices that some find uncomfortable or cumbersome.

  37. In my 60-some years, I have heard many more people complain about wearing seat belts than I have complain about bike helmets. I think this distinction is not an important difference in either the decision to drive a car or ride a bike.

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