The Calgary Helmet Kerfuffle

You caught me! Normally I always wear a helmet. I’ve got three sweet Nutcases so I can match my outfits.

Mia sporting her fashionable Nutcase helmet in Ithaca, NY

I was in Calgary about to go on a ride with a couple dozen leaders and advocates on a borrowed bike. I had forgotten my black and pink hibiscus-flowered helmet. I turned to Sean, the owner of the really cool urban biking store Bike Bike, but he hadn’t thought to bring one to accompany the elegant step-through frame bike.

The ride leaders and media were waiting. I wasn’t worried about my personal safety, you understand, because we were going to ride slowly on lovely off-street paths in a large group. No real danger here.

I was worried about exactly what ensued.

Hundreds came to my public presentation and dozens attended the staff training. The Mayor and most of the Council joined me for lunch. I was on the radio, tv, and in the papers and blogs. I even made the front page of the Calgary Herald. The advocates, government staff and political leaders were thrilled and enthused. The only problem: in the front page photo, there I am, black skirt, strappy sandals, brown hair flowing, smiling, helmet-free.

Mia riding carefree in Calgary.

Within minutes, dissatisfaction exploded through blogs, tweets, and emails. Here’s one received via the Calgary Herald’s website:

“No helmet, no credibility.”

Sigh.

Rather than focusing on all the opportunities to make Calgary more bike friendly, the issue became my uncovered head.  This is the exact reason I normally always bring my own helmet.

This terrific Momentum Magazine article by my friend Elly Blue explains the range of opinions and issues, from emergency room nurses who see horrible stuff and insist that we need to legislate helmet wearing to Copenhagen’s Mikael Colville-Anderson, who persuasively insists (check out his TEDx speech) that helmets are both stupid and bad for your health.

My own opinion: if you ride for sport or are exposed to fast-moving traffic, then wearing a helmet is generally a good idea. I know many people – including my beloved partner Glen – who credit their helmet with saving their life. But if you’re in Amsterdam or some other world-class cycling city, participating in a car-free event, or riding slowly on an off-road path or neighborhood greenway, the helmet isn’t necessary. This sentiment is well expressed by Portland Planning Commissioner and sustainable transportation advocate Chris Smith in this interesting post from Portland’s fabulous car-free Sunday Parkways event.

It’s logical to me that helmet laws suppress bicycle use and make public bike sharing systems less viable, and the focus on helmets contributes to the overall perception that bicycle riding is a far more dangerous activity than it actually is. (See this article for a more robust discussion of safety.)

On this, I am 100% certain: the focus on helmets is a distraction from what we need to do: create conditions and cultures in which bicycling is so safe, desirable, and easy that helmets are simply a non-issue.

We’re not there yet, obviously.

I’ll try not to forget my helmet again.

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