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Courtesy of Andrew Gook

The Way We Talk About Bike Helmets Is a Problem

When it comes to motor vehicle-bicycle collisions in Colorado, we often start by asking whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet. Safety advocates say that's a troubling form of victim blaming.

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On a July evening last year in Arvada, a young woman stood straddling her bike, waiting for the light to change on Lamar Street at the intersection of the light-rail line just south of Grandview Avenue. Suddenly, she was hit by a driver in a Chevy Tahoe, the wheels of which ran over her leg and broke it severely.

Months later, at the deposition before her trial against the driver, the lawyer hired by the motorist’s insurance company asked whether the woman had been wearing a helmet. Her lawyer, Brad Tucker, questions the relevance of that ask: “She could have been wearing a football helmet. What difference did it make?” he says. “The fact of the matter is her wearing a helmet had absolutely nothing to do with her injury.”

Tucker wasn’t surprised by the inquiry. In fact, it’s something he hears all the time, and not just from lawyers. Journalists and the public at large often inquire about helmet-wearing when it comes to car–bicycle collisions. As Tucker puts it, what they’re essentially asking is: “Is this a safe person? Because if they were safe, they would’ve been wearing a helmet. But if they were some bad, careless bicyclist not wearing a helmet, maybe this really wasn’t the fault of the person driving the car.”

According to bicycle safety advocates, such inquiries amount to victim blaming. Here in Colorado, bike commuting is relatively popular (the state ranks fourth in the nation for highest “bicycle to work share”) and relatively safe (the state ranks 41st in the nation for rate of bicycle fatalities.) But incidents still occur—between 2008 and 2012, Denver alone had 1,325 reported bicycle and motor vehicle crashes—and in the past, local media outlets covering these crashes have sometimes focused on the helmet. Take the Colorado Springs Gazette’s roundup of 2019 outdoor recreational deaths:

November 15 – A bicyclist is hit by a vehicle in Colorado Springs. The injuries led to death. The bicyclist was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident.” 

The bicyclist was Heiko Leach, a 49-year-old resident of Colorado Springs. The day of the collision and in the days following, KKTV11, OutThere Colorado, KRDO, and FOX 21 News all included the fact that Leach was not wearing a helmet in their reporting. Whether Leach’s decision not to wear a helmet contributed to his fatal injuries or not, such rhetoric puts the focus, and consequently the blame, on the bicyclist. “More than individual behavior,” says Maureen McCanna, Bicycle Colorado’s education and safety director, “the focus should be on infrastructure and a system that prioritizes vulnerable road users and separates them from drivers in space and time.”

Studies and anecdotal evidence show that helmets really can save your life or prevent serious injury if you’re involved in a car–bicycle crash. A 2017 study published in Traffic Injury Prevention lays it all out just in the title alone: “Bicycle helmet effectiveness is not overstated.”

But Tucker maintains that too much emphasis on safety equipment can be problematic. “To pin that on someone who was otherwise doing everything right, who became the unfortunate victim of someone else’s negligence offends my sense of justice.” He’s not alone. Fellow attorney Megan Hottman of Golden puts it this way: “There is no state in the entire country that requires anyone over the age of 18 to wear a helmet while bicycling [though some cities do]. So not wearing a helmet is not a violation of any law and it should not be any reason for the motorist to have any less responsibility in causing the collision.”

In fact, wearing a helmet actually puts cyclists in a Catch-22. While donning one could spell the difference between life and death in a collision, it may also increase a cyclist’s chances of getting hit by a car. Some studies show that drivers come much closer to helmet-wearing cyclists, while maintaining a greater distance from their non-helmet-wearing counterparts. In other words, unhelmeted cyclists are typically afforded more space and caution because drivers recognize their apparent vulnerability. 

It’s horribly ironic that something that could protect your head in the event of a crash could create a dynamic where a motorist was not allowing you the same courtesy and safety he would allow an unhelmeted cyclist,” Tucker says. 

Bicycle Colorado helmet debate
Courtesy of Bicycle Colorado

Denver doesn’t currently have a city-mandated helmet law for adults 18 and older, but similar rules are in effect in other major cities. Seattle’s compulsory helmet law, for example, has created more problems than solutions. Some cite it as the reason bike-sharing services have gone virtually extinct in the area. Others say it discourages folks from foregoing a car and hopping on the saddle. And according to reporting from the Guardian, some experts believe that putting the “responsibility for safety in the hands of the cyclists” by requiring them to wear helmets shifts responsibility from motorists and law enforcement to cyclists. “The absence of a helmet often leads to victim blaming by media and the public and this would happen even more frequently with mandatory laws,” says Bicycle Colorado’s Maureen McCanna. (The organization is opposed to such laws.) 

That’s one reason why you don’t see helmet laws in bike-friendly cities like Amsterdam. “Helmets are rarely used in some of the most bike-friendly places in the world because the infrastructure is in place,” says McCanna. In the Netherlands, where upward of 25 percent of citizens opt to get around by bike, drivers know how to share the road, if they have to at all (separated bike lanes and other infrastructure abound). Conversely, in Denver, just 2.1 percent of commuters traveled by bike in 2015 (though this is higher than the U.S. average of 0.6 percent.) Which means that beyond not having the extensive bike lanes that some international cities boast, Denver drivers simply don’t interact as much with cyclists.

This is what people in the industry call the “safety in numbers” theory. Essentially, the idea is that the more cyclists who use a certain road or stop at a certain intersection, the less bicycle–vehicle collisions occur in those spots. The inverse correlation has been found in cities across the globe—a University of Colorado Denver study even observed it in Boulder.

Biking without Helmet, Amsterdam
Bike commuters in Amsterdam. Courtesy of Dovile Ramoskaite

Unfortunately, the reality is that bike infrastructure in Denver—and the legislation to go along with it—isn’t sufficient to accommodate substantially more bike commuters. Mayor Michael Hancock’s Vision Zero Action Plan and his pledge to get 125 miles of bike lanes in place by 2023 are crucial steps toward a safer city. But driver education and more laws—like the recently passed Senate Bill 175, which holds drivers accountable in bike collisions, and the now-pending Senate Bill 62, which would make the failure to yield to anyone in a bike lane a traffic offense—need to match those changes. “Frankly, if we’re going to spend the money to keep adding bike lanes here in the Front Range area, we need to be able to educate drivers on what you do in the presence of a bike lane,” says Hottman.

For Denverites, car-vs.-bike collisions hit close to home. Last July, two cyclist deaths occurred within two weeks of each other. Both involved intersections, arguably declining road infrastructure, and relatively lenient charges to the drivers—if any at all. The family of Scott Hendrickson, who was killed on July 12, has not taken the driver to court, and the driver who struck and killed Alexis Bounds on July 24 pleaded guilty and received 200 hours of community service.

Even in the eyes of bicycle safety advocates, the helmet (essentially 10 ounces of polycarbonate, foam, and a nylon chin strap) is a second defense. According to the experts interviewed for this article, a large piece in the battle to prevent future tragedies may very well be reframing the motorist-vs.-cyclist narrative. Hottman argues that we should avoid using the word “accident,” as bicycle-vs.-vehicle incidents are collisions that can be avoided by more vigilant driving and friendlier roads for all modes of transportation. Tucker suggests humanizing these events, noting that it’s not a car that hits a bicycle, but a driver of a motor vehicle hitting a cyclist. “The way crashes are reported only helps to reinforce this dehumanizing that has developed over time,” he says.

And finally, both lawyers reiterate that whether or not a cyclist was wearing a helmet doesn’t matter. “Rather than focusing on victim blaming for wearing or not wearing a helmet, I think energy would be better served on reminding motorists that every person riding a bike is a person,” Tucker says.

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