Ride along any of San Antonio's roadways popular with cycling teams and you'll see groups of riders dressed in brightly colored kits pedaling expensive roads bikes in close formation. Every rider will be wearing a bike helmet.
Ride through a busy inner city neighborhood like Southtown and you'll see casually dressed young people pedaling everything from colorful townies and hip commuters to vintage fixies. Hardly anyone will be wearing a helmet.
Older riders are taking no chances. Many have families and other responsibilities, and most know riders who have been in serious accidents. An experienced cyclist thinks nothing of spending $150 on a helmet with the latest safety technology.
Young riders don't like helmets. Helmets are dorky and uncool. Young riders feel less mortal. They want to experience the wind in their hair. Riding a bike is basic transportation, and for many, a lifestyle statement – about not owning a car, about living and working in a bike-friendly city. Anyway, they're just cruising the neighborhood, not training for a century ride on the open road. Take, for example, the High Heel Bicycle Club.
Jian DeLeon, a staff writer for Complex.com, a website that caters to lifestyle and design-obsessed Millennials, expresses the dilemma well while offering readers The Top 10 Bicycle Helmets for Urban Commuters
"Helmets suck. They mess up your totally cool hairdo, add a little bit of extra weight to your ride, and totally take away the fun of just barreling down the street on your bicycle like you're a kid racing around the cul-de-sac again. But they do have that whole life-saving function, so that's kind of rad."
As DeLeon's Top Ten list shows, helmet makers today are producing headwear for young people who don't want the Tour de France look. Check out some more samples here of alternative helmet styles and you'll get the idea.
In San Antonio, as in most cities, to wear or not to wear a helmet is a choice left up to the individual.
"Dallas is the one city in Texas that requires adults to wear helmets, and they've talked about rescinding that ordinance so they can get a bike share program," said Robin Stallings, the executive director of Bike Texas, the statewide advocacy group for bicycle access, safety and education. "San Antonio was the first city in Texas to launch a bike share program, B-cycle, and then Fort Worth and Houston have followed. Austin is about to get one.
"I think there is a compelling argument on both sides that mandatory helmet laws, especially for adults, don't seem to be more effective to get people to use helmets without depressing cycling," Stallings said. "Obesity is a far worse problem than bike accidents. It's a lot more dangerous to sit in front of a TV all day eating potato chips than it is to cycle without a helmet. We (Bike Texas) don't have a problem with under-16 helmet ordinances at the city level, but with the bike share programs growing out there, you have to choose which way you are going as a city. If you mandate helmets, bike share won't work."
San Antonio's early entry into the bike share movement has paid off with national and international recognition for the city and the program, including this recent article
Julia Murphy, who oversees bicycling programs and policy for the City of San Antonio's Office of Sustainability, is familiar with the divergent views about helmet use.
She – like Stallings – wears a helmet when cycling, but she also knows that mandatory helmet laws suppress urban commuter cycling, a practice currently enjoying a renaissance. That creates a whole different set of negative outcomes, including increased vehicle traffic, reduced public health and fitness, and worse air quality.
“Still,” she says, “we want people to take responsibility for their own safety, and we try to help them out by providing equipment like helmets and bike lights at community events. Our official stance is that a helmet is the single most important piece of equipment for a cyclist. We want protected heads out there.”
"I understand the reason why so many young people don't wear helmets," said Cindi Snell, executive director of San Antonio B-cycle and owner of Bike World cycling stores. "But if that young person were my son or daughter, I'd want them to wear a bike helmet."
The paradox of helmet laws is best explored in a recently published story in Atlantic Cities, "Do Bicycle Helmet Laws Really Make Riders Safer?"
Some anti-helmet riders/bloggers argue that safety concerns are greatly overblown and that cycling without a helmet poses little risk. One of the most widely read anti-helmet advocates is Mikael Colville-Anderson. Check out his Tedx talk, "Why We Shouldn't Bike with a Helmet" and his argument that pro-helmet advocates create a "climate of fear." He and others argue that American society, in particular, has become risk-averse and safety-obsessed.
While the chances of suffering a serious cycling accident are statistically small for any urban rider, the safety data is pretty clear: In the event of a vehicle-bicycle accident, riders wearing helmets are less likely to die or suffer major brain or skull injuries than cyclists who don't use a helmet.
Nearly nine out of 10 people who died in bike accidents in 2009 were not wearing a helmet, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. Interestingly, the majority of those who died were middle-aged men, which shows that young riders aren't the only ones pedaling without protection.
A New York City study that looked at cycling deaths from 1996-2005 showed that 97% of all fatally injured cyclists were not wearing a helmet. While the institute advocates for helmet use, it does appreciate the complexity of the issue and offers undecided riders an interesting range of data under the heading, "Should I Wear a Bike Helmet?"
The institute also aggregates statistical data relating to bicycle safety and accidents from a variety of credible sources that you can read here. Here's one stat that caught my eye: 677 cyclists were killed on U.S. roads in 2011. Nearly one-fourth of them (23%) were drunk.
A recent story in the New York Times , citing a study by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, noted that cyclists, including minors, suffer more head injuries than athletes in any other sport, including football.
Last week, New York launched Citi Bike, its ambitious bike share program with 6,000 bikes available at 300 station. Helmet use is optional. The city has added 350 miles of new bike lanes, an important element in any safe cycling program.
One new product on the market, the Hövding Airbag for cyclists, might catch on as an alternative. More than two million curious cyclists have watched the company's video of urban cyclists wearing the around-the-neck device rather than a traditional helmet. I've yet to hear of anyone in San Antonio who has bought one.
Stallings and other cycling advocates argue that cities have other options, including public education campaigns and infrastructure improvements, that can be far more effective than a helmet law in reducing cycling fatalities. We'll take a look at those options in a separate posting later this week.
Meanwhile, I'll see you on the road. I'll be wearing a helmet, but I understand why you're not wearing one.
Does your helmet fit? If not, it might be of little use in an accident. Check out this helmet fitting guide.