Messengers are right about one thing: Helmets don’t prevent accidents. You still need to ride well. And, as any messenger will tell you, riding well isn’t all about following traffic laws. (Even D.C. bike cops admit this.)
It’s about knowing what’s going on around you. Messengers ride fast and furious, taking outrageous risks as they weave in and out of traffic, street to sidewalk, wrong way on a one-way street, backward and airborne, it sometimes seems. But doing so much hard time in the saddle, they do develop a certain sense for what’s happening on the road. They are good—not perfect—at predicting cars’ and pedestrians’ behavior.
And it’s true that their well-honed intuition does a fairly good job at preventing accidents. But helmets aren’t meant to prevent accidents. They’re there to prevent head trauma in case of an accident.
The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says two-thirds of bicyclist deaths are from brain injuries. And while some riders worry that helmets will be useless in a high-speed collision, experts say that most brushes with the pavement do not happen at a very high speed. Helmets are designed to deal with the average impact exceptionally well.
Safety standards apply to all helmets, so you can actually get the cheapest model on the market and be just as safe as if you got the priciest. Good bike shop salespeople around the city will tell you the same thing: Buy a cheap helmet and save your money for a really good lock.
The foam inside bike helmets is designed to be softer than your skull, so it absorbs the impact of a crash. The surrounding plastic shell softens some of the impact as well, and the slick plastic slides over the pavement, keeping your neck from crunching when your head hits the ground. When a helmet works well, it’s in smithereens by the time you open your eyes.
Your brain floats in fluid within your skull, and a major blow will slam it up against your skull. Depending on where you hit it, you’ll mess yourself up in different ways. The frontal lobes control higher functioning activity like judgment and concentration. The temporal lobes control memory, speech, and mobility. The occipital lobes control physical movement. Given the forward momentum of a bike, you’re likely to end up with damage to your frontal lobes in a bike crash.
Thom Parks works for Bell Sports, the company that makes most of the bike helmets out there (the company bought up Giro, its primary competitor, more than a decade ago). He says that the reasons people give for not wearing a helmet might not really be what’s stopping them.
For example, he says kids complain that helmets are dorky. “But we think part of that isn’t how it looks,” he says. “It’s what it conveys: that Mom and Dad are calling the shots.” He says helmet makers need to focus less on the look of helmets and work to make the concept of helmets more hip.
Some helmet manufacturers license images of SpongeBob or Barbie or X Games to appeal to children, and Parks says Bell also reaches out to athletes kids look up to.
The game changes somewhat when you turn to adults, but it’s a similar concept. Parks says that adults talk less about looks and more about helmets being too hot, heavy, or expensive. Parks says it’s important to shop for a helmet that fits your head shape and to adjust it properly. He says the perception of heat is an illusion.
“With any modern helmet, the difference is so minimal you can’t detect a difference in athletes’ core temperature,” he says. “Racers going a hundred, two hundred miles, putting out an incredible amount of energy—they wear helmets.” It’s important to keep athletes cool to keep them efficient, says Parks, so there have been studies that confirm helmets don’t increase body temperature.
(That said, higher-end helmets provide better ventilation. So there’s one reason to spend more money for a fancy one.)
To appeal to adult cyclists, helmets sometimes need to be made less hip, according to Parks. “At the end of the ’80s,” he says, “helmets started to get aerodynamic-looking. They had a long tail; they looked racy. But some people saw themselves as ‘cul-de-sac’ riders. They don’t want to look racy. They don’t want to wear Lycra. They don’t even want to look fast because when they aren’t fast, it doesn’t suit the mental image.”
The image problem of bike helmets is something that obsesses Lauren Mardirosian, who moved to D.C. from Detroit four years ago. In Detroit, says Mardirosian, no one wore a helmet, but once she got her first look at D.C. traffic, she decided she’d better wear one.
As a recent transplant, she liked flirting with people on bikes, figuring they shared at least that one interest. But she “felt dorky with a helmet on.” Instead of just chucking the helmet, though, she set out to change the reason she felt dorky, launching a “Safety is Sexy” campaign. Her trademark sticker, “You’d Look Hotter in a Helmet,” fits perfectly between the vents on helmets. She says she wanted people to look at someone riding with a helmet and say, “Hey that guy’s hot, he’s wearing a helmet—that’s smart.”
She started a blog for the Safety is Sexy campaign to spread the word. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) gave her the first $50 to print the stickers, but she’s spent more than $1,000 of her own money on it. Part of her motivation comes from experience: Her friend’s brother died in a bike accident, she says, and everyone who knew him now vows to never ride without a helmet again.
Mardirosian wouldn’t have to campaign so hard if the city enacted a helmet requirement. Currently, only bicyclists 16 and younger are legally bound to wear a helmet—a law that’s almost never enforced. Police must follow kids home and write the ticket out to their parents.
Nobody seems to want to touch the idea of an adult law, including Eric Gilliland, WABA’s executive director. “Helmets are great at preventing head injuries from crashes,” he says. “We’re in the business of preventing those crashes from happening in the first place.” He says whenever they ask their members what they think of mandatory helmet use, they ignite such wild controversy that WABA’s decided to just stay out of it.
It’s no surprise that the bike couriers agree that there shouldn’t be a law against helmetlessness. “There are problems with how bikes, cars, and pedestrians interact downtown,” says Zalan. “The solution is not a helmet law.” He follows it up with your classic “America’s a free country” line for good measure.