You wear a bike helmet every single time you get on your bike in New Haven. You know that it helps keep you safe. It protects your skull and brain in the event of a crash. Your parents told you to wear it when you were a child, and you carried that advice with you as you grew up. Now you tell your children the same thing.
Bike helmets do help. You should wear them. So should your kids. Do not doubt that your parents gave you good advice.
At the same time, though, you do need to know that riding around cars still poses serious risks. A bike helmet may not really help at all in a crash. And, when you’re wearing the helmet, studies have found that drivers take more risks. That can undercut the point of the helmet entirely by putting you in increased danger.
Multiple studies have now found that drivers, when passing cyclists, give more space to those who do not have helmets on. If you do have a helmet, they’re going to crowd you a bit more. The passing distances are not as great and drivers take more risks.
Why do they do it? It’s hard to pin it down exactly, but experts think that it’s because drivers assume you face far lower injury risks. You seem safe, so they don’t think it’s up to them to protect you. If you don’t have a helmet, they worry for you and they keep their distance.
While drivers may do this instinctively, it’s misguided. Again, helmets don’t give you extensive protection if you get hit by a car. Cyclists suffer serious and even fatal injuries in these accidents all the time. By driving closer, some drivers may be putting you at greater risk than if you just did not wear a helmet to begin with.
What are the potential solutions? Again, this is not to say that you should not wear a helmet, but the experts who studied this phenomenon think that helmets and other forms of personal protection equipment (PPE) do not help you deal with hazards effectively. There is nothing that you can wear that keeps you as safe as someone in a car.
Instead, they think that Americans should use the Dutch approach. People cycle constantly in the Netherlands. Most do not have helmets on when they do it, and yet head injury statistics remain low. The reason is that the Netherlands has separate “cycleways,” instead of forcing cyclists to ride in the road. By keeping cars and bikes in their own spaces, they reduce accident risks.
As of now, though, the United States does not have an extensive cycleway system. If you get injured by a reckless or careless driver on the road, you need to know what legal steps you can take.