The Great Helmet Debate


 Oh helmets. To wear or not to wear. Ever since getting back on a bike again I have been confused over the pressure to wear helmets in Australia. Compulsory helmet laws prevent a lot of people from taking up bikeling as a means of transport, after all who wants to end at their destination battling helmet hair? Yes, this is more true for females but it's not vanity so much as looking respectable while out in public, something men's short hairstyles allow for but women's do not.

Pic sourced from www.funcage.com

There is plenty of research for and against helmets. But I believe in personal choice especially in a situation where only I am affected by my choice, I am not putting anyone else at risk. 


For me, I never wore a helmet until I recently started commuting to work. Why? Well because I was nervous about commuting and didn't want the extra worry of looking put for police or park rangers on a power-trip. 

However now I am comfortable with my route, and with riding longer distances everyday and can't help question my choices regarding headwear. Previously when riding bare-headed, I have been at the receiving end of yells from cars and pedestrians shouting "Wear a helmet". This is such a bewildering behavior, and is almost a tourette-like, people who would other-wise be minding their own business suddenly scream at you and then continue on with their day. I am sure the same people do not yell at random strangers otherwise and find it quite amusing why helmets bring this out in people.

So I decided I would stop wearing my helmet for my work commute and to see what reactions I would get. It was an interesting experience. I got the normal abuse, and I do believe people are quicker to yell at women on bikes then men. But I realized what a helmet meant to me - a great safety placebo! And most interesting was the reaction of other cyclists. Helmet-less riders are not taken seriously by fluro or Lycra-clad cyclists alike. Never mind if your bike is decked out with lights and you are wearing a reflective sash, it's all about the helmet. Apparently the helmet will give you a veneer of cycling-respectability in Australia.

Here is an example of conversation I recently had with a helmet-clad cyclist while helmet-free:

Her: Hello
Me: Hello
Her: Did you know you should be wearing a helmet?
Me: Yes, I am aware of that.
Her: Oh but did you know it's illegal?
Me: Yes, but I believe in personal choice.

The light goes green and we ride off, her and her partner (also wearing a helmet) followed by my partner and I who are not. We have to merge into traffic as we get through the lights and while we used hand signals to let the cars know our intentions, they did not and just changed lanes. At the next lights I could not resist...

Me: Did you know you should use hand signals?
Her: no response.

So what's more important here? Obeying road rules, using common sense or just relying on the bit of foam strapped onto your head to provide all the protection you need?

The other conclusion I came to while on the receiving end of car-abuse (this happens if you wear a helmet or not in Sydney generally), is that people in cars over-estimate the protection helmets give cyclists and therefore do not give you adequate room on the road. Car drivers want cyclists to wear helmets so they feel better about not leaving a metre or nearly hitting you.

 Cartoon sourced from www.prash.net

So at the end of it all, what conclusion did I come to? Well sometimes I don't mind wearing a helmet and sometimes I do. When I wear my helmet it will not be to make others feel better. To the car drivers who yell out their window - if you are so concerned for my safety you will give me the space I need on the road. To the people who yell and rant at me on the street - you may want to look at your own behavior after all you are screaming at strangers in the street. To the other cyclists - wearing a helmet can be a choice and I will respect your decision so please do like-wise.

Happy bikeling!

Pish Tosh xx


Anonymous said...

very interesting - lots of stuff i never even thought of...thanks!

Peter said...

Its interesting that people dont use hand signals but some light has been thrown on this by the experience of people in Sweden where for a few years helmet salesmen have been working hard to sell helmets there.
The word from the locals has been that the helmetted riders have upped the speed on the bike lanes. This has a familiar sound to it but what no one expected was that the all important hand-signalling is starting to drop away. They say there is much less of it since helmets became more common. Hand-signalling was always a part of the safety regime taught to Swedish kids but somehow the helmet has this effect of causing the rider to not think its so important any more.

Rump said...

Nice article thanks, a very good read!

Edward said...

Great post. I cannot believe that we still have this ridiculous law. I see so many people wobbling around with either ill-fitting helmets or helmets that are clearly over a decade old.

When I choose to exercise helmet freedom, the worse thing is the comments from busy-bodies. Sometimes I plonk the helmet on just to be left alone.

It's all very silly.