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September 26, 2010

Hard-eyed enforcers of empty-minded clichés
Posted by Patrick at 05:40 PM * 128 comments

This New York Times trend piece, “Learning to Share, Thanks to the Web,” is a strained attempt, citing a miscellany of phenomena and enterprises ranging from car-pooling to Share Some Sugar to the existence of the small-but-growing urban bikeshare industry, to tease out some big-think conclusions about a possible increase in American acceptance of a “sharing” ethic. The problem with this is that most of the things discussed are are actually attempts to practically and sensibly address real needs, but the article is so determined to wedge them into a narrative about Sharing versus Individualism, to say nothing of our old friends Ideals versus Reality, that you’d be forgiven if you got the impression that an outfit like Bixi was some kind of hippie co-op dedicated to leaving bikes on the street and chanting om mane padme hum while hoping everyone will just share and be nice.

Bixi is brilliant, at least in Montreal, as far as I can tell from my several uses of it at last year’s Worldcon and this year’s Farthing Party. But it’s not based on hopes for some sort of miraculous change in the normal range of human behavior. The basic deal is this: There are about 5,000 Bixi bicycles electronically locked up at 400 stations scattered around central Montreal. To use one of the bikes, you need an account; these are $78 a year, $28 for 30 days, or $5 for 24 hours. You can pay your five bucks by sliding a credit or debit card into the Bixi station’s electronic terminal. This allows you to check out one bike at a time (you’re given a unique code to punch into the electronic dock) with no further fees so long as you don’t keep any single bike longer than 30 minutes. The bikes themselves are solid step-through three-speeds with upright handlebars, pedal-powered lights, hand-adjustable seatposts, and a hanging basket in front; pretty much anyone who can ride any kind of two-wheeled bike can ride one of these.

The elegant part of the system is the sliding fee structure. If you keep a particular bike for a half hour beyond your free first half hour, you’re charged $1.50; if you keep it for another half hour after that, it’s an additional $3 for a total of $4.50; the next half hour is $6 for a total of $10.50, and you’re charged $6 per additional half hour after that. The point is to deter people from using Bixi as a bike-rental system. (If you want to rent a bike for an afternoon or a day, Bixi’s web page recommends several businesses ready to do business with you.) Bixi is meant as a new piece of urban infrastructure, enabling short bicycle trips from point A to point B—the assumption is that you’ll return your Bixi bike to a station near your destination, and then when you need to go somewhere else, you’ll check out a different bike. Having, as central Montreal does, literally hundreds of Bixi stations, one every two to four blocks (even in residential parts of the center city!), makes this assumption quite practical. The first couple of times I checked out a Bixi bike, I consulted their map in advance in order to locate a station near my destination, but after that I didn’t bother—I just grabbed a bike, figuring that there would be a docking station within sight of where I was going, and in fact there always was. You don’t consult a map of an urban downtown to make sure the road next to the restaurant you’re driving to is paved; you just assume that it is. Likewise for the ubiquity of Bixi stations in central Montreal.

What you’ll notice about all of this is that none of it has anything to do with some kind of transformation of anyone’s attitudes about “sharing.” Bixi isn’t engaged in some kind of attempt at moral uplift, any more than people who form a car pool to save on gas are trying to transform themselves into New Soviet Men. Whether it turns out to be a long-term success or not, Bixi is an attempt to align incentives in such a way so that a few thousand bikes can be used by a few hundred thousand people—not because Sharing Is Good but because the convenience of having bikes available for quick urban errands is good, and because exercise is good and more of us would get more of it if getting it was more fun and less trouble. Also because anything that reduces the number of cars roaring around dense urban centers is good for everybody.

This insistence on peering suspiciously at anything with the word “share” in its business model as if it were something exotic and alien was also evident in an earlier Times article about a bike-share program in a French-speaking city, “French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality”, from October 31, 2009. Here we were informed that “this latest French utopia has met a prosaic reality” because, following the initial rollout of a bike-share program in central Paris, a large number of the bikes were damaged or stolen. Sociologists were quoted, Le Corbusier was invoked, cost overruns were tut-tutted, fun was had by all—who doesn’t enjoy seeing the French taken down a peg, with their loathsome ideas about good food and vacations and health care and stuff. Crazy utopian French people! Of course, not in a million years would it have occurred to that article’s author, its editors, or any of its readers that one could just as accurately write a newspaper article called “American Ideal of Freeway-Sharing Meets Reality” discussing the kooky American idea of spending billions of dollars on vast freeway systems and then allowing people to just drive all over them without paying an extra cent. Typical American hare-brained collectivism! And look, parts of the system are in terrible disrepair! That’s what you get for letting crazy idealistic Americans run anything. They’re like children, really.

Some of this no doubt comes from the success of the right-wing multi-generation project to convince Americans that ours is a history of rugged hyper-individualism only recently polluted by alien “collectivist” mind viruses. (As if we didn’t pursue things like a Federal-level industrial policy in our earliest days as a nation, and as if the industrial accomplishments of the Gilded Age were in fact the work of brilliant Ayn Rand heroes acting free of government involvement.) But I suspect a great deal of it simply comes from the basic mental mediocrity of the average modern journalist. They’re socialized by their classmates and teachers, and later their peers and bosses, to regard themselves as hard-eyed, dispassionate outsiders, viewing trends with skepticism and looking for the worm in the apple. But so many of them have minds so underfurnished that it never occurs to them to question the cookie-cutter dualisms that rush in to fill their empty imaginative space. “Ideal” meets “Reality,” trouble ensues, story writes itself…without ever questioning what gets tagged “reality” and what doesn’t, and why. In the story about the Parisian bike-share program, it’s “reality” when more bikes are stolen and damaged than management planned for at first. But as the reporter is ultimately compelled to admit, the program is now “an established part of Parisian life.” (Here’s a more recent account of it, written for visitors.) Why isn’t this fact also considered part of “reality”?

And that, children, is how ideology does its work in the world, even when nobody involved thinks that what they’re doing is ideological. Or, perhaps, especially when nobody involved imagines such a thing.

Comments on Hard-eyed enforcers of empty-minded clichés:
#1 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 06:47 PM:

Because, after all, children, the world must fit our narrative rather than our narrative actually fitting the world.

So we're told that, say, wind power is some sort of utopian approach to generating electricity that only nutcases would advocate. In the real world, more and more real people are actually using it.

#2 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 06:50 PM:

DC & Arlington have a new Bikeshare organization.

#3 ::: Nightsky ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 08:06 PM:

I have tried the Toulouse and Lyon bikeshare programs, and can enthusiastically attest that they are MADE OF WIN.

It was awesome. I'd just *take* this bike, ride it wherever I pleased, and then I'd just *hand* *it* *back*. No locking up the bike, not a care in the world. Urban bike sharing is a Really Good Idea.

#4 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 08:50 PM:

My old hometown, Fort Collins, has had some kind of stray bike program the last time or two I was there. Sort of a good-hearted, fuzzy-headed thing, as far as I can tell, not entirely un-reminiscent of the "FC Community Carpool" of the 70s that tried to regularize hitching by letting you sign up for a card that you held up.

A system like the one you describe above seems pretty appealing.

#5 ::: Liza ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 10:14 PM:

Minneapolis has a new system very similar to Bixi called NiceRide. Even the bikes and stands look identical to what I saw in Montreal, barring the fact that the NiceRide bikes are lime green.

#6 ::: mjfgates ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 10:33 PM:

The things that would make a bike-sharing program impractical where I live are the hills. Every morning, twenty or thirty people would pick up bikes from the rack up *here*, in the middle of our four-square-block neighborhood, and every afternoon they'd deposit them in a rack down *there*, at the BOTTOM of the cliff. Of course, hiring a truck and driver to haul up thirty bikes a day would still be cheaper and less polluting than driving all those cars up and down.

#7 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: September 26, 2010, 10:44 PM:

Cambridge, Massachusetts used to be the car and bike thefts capital of the Solar System, when I was a college student. LSC showed Love Story one weekend in room 26-100 at MIT and at the the scene where Ali McGraw puts a ten speed expensive for the time bike against a tree and went inside the apartment supposed to be in Cambridge without Kryptonite locking to something extremely difficult to remove, someone yelled, "Yer gonna lose yer bike, kid!"

However, Boston and its inner suburbs have Zipcars, these days.

#8 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 12:03 AM:

London's Tory Mayor recently inaugurated a similar scheme, sponsored by Barclays Bank.

And Google employees have had a bike share scheme for a while now (when I worked there I had my bike 'borrowed' twice because I forgot to lock it, and someone just went off with it).

Designing good rulesets is always hard work.

#9 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 12:26 AM:

I've used free bike programs in Copenhagen and Livermore. Copenhagen uses rather weird bikes - you put a coin worth about 5 euros in the slot to unlock the bike, and you get it back when you lock the bike back on a rack. (And as the guidebooks tell you, if you don't feel like finding a rack to lock it back up, one of the local homeless people will be happy to do that for you, even if you leave it behind a building in the dark for five minutes.) They were a really civilized way to get around the city, if I was going somewhere that trains and streetcars weren't more convenient. The bikes are distinctive enough that they don't get stolen too often, and the parts aren't the right size to reuse in regular bikes.

Livermore Labs doesn't have to worry about bike theft, because their campus has tall fences and armed guards.

#10 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 12:38 AM:

Bill Stewart @ 8:

(Heh, your post came up just as I was previewing my own about the Copenhagen bikes.)

[Copenhagen] bikes are distinctive enough that they don't get stolen too often, and the parts aren't the right size to reuse in regular bikes.

There's a phone number and email address you can use if you spot one of their bikes. I know of one they probably won't bother with recollecting - it had been gifted to a museum on the Isle of Man!

#11 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 01:25 AM:

I am experiencing an unreasonable wish to be in Paris (or Montreal) so I can bicycle around for half an hour. What a sensible system.

#12 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 02:54 AM:

I noticed them in Mpls, Lydy, and heard people talking about how they worked. So they do seem to be working.

#13 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 04:16 AM:

In Brussels, where the Villo! service is just taking off, they're offering the 2010 annual subscription for free (usual cost: 30€) to get people to use them. I love it. The bikes are heavy and clunky and awesome anyway, and in a city where the metro and bus systems come to a halt round midnight (and the late-night bus service runs only on Friday and Saturday evenings), they've saved me a long walk or expensive cab ride many a time.

We've got 180 stations in Brussels; Paris has the biggest network, with some 20,000 bikes in 1,200 stations as of March 2010.

Many of these bike-sharing schemes are operated by Cyclocity. There are apparently plans to launch one in Chicago.

#14 ::: Eimear Ní Mhéalóid ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 04:52 AM:

Dublin has a small scale version of this, in the city centre, which has been hugely successful.

Before it launched there was widespread expectation that massive vandalism and abuse would wreck the system but the designers of the system learned from some of the teething problems in Paris and elsewhere.

The costs are much lower than the London version recently unveiled - most users don't spend any more than the annual €10 as there is no daily charge once each trip is less than 30 mins.

#15 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 05:01 AM:

Kevin Marks @ 8: Yes, much though I hate to allow that the clown has done anything useful, the cycle hire scheme for London is a good idea. To be really useful for commuters there would have to be many more bicycles and many more docking stations (e.g. near major rail stations), but they are being used. Meanwhile Brompton, Dahon and other makers of folding bikes are not going to be short of customers for a while yet.

Of course, there's already been at least one challenge from a Mayfair resident claiming that having a docking station in his road would create "increased noise, disturbance and traffic congestion". And grumbling about the sponsorship aspect.

#16 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 05:14 AM:

I wish! I've been in a couple cities where folks tried to establish the Uniform Neon Paint Job on Public Bikes thingy, on the principle that you should use them to get where you're going, and leave them for the next person. But I never understood how that model was supposed to help you once you were carefully stranded five miles out of your way and somebody else had made off with the Useful Public Bike that got you there (the solution of always carrying a bike lock, just in case you happened across a public bike and took it five miles out of your way, always struck me as a bit... strange). Also, for some reason, those projects always start with, say, five or ten bikes, for a city of at least 75,000.

The other models all sound infinitely more practical, somehow.

#17 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 07:20 AM:

mjfgates, #6: As it happens, much of central Montreal is on a slope, too, but the bikes don't seem to all wind up downslope at the end of the day.

#18 ::: Q. Pheevr ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 07:37 AM:

In the same spirit as Patrick's excellent freeway analogy, I would remind the Times that the ideal of private bicycle ownership also meets the reality of theft and vandalism with some regularity. (As does the ideal of private car ownership, for that matter.)

#19 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 08:13 AM:

Bixi isn’t engaged in some kind of attempt at moral uplift, any more than people who form a car pool to save on gas are trying to transform themselves into New Soviet Men.

"This looks like a job for Bicyclerepairman!"

#20 ::: Nightsky ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 08:16 AM:

KayTey@16: "Also, for some reason, those projects always start with, say, five or ten bikes, for a city of at least 75,000. "

Yes, the key to success (or one of them) is to have a metric crapload of bikes. In Toulouse's downtown, I occasionally went to get a bike only to find the bike point empty--but that was OK, the next one was never more than a block or two away.

#21 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 09:26 AM:

The Bixi people have trucks and redistribute the bikes uphill as needed.

(Or downhill, if needed, but it always seems to be uphill that I see them going.)

Bixi is thriving here, and spreading out in all directions. They're also making money.

#22 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 10:57 AM:

I don't really like the idea of the punitive rates for longer rentals, because it would make me feel like I was riding a time-bomb and I had to pay attention to how long I'd had it. However, if I were making single journeys between known racks, that wouldn't be an issue, so maybe if they grow a bit here.

Also bicycles are viable only a few months of the year here; schemes like this will always be recreational rather than transportation in Minnesota.

#23 ::: twif ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 12:00 PM:

so, bixi is basically zipcar for bikes?

#24 ::: Alan Braggins ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 12:50 PM:

> Cambridge, Massachusetts used to be the car and bike thefts capital of the Solar System

I suspect Cambridge, Cambridgeshire is worse for bike thefts per head of population. On the bright side, that's partly because we have a higher proportion of cyclists than anywhere else in the UK.

(We had a free bike scheme back in 1993, which was a dismal failure, but nothing like the newer schemes. )

Incidentally, every reaction I've seen to the "Boris bikes" in London has been at least partly positive, except about the choice of sponsor:

#25 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 01:29 PM:

Cycling home this evening, I was thinking about how such a scheme would never work in Amsterdam. I gather there was one before, but half the bikes ended up in canals. But that's not the reason I have my doubts.

It's just that those bike racks are nice, stationary objects. Just the kind of thing a person might want to, well, lock a bike to.

Bet they'd be buried under the accretions of granny bikes that grow on every fixed object in Amsterdam, much like barnacles.

#26 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 01:58 PM:

Kneejerk crankiness here: I need a bike with 24" wheels. I don't know, maybe I could get used to 26", but trying one out was no fun.

Do any of those bikeshare systems have bicycles in sizes?

#27 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 02:07 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz@26: The one in Minneapolis (Nice Ride) is using bikes that look rather small to me, with a long seat-post that's easily user-adjustable (but non-removable). So it looks like they've thought about the issues some. Whether they'd fit you (or me) I don't know. (The "me" part I imagine I'll find out at some point.)

I see in the MPR article that the Minneapolis program is actually shutting down 5 months of the year, no bicycles available in the racks during that period. Mid November seems fair enough, but some years we're ready for bicycles well before mid April; other years not so much.

#28 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 02:31 PM:

I like that there's enough bikes to make one-way point-to-point rides feasible. (The car-share programs I'm familiar with don't allow this; you have to return the car to the same place you picked it up.)

I wonder how helmets tend to fit into these systems, if they do. Is there one that comes with the bike? Do people bring their own? Or do people just tend not to wear them on these bikes? (I realize that in places like the Netherlands, most riders don't wear helmets to begin with, but there's more of a helmet custom in other places such as North America).

#29 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 02:38 PM:

Helmets don't come with the bikes in the Minneapolis (Nice Ride) system, and most of the people I've seen riding them aren't wearing helmets.

#30 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 02:52 PM:

Nancy Lebovitz @ 26: I hear you. I don't mind what size the wheels are, personally, but had a lot of trouble (ive feet two inches tall) with the hire bikes on Vlieland being too large (seat too high) - I do like to be able to put the tip of my toe, at least, on the ground when I stop, paricularly when rising with breakables in my backpack.

#31 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 04:44 PM:

Patrick, apropos #17 -- while in Montreal I saw a pick-up with a big trailer full of about 20-30 bikes pull up to re-provision one pay station. So I assume that's part of the system.

#32 ::: Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 05:21 PM:

John Mark Ockerbloom #28:

I wonder how helmets tend to fit into these systems, if they do.

Compulsory helmet laws are being blamed for slow uptake of the Melbourne bike system.

#33 ::: Rob Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 06:54 PM:

Charlie@31: That's the way it works here in London, too. I often see bikes being trucked between docking stations.

#34 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 07:04 PM:

Yes, Charlie #31 and Rob #33 - the Google bikes scheme also involves them redistributing bikes by van at the end of the day too...

#35 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 08:53 PM:

18: I would remind the Times that the ideal of private bicycle ownership also meets the reality of theft and vandalism with some regularity. (As does the ideal of private car ownership, for that matter.)

To wit: My Dad's truck just had its wheels stolen right off their rims. It's sort of sad and hilarious. He woke up, came outside, and there it was on bricks.

Ideal of property, meet reality of profitable naughtiness.

OP: Typical American hare-brained collectivism! And look, parts of the system are in terrible disrepair!

It's a lamentably common tragedy.

*runs away*

#36 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 09:58 PM:

The barbed wire (or are they using razor wire these days?) strands decorating the fence tops are also deterrents.
But, as you say, the armed guards.... (My father used to annoy them by growing a beard while on vacation, keeping it a couple of years, then shaving it off, requiring a new photo each time.)

#37 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 11:29 PM:

Nightsky @20: Yes, the key to success (or one of them) is to have a metric crapload of bikes.

Ah, well, there's why it won't work here in the US.

#38 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 11:34 PM:

Because people insist on using customary measures instead of metric?

#39 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 11:44 PM:

here in Denver, we got a downtown bike-sharing program this year.

The Republican candidate for governor, one Dan Maes, believes this is part of the sly UN infiltration of the US. Black helicopters aren't far behind, in his telling of the story. I'm not making this up, unfortunately.

#40 ::: individualfrog ::: (view all by) ::: September 27, 2010, 11:48 PM:

#25 is blowing my mind. People lock their bikes to things in Amsterdam? In Japan people just lock the wheels so you can't turn them. Yes, you could just pick them up and run away with them, but no earthly reason why you would; they're like sixty dollars brand new. (Bikes do get stolen when their wheels aren't locked late at night, by drunk and/or tired people who want a quick ride home.)

I can't imagine how people could lock their bikes to things, especially near a busy train station--there just aren't enough things to lock them to. I always assumed it was like that in bike-friendly European cities too.

#41 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 12:33 AM:

Helmets are probably why there's no such scheme locally. State law here requires that all cyclists wear approved helmets, and the cops do enforce it.

It would appear that the thinking is that the head injuries this prevents justifies this additional barrier to more use of bikes.

#42 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 01:07 AM:

individualfrog @40:

Given the choice, yes, people in Amsterdam* lock their bikes to things. It's not just that anything decent is over €100 to replace. It's also the blooming nuisance of being wherever you are without your bike.

I can't imagine how people could lock their bikes to things, especially near a busy train station--there just aren't enough things to lock them to.

Well, people are very inventive. For instance, along the road behind the train station, the cars are divided from the bike path by concrete blocks connected by little bits of rebar. As you can see to the left of this picture that little piece of rebar can hold the chains for two or three bikes.

* In smaller places, like my village, we don't tend to. We do try to remember to lock the ring lock, but kids and people in a rush sometimes forget.

#43 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 01:38 AM:

Really? That's cool! I had assumed the Denver B-Cycle bikes were straight-up rentals--Much less expensive than their Chicago counterparts, too...

#44 ::: Q. Pheevr ::: (view all by) ::: September 28, 2010, 01:05 PM:

individualfrog @40: Just in case this wasn't already clear from Abi's response, it is unwise to stand too still for too long in the immediate vicinity of a Dutch railway station.

#45 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2010, 05:03 PM:

Dave Luckett @ 41

I seem to remember reading a few things on bicycling blogs a while back suggesting that helmet use made cycling more dangerous rather than less. (I think that one claim that was made was that car drivers behaved worse around helmetted cycsists than unhelmetted ones).

Not being much of a cyclist, I didn't follow the argument closely, and I haven't kept a look out for follow-up studies.

Do any of the cyclists here know more about this? Because if it's right, it sounds like the Australian policy is doubly counter-productive.

#46 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2010, 05:08 PM:

Oh please. I've heard the same claim about seat belts and anti-lock brakes.

I'd be AMAZED if motorists change their behavior on the basis of what a bicyclist is wearing, considering how many of them fail to note the presence of a bicyclist in the first place.

#47 ::: Lexica ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2010, 06:24 PM:

Lila @ 46: Before you brush it off so dismissively, you might want to look into the research. One Cambridge researcher found that drivers passed 8.5cm closer on average if he was wearing a bike helmet than they did when he wasn't.

Overall, the evidence for helmet safety is not conclusive one way or the other.

#48 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2010, 08:07 PM:

Actually, I have seen Dr. Walker's research, and it didn't impress me.
One bike rider, in one city?

Here's what would make me sit up and take notice: analysis of (1) what percentage of bike riders wear helmets, in a variety of different locations; (2) what percentage of bike riders INVOLVED IN ACCIDENTS were wearing helmets, in those same locations; (3) severity of injuries to bikers involved in accidents, in those same locations, helmet-wearing vs. non-helmet-wearing.

In addition to Dr. Walker's I've also seen research saying, e.g., "In places like Amsterdam where hardly anyone wears a helmet, fewer bicyclists get hurt" without taking into account whether, for example, those riders are in dedicated bike lanes separated from car traffic by a parking lane. Or upright vs. racing position of rider. Or any of a thousand other factors.

I don't claim there is conclusive evidence either way; I seriously doubt anyone has done adequate research on the matter. But having seen these kinds of arguments used in a case where they turned out to be specious (seat belts), I'm inclined to be skeptical when I see them used here.

#49 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2010, 09:28 PM:

Yeah, no. Did the seizure thing. I might get TBI even with a helmet in place, but the risks without a helmet are a lot higher. One study that shows cars "pass slightly closer by" does not, to me, outweigh the numerous studies showing better survival rates and long term outcomes when your head is protected by an appropriately designed helmet for the activity in question.

As someone who did a header into the dashboard of a car despite the protective child safety seat (which failed) and despite the fact that the two drivers actually managed to avoid an actual collision, I have to say -- being hit is not my primary concern. Surviving with minimal impairment very much is. Helmets are repeatedly proven to improve survival and outcomes. It seems like a really obvious choice, to me.

#50 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 29, 2010, 11:06 PM:

You don't have to be hit by a car to take a header off your bike -- and if you do, your chances of surviving relatively unscathed are significantly higher if you wear a helmet.

#51 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 12:33 AM:

Helmet laws can increase cyclist fatalities. The reason, if anyone is interested, is complicated and indirect. It goes something like this.

The safest thing to have with you when you cycle is a large population of other cyclists.

Car impacts are a huge proportion of cycling injuries in most places—much more than falling off, and with much more serious injuries—and a large proportion of car impact injuries are not susceptible to helmet damage reduction (broken legs, etc). A population of cyclists increases driver awareness, increases the probability that the traffic laws† and traffic architecture will be bike-friendly, and increases the probability that drivers will also be cyclists.

Helmet laws do two things that cut against that:

1. They make it more difficult to cycle. You have to have one with you, it has to fit, your hair has to fit under it, you get helmet hair at the other end...these are of course trivial in proportion to not getting injured, but collectively, they put off a lot of people who would otherwise cycle.

2. Helmet campaigns‡ are generally fear campaigns, and increase the perception that cycling is a dangerous activity. This is a twofer: not only does it put adults off of cycling, but it means they won't let their kids do it either. Which means the next generation sees cycling as dangerous and/or recreational only, rather than everyday and practical.

This, in the big sweep, runs to the same kinds of mental and mathematical models as immunization*. Individual people take risks (immune reaction, cycling without a helmet) as part of the process of creating a larger population that is, on the whole, safer (herd immunity, Dutch or Copenhagen-style cycling cultures). It's counter-intuitive on the individual level, but it's what works in populations as a whole.

I don't expect to persuade the people who are already quite emotional about this topic. This brings out a lot of anger on both sides. Please make allowances for temper, your own as well as others' when discussing this.

(Personally? I do not support the existence of helmet laws, because of the above, particularly point 2. But I do wear a helmet as a matter of course when I cycle in the US. I didn't cycle when I lived in Edinburgh, because the behavior of the cars made it too dangerous. In the Netherlands, I cycle without a helmet. Each of those decisions correlates to what kind of a cyclist population I'll be "wearing" when I go on the roads.)

† Trust me that hitting and killing a cyclist in the Netherlands is not just written off as the cyclist's fault the way it appears to be in the US.
‡ as well as other bike-safety campaigns aimed at cyclists rather than drivers. We've had this discussion before on Making Light
* but without the mandatory element, by which I mean that everyone has a body and gets diseases. There is no third option: helmet/no helmet/don't bike vs don't immunize/immunize.

#52 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 12:48 AM:

Abi, I agree with you. I rode my bicycle a lot as a means to go places (like the Crown Drugstore that carried a whole range of SF books, that changed once a week when the distributor came), get to school, etc. until I was old enough to drive.

i never, ever wore a helmet. and if I started bicycling now*, I'd regard it as a visibility nuisance, making it hard to turn my head, etc.

The few spills I had tore up my knee skin and elbow skin and were mostly in the aftermath of the oiling and re-gravelling surfacing of suburban streets... lots of loose gravel topping.

And I do think that, plus riding horses from the age of seven or so, made me a better driver. I am very intolerant of distraction and aware of accident potential from looking ahead, something working with horses teaches one.

* trying to bicycle in Kansas City at this point would just get me killed. I'm not young and fast, AND people don't get prosecuted here for running over bicyclists. Period. Even if witnesses say they saw the car aiming.

#53 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 02:25 AM:

I'm mixed on bicycle helmets (and adamant on motorcycle helmets).

At the one end, I don't feel safe without one anymore, much as with seat belts. At the other, I rode without one for ages. I took a number of hard falls. I got some concussions. In my cycling environment, to be absent a helmet is a risk I am not willing to take.

But I also know that the average cyclist isn't travelling fast enough for impact with the (flat) ground to be a really serious risk for a normal (i.e. "low side") fall.

So, I think an adult can make the decision to wear, or not wear.

#54 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 03:01 AM:

Terry @ 53

I've been tracking the studies they've been doing on football players, returning military vets, etc. The long-term effects of accumulated damage from even mild concussions look pretty grim. The definition of "serious risk" is definitely moving in a more conservative direction.

#55 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 04:30 AM:

I've had (pauses to count) five serious falls since cycling became my main form of transportation three-plus years ago. Two were caused by icy surfaces, one was a collision with another cyclist, one was caused by wet leaves, and one was caused by cycling on too little sleep (failed an offside dismount at speed).

One of the ice slips (the most avoidable of them, my first winter cycling) ended up with me hitting my head on the ground. Apart from that, it's been three losses of skin on the right knee and one on the left.

That's a really high fall count for a cyclist on the Dutch roads. I'm less and less prone to falling as I become a better cyclist. (I was an excellent cyclist for an American when I cam here. I am now a fairly decent Dutch cyclist. It's amazing how much practice can improve one's skills.)

Anecdata, I know, but my cycling environment (relatively slow speeds, upright position, high population of cyclists, relatively few icy days per year) means that the chances of falling so as to incur a head injury are quite low. And all but one of these things (climate) can be created in another place. I think that more cycling would be a good thing for people and for the environment, so I'd like to see that happen.

But it won't if we continue to treat cycling as a dangerous, optional, marginal activity and use fear to influence cyclists' behavior.

Thus am I pro-helmet where they're appropriate (and I take a broad view of when they are), but against helmet laws.

#56 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 05:23 AM:

me @55:

I see, on reread, that there's one thing I didn't tease out specifically enough.

The other thing that is important for cyclist safety (as well as a sufficiently large herd of other cyclists) is skill. Judgement, and the mechanical, physical skills of controlling one's vehicle at different speeds and in different contexts, make a material difference to one's own safety and the safety of others.

One acquires skill through practice. So getting more people on their bikes doesn't just make them safer in the short term, it keeps making them even safer as time goes by.

#57 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 08:56 AM:

Cycle helmets: I've thought about this a lot, and I have eventually agreed with abi @ 55 that, due to various social factors, making cycle helmets compulsory is counter-productive. That is, in statistical terms, the risk reduction from removing a percieved barrier to cycling (helmets) and thereby getting more cyclists on the road, with the resultant changes in behaviour of car drivers etc., is greater that the risk increase from not wearing a helmet.

That said, having read the studies, I consider it safer to wear a helmet than not, and as a cyclist who has had only three falls-to-the-ground* in more than 20 years of frequent cycling in the UK (Manchester, Cambridge and Greater London, including Central London), personally I wouldn't feel happy, nowadays, cycling without a helmet on these roads. On Vlieland, however, a couple of weeks ago, I cycled helmetless for several days quite happily - context again.

*Hitting ice going into a side strees (and very glad I'd let the car behind turn first); sideswiped by another cyclist in Cambridge, and a pedestrian stepping out in front of me in central London. I've had a couple of heart-thudding near misses with cars (e.g. a car going through a red light), but remained upright.

#58 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 10:17 AM:

It's not just cars, but speed, that seems to play a big role in the severity of cycle accidents. (Neither of my two bad falls-to-the-ground, the first of which converted me to helmet use, were occasioned by collisions, but both occurred when I was going fairly fast.)

I've heard from somewhere that everyday cycling in places like the Netherlands tends to be at a significantly slower speed than the pace of many US adult cyclists-- partly because of the prevalence of single-gear, wider-tire bikes, and partly because the pace of large groups of cyclists tends to be more leisurely than the pace of solo or small groups of cyclists trying to blend in with auto traffic.

I don't know if what I've heard is entirely accurate; Abi's description of her ride from a year ago implies a somewhat brisk pace. I'd love to hear the real scoop from her or others in similar areas. But I could easily see cycling pace making a big difference in the advisability of helmet use.

#59 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 10:44 AM:

A bicycle (well, three different bicycles) was my primary form of transportation for the first 22 years of my life. This was in Northfield, a fairly small (about 10k then) college town, which didn't at the time have a traffic light (there are several now). Lots of people around me, including adults, used their cycles as transportation. And helmets didn't exist.

In those 22 years I never heard of anybody having a head injury of any seriousness while cycling. So I have no real emotional belief in the need for bicycle helmets. In my own cycling, I never went off over the handle-bars, and only very very rarely fell over (after the first week without training wheels).

On the other hand, my father had a serious head injury while cycling wearing a helmet many years later. He was unconscious for about a week. (We don't know what happened; perhaps he had a minor stroke or major vertigo event? There's no indication a vehicle was involved.) Pretty clearly, without the helmet, that would have been terminal.

My rational conclusion is that I should wear a helmet when cycling now. (Also that I should have gotten the bike tuned up and ready to ride this summer, and ridden it. Probably too late now to be worth it.)

The helmets I'm familiar with don't impede head-turning, and don't impede vision if you're in an upright position (if you're riding racing-style, they probably do impede vision some, at least some models). They're light, and have quite good air-flow. And, luckily, my hair doesn't end up any more messed from a helmet than it does from the wind anyway.

The concept of five falls in 3 years makes me think cycling may be too dangerous for me, though. That's more actual falls than I had after getting my 3-speed (not sure I'd remember falls in the initial learning stages, since none were serious) (so that's 10+ years of regular cycling).

#60 ::: Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 10:49 AM:

I agree with dcb: there's no contradiction between saying that helmets make you safer and helmet laws can make you less safe.

The evidence that helmets reduce severe injury is pretty good -- there is a possible confounding effect if helmets make you more likely to have a minor accident, but that effect would have to be unreasonably huge to explain the associations. I can't believe that I'm three times more likely to have an accident when wearing a helmet, even after wearing one for years (Abi's skill point applies here too), which is about what it would take.

Now, the benefits of helmets are obviously smaller in places where cycling is safer, such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen, and it didn't worry me not to wear a helmet in Amsterdam. In Melbourne, where I mentioned the bike scheme being made less effective by helmet laws, it would worry me to cycle without a helmet.

The other issue about helmet laws is that while imposing them on a community where everyone already cycles will reduce cycling and harm safety, removing them from a community where people don't cycle may well not do any good. To end up with large fleets of competent cyclists you also need bike paths, reeducation of drivers, etc. Removing helmet laws probably would decrease safety in the short term.

#61 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 11:25 AM:

ddb @59:
The concept of five falls in 3 years makes me think cycling may be too dangerous for me, though.

1. I'm a klutz. Not everyone is.

2. Look at it in terms of distance and it comes out a little different. Five falls in about 5,000 miles' riding is one fall per thousand miles; furthermore, three of them were in autumn or winter. If you're wishing you rode your bike more this summer, and not riding it in the winter, you can average a fall per thousand miles without worrying that much.

#62 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 11:35 AM:

"There are lies, damned lies and statistics."
- Mark Twain

#63 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 11:48 AM:

It's true I hardly ever rode in the winter, even when the alternative was walking; I walked instead (wind chill, and not having the breeze go UP my coat, and slippery icy rutted roads).

I may have been up around 5 miles a day the parts of the year I road, though; I can pin down that much some of the time, and I know I got around beyond my basic daily scheduled locations. So 1000 miles a year is quite possible.

#64 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 11:57 AM:

abi, #55: There's an interesting parallel here between safety from cars while riding a bike and safety from rape while being female. In each case, you see the primary onus of responsibility being put on the people who have the least amount of control over the results, and the invocation of fear-based tactics to do so.

#65 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 12:05 PM:

I don't think I'll indulge in bike riding until automatic balancing becomes an affordable feature. I'd rather have a super-powered exoskeleton anyway.

#66 ::: Kelly McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 12:59 PM:

I'm not entirely sold on helmet laws for bicycles either, though I'm totally sold on wearing a helmet myself. I have at least four friends that were saved more serious harm by helmets and just last week on of the students at my wife's university died from a bicycle head injury--a helmet would very likely have saved his life.

#67 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 02:07 PM:

I've been regularly riding a bike in Manhattan and B'kly & Queens, including weekday commutes to work on non-rain days, for a few months now.

In my experience, the biggest risk factors have come not from cars but from the two cohorts to which I belong: pedestrians and bike-riders. Drivers of cars seem to be pretty aware of me & mine, though there certain dangerous exceptions, and there are those who see the wonderful Greenway bike lanes as green-painted parking strips. And there is always the danger of being doored by inattentive drivers and passengers.

In this city the vast majority of street bike lanes are one-way. I can't tell you the number of times I've had to (in addition to frantically ringing my bell) yell *loudly* to an inattentive biker going the wrong way, heading right toward me. When they finally notice they are about to cream me in a head-on, they blink and coolly drift their bike out of my right-of-way.

Pedestrians on cell phones, or joggers wearing ear-buds... these are my next biggest terror-inducing street-level encounters.

At least I no longer yell obscenities at these people as they cause me to swerve into traffic or otherwise scramble to save my hide. I figure foul language is no way to improve the situation. Now I repeatedly call out, increasing the gain each time, "Careful!" or "Bike!" or when they notice me and the commotion I am making and step out of my way just in time: "Thank you!"

These days, I slow down in the expectation that if *I* am not careful of what these inattentive people will do, I will be as responsible as they are for my untimely death.

I think of inattentive pedestrians and rule-breaking bike-riders as SPGPs, which stands for Specially Protected Golden People. It seems that when ply the sidewalks of this city, or especially when they climb onto their bikes, they don a cloak of invulnerability. "There is no need for me to pay attention... I am a Specially Protected Golden Person..."

Apparently in the minds of some bike-riders, bicycles are not Moving Vehicles... they are Magic Carpets soaring high above the mundane dangers of traffic. I admit mine feels like that... but at the same time I try never to forget that my bike is also, in legal fact as well as physical reality, a Moving Vehicle. In traffic. And as its "driver", I have serious responsibilities to the people who share with me the roads and intersections of this place.

I don't know about helmet *laws*, but I do think of bike-riders who don't wear helmets as SPGPs as well. That is simply my opinion. I automatically assume, perhaps unfairly, they are thinking far more Magic Carpet and nowhere near enough Moving Vehicle for my taste.

Yeah, as a regular bike-rider in this city, I do have Views on people who don't pay attention to what they are doing. But only because they could kill me.

#68 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 06:00 PM:

I've had two vehicle bicycle collisions. I was very lucky both times. Very slightly different time in either, and I would probably have been crippled.

I've had a couple of concussions, from solo-falls.

The worst accident I know of was actually my father. A helmet (my sister was wearing his, hers having been misplaced) would have made his total number of injuries less, and he'd not have been as likely to lose much of his sense of smell, and perhaps not the aphasia and other related issues of the TBI.

He hit a mailbox (distracted by idiot driver), and smashed his head, ruptured his spleen and I forget what all else. It was a helicopter medevac.

Bikes don't have the armor cars do; which means the problem is much as abi paints it... herd immunity is needed. I am for helmets, mixed on helmet laws (Calif. seems to have split the difference, with minors required to wear them, adults have the option).

I was riding a lot when I had those accidents (about 150 miles a week), so the four serious wrecks I can think of, were in the course of six years of it being my primary form of transport; and one which I came to late (I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was almost 14), so figure I was riding a bit less when I was still in High School, and wow... about 31,000 miles.

I suspect it made me a much better driver, and contributes to my apparently high skill on a motorcycle (given the amount of time I've been seriously riding one of those, as opposed to how long since I first did).

It's not that there is a significantly higher risk, per se, it's that when cars don't see you, the results are more dramatic.

Of course I did, eventually, decide on countermeasures. They sell "rescue horns" for boaters, and I rigged a mount on the frame of my bike for one. The sudden sense that a semi is about to hit them really tended to make motorists who were asleep at the switch wake up.

#69 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 06:51 PM:

Not sure about helmet laws, but I'm pretty sure that my big wrecks haven't been because of helmets. Fatigue, yes, but not helmets.

On the other hand, I was in Hawaii recently, and heard a story that may not speak to helmets, as they're not required on motorcycles or scooters, but more to the inadvisibility of riding a scooter home after donating blood. Passing out while riding is baaaad.

#70 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 07:18 PM:

eric #69: helmets, as they're not required on motorcycles or scooters

Eep! Motorcyclists without helmets ==> "donorcyclists"!

#71 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 07:58 PM:

Individual people take risks (immune reaction, cycling without a helmet) as part of the process of creating a larger population that is, on the whole, safer (herd immunity, Dutch or Copenhagen-style cycling cultures).

I don't think this analogy works, because the causation doesn't run in the same direction. Individuals getting immunized *are* what produces herd immunity, but no number of individuals taking off their helmets will create a bicycle-friendlier culture. (Not-previously-bicycling people starting to bicycle without helmets might, but they don't really have an equivalent in the immunity analogy.)

Conversely, if you have a cycling culture, putting on a helmet won't damage it, while if you have herd immunity, not getting vaccinated *will* damage it.

#72 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 08:28 PM:

Just got back from a summer in Paris, and I can attest that the Velib' cycle program works marvelously! It's cheap, the bikes seem to be fairly damage-resistant/ theft proof, and it is a fantastic alternative to the metro, taxis, or walking long distances.

The fee structure is such that it promotes short-term (under 2 hours) usage. So that if you needed a bike for a whole day, you would want to swap them out occasionally.

Overall, extremely convenient and pleasant going on a Velib' cycle. One caveat: make sure the tires are full and the chain is in working order before checking it out. Also, the system only accepts European-style credit cards (with microchips).

#73 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 08:51 PM:

chris: I think the analogy works. The relevant aspect is cycling. The argument is, cycling is more likely to happen without helmets = more cyclists = more people who see cycling as good/easy/safe = herd immunity from community consensus that "cyclists are people too".

So, people riding, without helmets = the herd: which is immune, because it exists.

People not riding = not getting vaccinated.

#74 ::: VCarlson ::: (view all by) ::: September 30, 2010, 11:35 PM:

David Harmon @70:
Eep! Motorcyclists without helmets ==> "donorcyclists"!
Probably enhanced by Hawaii having such a pleasant climate, so lots of young men (mostly) riding their motorcycles in T-shirts (or none), board shorts, and slippers (zoris to me, flip-flops to others).

And eric @69:
They let you ride a bike after a donation? Back when I lived in FL, rode my bike to work, and was a frequent blood donor, they almost passed out when they saw me start to walk out with my helmet in hand. They extracted a promise from me that I wouldn't ride my bike home. I agreed, in spite of my conviction I wouldn't pass out (I didn't). I was only a couple blocks from home, anyway. I forget what I did at later donations there.

I'm a helmet-wearer myself - among other things, it's a really good place to put a rear-view mirror - but I could allow myself to be convinced that mandatory helmet laws for adult bicyclists could convince a significant number of potential riders not to try because it's too dangerous, but how many were only looking for an excuse? So maybe it would take more convincing.

#75 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 12:11 AM:

VCarlson @74:
but how many were only looking for an excuse?

An excuse for what?

#76 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 12:54 AM:

eric @ 69... A long time ago, I slashed my right wrist. Accidentally, mind you - that's what happens when one trips but catches oneself against the top of a broken ceramic lamp. But I digress. Rush to the hospital to get stitched, then back to my summer job, where they tell me to take the rest of the day off. I bicycled back home. Uphill.

#77 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 02:30 AM:

There are adult tricyles. They take a bit of getting used to.

#78 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 04:14 AM:

V Carlson 74, Abi 75

I'm reading that as raising the possibility that some people who report are put off cycling becuase it's too dangerous would allow themselves to be put off it for some other reason if they didn't think it was too dangerous.

(Not endorsing the view, just trying to disambiguate it. Professional deformation strikes again.)

#79 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 07:55 AM:

@73: In the cycling example, there are three groups: people who don't cycle, people who cycle without helmets, and people who cycle with helmets. Collective safety is created by the total size of groups two and three, so moving people back and forth between group two and group three (which is what individual helmet-wearing decisions are about) doesn't affect it.

Helmet *laws* or fearmongering might move people from group two into group one, thus making things worse for all cyclists, but group one is the one without any counterpart in the immunization analogy.

Convincing someone who is already cycling to stop wearing their helmet will not make anyone safer; convincing someone who is already in the population and unvaccinated to take the (very minor) risk of a reaction to the vaccine will.

#80 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 09:52 AM:

Terry Karney@68: I've wanted one of those horns mounted on my bike since 1968! I thought of them, then, as "fog horns" for small boats. Don't know if that's what the boaters called them or not back then. But the precise image of making the car think a semi was bearing down on it was exactly what I had in mind.

#81 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 09:58 AM:

It isn't just fear of cycling that can make for fewer bikes on the road, though. As I mentioned above, I'm a helmet-wearer, but that doesn't discourage me from riding my own bike from home-- I just keep the helmet by the door, and put it on as I leave.

But it *would* discourage me from using a bike-sharing service for trips elsewhere. Helmet laws or no, I'm going to be reluctant to pick up a bike casually in the city outside of home unless I'm carrying a helmet at the time, and helmets are bulky enough that I usually don't carry them around casually.

If it's not practical to have helmets with the bikes themselves, another way of getting over this barrier might be to have helmets that are easier to carry around. For instance, I wonder whether you could have inflatable helmets that are small enough (uninflated) to carry around easily. They probably wouldn't protect to the same extent as a solid foam helmet, but they might be good enough to make many helmet fans more comfortable with an impromptu short trip. Has there been any serious investigation of whether they'd be effective or practical?

#82 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 11:00 AM:

John Mark Ockerbloom @81:

Various different ideas have floated around the web at various times.

The third of them, the Dahon, appears to be the most viable commercially (the first looks to be dead, and the second is more of a thought experiment). It's also the bulkiest and the most conventional.

I do feel that it's an area with room for some serious innovation. I'd love to see a good, viable, small yet safe folding helmet. I wouldn't wear one in the Netherlands, but I'd probably pack it along with my travel light box when I took trips to the States.

#83 ::: Mike McHugh ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 11:16 AM:

One product name for a bike airhorn is AirZound. A friend has one, and it is loud. As for helmets, I'm anti mandatory-use, and pro a-bit-of-cop-on. The trouble is that you can't legislate cop-on.

(Personally, I wear a helmet off-road, and if I ever used a racing bike I'd wear one then too, but for on-road commuting in an upright position, I generally don't.)

#84 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 11:32 AM:

FWIW, It wasn't me that gave blood and then rode a scooter, it came up in the explanation of how a friend came to be surfing his zodiac and rode the barrel of a wave with a guy who couldn't surf anymore strapped to the cameraman perch, with the wave curling over him. Regret for the lack of helmets was mentioned.

While I was there, I'm not sure I saw a helmet on any cyclist, of motorized or unmotorized variety except for the triathlete types. I also saw a lot of people doing water sports without PFDs, people surfing near rocks, swimming near jellyfish, and some people with a regrettable lack of sunscreen.

#85 ::: rgh ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 12:05 PM:

My personal view is that the more helmets are worn the faster car-drivers think it acceptable to go around cyclists.

#86 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 02:42 PM:

Coming in late to the discussion, but I'd like to add some data.

Accepted wisdom is that helmets protect cyclists' brains. After working with neuro patients (including some cyclists who hadn't worn helmets), I can't bring myself to *not* wear a helmet. However, here is an abstract of a German* study with some pretty interesting (and to me, at least, surprising) results:

"A total of 3395 head trauma patients were enrolled in this evaluation, 337 (10%) of them suffered a bicycle traffic accident. Other types of trauma mechanisms were related to leisure time (36%), housework (28%), business (15%) and non-bicycle traffic accidents (11%). The bicycle accident patients had a significantly higher rate of mid-level head trauma (GCS 9-12) than with other accident mechanisms, which reveals this type of injury is related to bicycle traffic accidents in a specific way. 89% of the cyclist were not wearing helmets. There was no significant difference concerning the level of head-trauma due to bicycle accident between cyclists wearing a helmet and others." (emphasis mine)

This is the only study I've seen that looks at the relationship between helmet use and injury severity. Another recent review of 5 studies showed a favorable relationship between helmet use and head injury, but no clear indication that helmet legislation either encourages or discourages cycling per se (

The research can be pretty frustrating, though. I was looking at a lovely 5-year survey of cycling and head injuries, with over 12,000 subjects -- and NO information on helmet use. Argh!

*Biking in Germany isn't nearly as common as in Holland, and IMO car drivers are correspondingly less comfortable sharing the road. Almost all children wear helmets, at least until their teen years; with adults, it's very mixed. Adult helmet use seems to be on the rise, but as far as I've seen, seniors are the least likely to wear them, and among the most likely to need them: increasing age is a highly significant factor in cycling accidents.

#87 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 03:07 PM:

Isn't that a group selection problem? That is if you are looking solely at a group which is enrolled by actually having head trauma rather than the total population of all people having accidents, then it's almost tautologous that the helmet-wearers in the group have a base level of fairly serious injury. It appears off-hand that this study is asking and answering a different question, namely: assuming a head trauma, is there a difference in severity and type depending on circumstances of the accident?

The relevant questions for the helmet safety question would be what overall proportion of bicyclists in the broader (non-accident) population wear helmets, and what proportion of bicyclists who had accidents were wearing helmets.

To make up some numbers, if 50% of German bicyclists wear helmets, and 60% of German bicyclists getting into accidents were wearing helmets, then given that this report found only 11% of the bicycle accident victims with head trauma were wearing helmets, that would tell you a lot right there. (In fact, given those hypotheticals for helmet use, it would mean that helmet wearers in an accident had only 1/12 the chance of serious head injury.) Everything about evaluating this depends on the base rate of helmet use.

#88 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 03:29 PM:

me @ 48, abi @ 51

D'Oh. I should have realised that 'That blog where I once read a really interesting discussion of bike safety' would turn out to be 'This very blog.'

Oh well. SWYMBWI.

#89 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 03:38 PM:

Debbie: that is indeed interesting, if incomplete.

Other interesting pieces of data: how many bicyclists were picked up off the road dead of head trauma, and how many of them were wearing helmets.

#90 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 04:02 PM:

I think what the German study pointed out is that IF you're involved in an accident as a cyclist and sustain head injury, that a helmet isn't as likely to help you as you'd hope. You'd expect that the severity of injury would be lower among helmet wearers, but they didn't find that. (In fact the authors concluded that we should be trying to design better helmets.)

As far as the importance of baselines go, I definitely agree. As you noted, only 11% of the cycling head trauma victims were wearing helmets. It's completely unclear whether this is representative of the general cycling population (although, based on personal observation, it could be).

In the pdf I cited, only 3 of the reviewed studies compared helmet use pre- and post helmet legislation. The baseline figures pre-legislation differed wildly -- from 0% in rural Georgia to 28% (children)/49%(adults) in Calgary and Edmonton. (No percentages were provided for the third study in San Diego). I've seen varying figures for other places, but it's questionable how reliable they are; some are based on self-report, some on observation.

One wants to be able to do a good cost-benefit analysis, whether as a private person deciding whether to commute via bike and/or wear a helmet, or as a politician deciding on mandating helmet use or funding urban bike paths. It does seem clear that bikers are at significant risk for head injury, and I think the evidence supports an overall positive effect for wearing a helmet as a personal decision. Mandating? Not so clear.

#91 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 04:08 PM:

Debbie@90: Insufficient data. People protected from serious head injury by helmets won't, as I understand it, appear in the sample. People dead from an accident won't appear in the sample. (Neither is a "head trauma patient".) These strike me as very serious gaps in the sample, if you want to really understand the impact of helmets.

#92 ::: Debbie ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 04:12 PM:

Lila -- I wouldn't say I'm immersed in the literature, but I find it frustrating how much information it seems isn't being collected, in particular studies and in the aggregate. Maybe it is all out there....somewhere.

(I do know my husband the Serious Biker has used the results of the German study to support his decision to stop wearing a helmet. This does not thrill me.)

#93 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 05:32 PM:

Debbie: The imponderable isn't the level of trauma, but rather the question of total energy. Assume, arguendo, the helmet has an effect in reducing the g-force on the brain (this is a big deal in the motorcycle community, I can show you all sorts of studies discussion how impact energy ought to be managed, and some interesting stats on the effectiveness of various helmets, and helmet standards. I am sore tempted to travel to Europe, so can buy helmets to French/German standards, not Snell, but I digress).

If the helmet has an effect in reducing the impact energy, then it is reasonable to assume that, absent the helmet, the energy which was absorbed/redirected by the helmet, would have been more likely to be transmitted to the skull/brain.

So what we see is, for a given level of energy, the probably result of wearing the helmet is a lessened severity in anticipated result.

My guess is, higher levels of trauma = dead. That is the selection process described above.

#94 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 05:53 PM:

The effect of helmets on impact trauma is, as such things go, reasonably clear (major reduction, all else being equal). (The German article is trying to call this into question, but I'm not yet convinced. We'll see what experts say eventually.)

Additional issues include:

Extra mass on the head, an extremity with a fragile connection to the body. (Motorcycle helmets are much heavier than bicycle helmets, presumably because they're thinking about much higher-energy collisions.)

Restrictions to seeing and hearing (very different for motorcycle and bicycle helmets). This can effect probability of accidents (not always in obvious ways).

I've heard motorcycle people worry about the rear bottom edge of the helmet breaking your neck; no idea how reasonable the worry is. (Not relevant to any bicycle helmet design I've seen.)

Behavior of surrounding drivers changing based on presence / absence of helmet (very hypothetical, to my mind).

Reduced cycling because of requirement of helmet leading to fewercyclists and less "herd immunity" (primarily bicycle issue?).

#95 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 06:05 PM:

ddb: There is a lot of data on motorcycle helmets. The real worry with them is removal. It's one of the things that needs to be stressed... if you've been in a serious wreck, leave the helmet on until the medics arrive.

But the way the shell is built, any flexing of the neck, so extreme as to have the rim of the helmet touch your neck with any force, is likely to decapitate you.

(graphic alert)

There is a website of fatal accidents; meant I can't tell to scare one out of riding, or to make one more careful. Bar bs gur vzntrf vf bs fbzrbar jub fynzzrq uvf ovxr, nccebk 110zcu, vagb gur onpx bs n gehpx, naq tbg uvf urnq jrqtrq va gur ybnqvat qrpx/ebyy qbbe.

Ur znantrq gb oernx uvf arpx, ohg gung'f gur yriry bs raretl erdhverq gb qb gung xvaq bs qnzntr.

#96 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 06:25 PM:

Terry Karney@95: First responder training of course taught us not to move anybody unless it was absolutely necessary (like approaching fire, rising water, or arterial bleeding we really can't slow down for some reason in the current position). I wonder if people would realize that included taking off a helmet? It's clear enough to me now, but I can't be sure what my brain would have done presented with the situation cold.

And of course the victims themselves may not have had first responder training, and may not be operating at full mental capacity.

#97 ::: Jess ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 06:57 PM:

Bicycle helmets are an evil scheme to reduce bicycle use.

#98 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 08:04 PM:

ddb: The helmet is a strange thing. When I'm on the bike, it's normal and proper, and fine.

When I get off the bike, it's a strange, and not completely comfortable thing.

So yeah, the rider's first reaction is to pull it of, and make it possible to get the world back, as it should be, fully-featured.

When I wrecked my scooter, it was one of the first things I did. I had done a quick evaluation of my condition, and decided it was a safe thing, but it wasn't; perhaps, the best thing.

#99 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 09:56 PM:

A bicycling law went into effect today in Maryland, making the laws more specific, including that a car can't pass closer than 300 feet to a bicycle.

#100 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 10:06 PM:

Marilee, does that mean that all the roads in Maryland are going to have to be widened at least 300 feet?

#101 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: October 01, 2010, 11:48 PM:

Abi #51,

I might be underthinking this, but something about that contrarian view on bicycle helmet laws strikes a dissonant chord... it seems to me what you are saying makes good sense in the short term, but not so much in the long.

Would you agree that if a city were to eventually embrace cycling as it primary mode of transport, it would be okay, then, to impose helmet laws on public streets? Would you, could you agree, that taking the fear out of the equation makes the whole thing seem terribly similar to seat belt law?

Also consider that certain laws can be tempered through lack of enforcement, especially at the offset. France did it well with smoking. You ease them into it, don't punish the offenders for a while. Make it a theoretical law, at least to the police. (In the US, the insurance companies might try regulating it...)

As I said, I'm probably underthinking this.

#102 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 12:08 AM:

I always wear my bicycle helmet, and don't intend to stop, but I can understand why there may be a logical argument against it. Awhile ago, I read the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. I was flabbergasted to learn that roadways that make car drivers feel unsafe are often the safest. When a driver is nervous, he slows down, looks around, and generally engages his brain. A driver on a divided road with nice wide lanes tends to zone out and drive on "automatic pilot", and our brains don't actually have automatic pilots. You think that you'll notice something that changes suddenly in that situation, but you are actually likely to not see it at all. Our brains have a terrifying ability to not see something right in front of us when we're distracted.

I'm quite willing to believe the studies cited in Traffic, and I do now feel safer in traffic circles*, but I'm still going to keep wearing my helmet on my bike. I will, however, never, never, never, never, never talk on a cell phone when driving a car. When I see a driver who is, I honk at them to wake them up. It's illegal in Oregon, dammit, and as dangerous as driving drunk. Join me in honking at them! If you're talking to someone on the phone, and you hear honking in the background, ask if they're driving, and if they are, hang up!

*There are far fewer fatal accidents in roundabout than in intersections, partly because of the physics (cars aren't traveling a right angles to each other) and partly because drivers feel unsafe in them and are much more alert. But if I'm no longer nervous in roundabouts, am I going to cause accidents there? Oh, dear.

#103 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 01:00 AM:

P J Evans, #100: That's a typo. The new law sets a $500 fine for drivers who pass within 3 feet of a bicycle. Much more reasonable!

#104 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 03:55 AM:

DanR @101:

You're still thinking "bike helmets = seatbelts". My whole underlying point is that that's not the case. In the sense of the foundational, powerful, transformative safety feature that dramatically cuts deaths and injuries, "safe cycling environments = seatbelts".

Helmets are airbags*. They are, indisputably, life-savers, health-savers, improvements to cyclist safety. But in comparison to a safe cycling environment, they are a fingernail-paring's worth of safety. I'd rather cycle helmetless in Holland than helmeted in New York or London.

The best way to add that extra element of safety would probably be not to legislate it (differential enforcement has a number of problems ranging from the possibility of discrimination to the creation of scofflaws), but to make it a cultural norm. Get all the cool kids wearing them and then watch the herd follow. (Analogy: what stopped littering in the US? Was it the law, or cultural pressure?)

Mind you, I think cycling culture in general is about to undergo a drastic change, which will shift the balance in many ways. Electric bikes are becoming better and cheaper, which means that average cycling speeds are going to start going up. I worry that this a lot; I suspect we're going to need to start imposing speed limits on bikes (the Dutch police do already stop scooters that use bike paths and check their maximum speeds; if you can go faster than a certain speed you can't use bike paths.)

But we may also need to add helmets to the mix, even here†. (Mind you, that might get the scooter-wearers to obey the existing helmet laws better.)

* Actually, they're not; I gather that airbags without seatbelts can be deadly. But they're a secondary safety system.
† My opinion: mark the electric bikes somehow and require helmets for people riding them.

#105 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 04:31 AM:

janetl @120:
I was flabbergasted to learn that roadways that make car drivers feel unsafe are often the safest. When a driver is nervous, he slows down, looks around, and generally engages his brain.

We have roads here in the Netherlands that are designed around that principle. They're called woonerven (singular: woonerf) here. There are a couple of areas in my village that look a lot like the picture of Utrecht from the Wikipedia article. They're intimate places, slow-paced and peaceful: hugely inviting for pedestrians and cyclists, while giving drivers the feeling they've intruded on a place not built for them.

Woonerven are really good as the equivalent of the "last mile" in telecoms: they replace the ends of the journey, but not the middle. Many of them are cul-de-sacs or small loops with only one outlet. Urban design that has drivers going through a woonerf to get somewhere else is not wise; then you've just created a rat run.

#106 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 08:39 AM:

Lee @ 103... within 3 feet of a bicycle. Much more reasonable!

"It's my way or the highway.
- Patrick Swayze

#107 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 09:06 AM:

abi, #104: If you think littering in the US is any less prevalent than it was 50 years ago, I'm sorry to say that you're mistaken. The most common forms of litter I see are cigarette butts, miscellaneous paper, cans/bottles, and plastic bags -- and you can really tell when there's been a cleanup crew out lately and when there hasn't. Attempts to clean it up by way of the various Adopt-a-Highway programs have been intermittently helpful, but the thing that seems to make the most difference is regional culture. Minnesota and Wisconsin are very clean; Tennessee and Texas... not so much.

#108 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 09:15 AM:

Lee @107:

You're probably right; I am idealizing.

My greatest experience is in California and Scotland, and the difference between the two is...marked. Scotland seems at times to be one large field of crisp packets bordered by trees with plastic-bag leaves. People there seem to drop their food wrappers as they walk, with a blissful unmindfulness of any moral, legal, or aesthetic reason not to.

The Netherlands is pretty tidy, but it's not really a comparable culture.

#109 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 10:26 AM:

Lee @ 107... New Mexico's roadsides are rather free of litter, which is rather surprising considering that it's one of the Union's poorest states. On the other hand, people seem to be quite cavalier in their attitude toward dogs and cats. That's how we wound up with 3 dogs and 3 cats.

#110 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 12:00 PM:

the thing that seems to make the most difference is regional culture

Which was Abi's point really, wasn't it? Even if she wasn't quite right about how much difference it made.

#111 ::: Karl Narveson ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 12:31 PM:

The bikes in the Minneapolis NiceRide system (and presumably all the other point-to-point quick-trip systems) have low gearing and low centers of gravity. As the NiceRide marketers say, they're for ordinary people wearing ordinary clothes. I think they are safe to ride without a helmet, and I say this as a bicyclist who always wears a helmet when riding his own bike, and once put a dent in his helmet in a high-speed fall on the edge of a rural highway. The Minneapolis program has recorded no injuries so far:

#112 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 01:03 PM:

abi @ 104: "(Analogy: what stopped littering in the US? Was it the law, or cultural pressure?)"

Highways, I couldn't speak to. But in urban areas, it seems to me that the two things that stop littering are cultural pressure and a whole lot of conveniently located trashcans. Which is to say, social and physical infrastructure.

(I don't think helmets will ever be cool. What they might be, however, is socially invisible.)

#113 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 02:33 PM:

heresiarch #112: I don't think helmets will ever be cool

I dunno, I think that Halo Master Chief helmets are pretty cool. They'd be better with built-in heads-up displays, though.

#114 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 02:34 PM:

John Mack Ockerbloomn@ 81... An inflatable helmet sounds like something cooked up by Wiley Coyote, like this.

#115 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 04:58 PM:

Abi, it's probably worth noting that some forms of litter remediation in Scotland work; Edinburgh, for example, has a much smaller dog crap problem than it did before the Council started imposing fines on owners -- and the litter problem is something they began to take seriously after complaints about the Festival.

However, we also have countervailing forces at work. You can blame the Provisional IRA for the lack of bins in railway and bus stations, for example (they made great places to plant fire bombs, apparently). And just because the former head of the pIRA is now a senior minister in the Northern Irish Assembly, it does not follow that the threat is over. So we have a permanent bin shortage in railway stations, and an environment that trains folks to simply drop their litter.

#116 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 09:47 PM:

P J Evans, #100, Oops! Braino -- 3 feet, but it does mean that if the car can't cross into another lane to pass, it has to follow the bike. I don't know how well that will work.

Today's WashPost has another article on bicycling -- this one is about urban commuters looking for apartments with bike racks.

#117 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 10:58 PM:

Abi #104,

I think I better understand where you are coming from now. Yes, cultural pressure is ultimately the deciding factor in usage frequency, regardless of how the law is written (see: prohibition).

I think we are headed toward the same conclusion, only aiming at it from different angles. In my scenario, helmet laws are less important when less people are cycling, whereas once you establish a cycling infrastructure within a metropolitan area, they become crucial. The general logic being that more cyclists on the road necessitates stricter, better-honed safety precautions, with the goal toward lower cyclist mortality rates.

In your context, helmet laws are a hindrance to setting up these vital infrastructures, which would theoretically make cycling safer and more appealing to the masses who don't, in some cases, care to weave through a sea of SUVs on their Schwinns.

I suppose we both harbor the same hope that common sense will eventually shake everything out. As for myself, I prefer to go without a helmet, be it on my bike or skateboard. And I cherish my ability to do so. However, if helmets were mandatory, I don't think it would effect my choice of what to ride.

#118 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: October 02, 2010, 11:49 PM:

There used to be "soft" helmets in racing, until a couple of cyclists died in accidents. Since that sort of cyclist can get to a higher, sustained, speeds than most of us they have more disk of that.

But having fatalities in a race is bad for business, so the sport outlawed them, even on the flats. The result, so far as I can tell, is their disappearance from the market.

As I recall they were flexible enough to be stuffed into a small bag.

#119 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 07:46 AM:

Marilee @ 116: When I was looking (1997) to buy my first flat (apartment), I told the estate agents it had to be "within reasonable cycling distance" of Camden, where I worked. That meant, for me, up to about 5 - 6 miles. The place I ended up buying was attractive partly because there was an understairs cupboard, housing electricity meters for the block, just outside my door. It wasn't used otherwise, and I got unofficial agreement from the management company looking after the common areas that I could keep my bicycle in there - a huge advantage, since storage space for something the size of a bicycle is always lacking in a flat, and it was a lot safer there (out of sight) than outside.

Collapsible cycle helmets: I wants one! I may have to look for that Dahon one. Wonder how expensive it is?

#120 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2010, 08:58 AM:

oops, I mean "affect" - late night

#121 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: October 04, 2010, 02:09 PM:

Just saw this, which seems appropriate:

A quote that supports Abi's feelings about a culture for cyclists
Bixi's biggest environmental contribution results from the sheer impact of 5,000 extra bicycles in almost constant use on Montreal's streets...the increase in bikes on the street has brought about a noticeable change in driver behaviour. Drivers are simply more aware of cyclists. For the most part, they slow down, respect bike lanes and more of them take care when they open doors. All of this means new cyclists aren't as likely to be scared off by aggressive or negligent drivers.

It doesn't say we're perfect, of course. I've sometimes complained about cycling downtown. The thing is, I never realised other cities were so not-good!

#122 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: October 10, 2010, 09:07 PM:

heresiarch @ 112: I don't think helmets will ever be cool. What they might be, however, is socially invisible.

By my standards, my bike helmet is cool and anything but socially invisible.

#123 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 01:55 AM:

A couple of other cyclist head protection items:

The YAKKAY line of helmets, which look quite small and come with fashionable hat-like covers.

And the Hövding is an airbag for the head, otherwise a large collar, as on a cowl neck sweater.

#124 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2010, 03:46 AM:

abi @123: thanks for the links - very interesting. My sister-in-law uses an inflating body-protector while horse riding, and I think possibly while motorcycling as well.

#125 ::: Cheryl ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2013, 10:15 PM:

@126 Jeremy Leader

But I did learn that Google translates "smokingach" as "Tuxedos".

Really? In French, a tuxedo is "un smoking".

#126 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2013, 11:00 PM:

Was a 'smoking jacket' a tuxedo jacket, then? I always pictured something velvet-ish, don't ask me why.

Hmmmm, Google seems to think they're different, but there's obviously some confusion. And velvet smoking jackets do definitely seem to be a Thing.

#127 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2013, 09:12 AM:

Mary Aileen #126: I always thought that a smoking jacket was originally just a spare jacket, meant to take the ash-stains and burn-holes of smoking, instead of the more-expensive real clothes. Over time, they naturally got elaborated as a symbol of luxury and leisure.

#128 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2013, 10:40 AM:

Dave Harmon (127): Naturally!

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