Cooler heads needed to bridge bike helmet divide

For most folks, biking with a helmet on probably seems like a no-brainer. But a lot of smart cyclists go without, and for reasons that deserve some consideration.

Yes, there are some arguments to be made for riding without a padded, plastic hat on

Some people wear helmets and others don't. Here's what some of them have to say about it. 1:03

It's hard to think of a more divisive issue among cyclists than helmets. To wear them or not to wear them? Ask any dedicated two-wheeler for their opinion, and you're likely to get a strong one.

For most people, wearing helmets probably seems like a no-brainer, and North Americans generally do a good job at reinforcing this idea.

But a lot of smart folks go without helmets, and for reasons that deserve some consideration.

City Coun. Jeff Leiper's personal experience with the issue makes for an interesting case study. He took a months-long break from the world of helmeted cycling and got calls to his office, emails and social media messages from constituents about it, pleading for him to wear a helmet again.

People even approached him in public.

"They stopped me in the street to say, 'I saw you riding last week without your helmet. What are you thinking?'" he said in an interview last month.

Leiper commutes daily by bike and has done so for many years. He had been in the habit of regularly wearing his helmet until this past winter, when he decided to wear a warm tuque instead and found that he enjoyed it.

Once the winter passed Leiper kept the helmet off — in part, he says, to see whether drivers would give him more consideration and better treatment on the road.

But the backlash Leiper's helmet-less head inspired was "so intense" it prompted him to start wearing a helmet again.

He says if people weren't as adamant about it there's a possibility he wouldn't be wearing one today, even though the city's message is "very clear" that people should do so.

"If I weren't a public official being recognized and getting this resident pushback, I might still not be wearing a helmet," he says.

Sending the wrong message

Cities around the world, including Ottawa, are updating infrastructure to encourage cycling because they recognize it eases traffic congestion and promotes fitness.

But helmets can give some the impression cycling is an inherently dangerous activity.

The underlying tension is an anger on the part of those of us who would like to be able to ride around without having to put on helmets and protective gear that ultimately may be counterproductive to developing the kind of driver empathy that we want.- Coun . Jeff Leiper

"Cycling should be a normal, safe, everyday activity," Leiper says. "We shouldn't be sending the message that you need to take special precautions in order to cycle ... because it reduces the chances that people are actually going to take up cycling."

There exists a study showing that drivers are more likely to give helmet-less cyclists more room while passing them than for cyclists with helmets on.

You'll hear this a lot among cyclists: when we're not "geared up" and looking sporty, maybe drivers are more conscious about what could happen if they hit us; maybe they give us a wider berth.

"The underlying tension is an anger on the part of those of us who would like to be able to ride around without having to put on helmets and protective gear that ultimately may be counterproductive to developing the kind of driver empathy that we want," Leiper says.

What if, instead of spending so much time and energy promoting helmets, we focused on getting more cyclists on the road with bike-friendly infrastructure?

Do helmets make cycling safer? Yes. And for some cyclists, no. (I.Lopez/Associated Press)

Do helmets make a difference?

After years of working in local news I've covered more than a few cyclist fatalities. Sometimes the victims were not wearing helmets, sometimes they were.

But despite the fact helmets don't always save lives, it was quite common for many years to see news releases from emergency departments that specified whether cyclists involved in crashes — fatal and non-fatal alike — were wearing helmets or not.

When this happened there were often indignant cries from their fellow pedal-pushers: It doesn't matter that they weren't wearing a helmet and there is no need to include that information. You're essentially blaming the cyclist for dying after being run over, they would say.

And you know what? They're right. Even the emergency responders who advocate for helmet use will tell you this.

If a crash is powerful enough to kill someone, it's going to take life regardless of whether the cyclist involved is wearing a well-fitted plastic hat with some compressed styrofoam inside it. Cyclists die in crashes wearing helmets all the time.

And so these days, police and paramedics and firefighters don't say whether cyclists in collisions were wearing helmets or not.

A cyclist wearing a helmet rides near Parliament Hill. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

'Why is it important?'

"On Twitter we had some comments — some nice, some not so nice ... [people] challenged us on it, which is OK," says Ottawa paramedic spokesman J.P. Trottier, who's also a cyclist.

"And true enough, why are we [reporting that]? Why is it important, when we're putting information out to the public about a collision between a cyclist or a pedestrian and whatever? That's why, I think for us, I don't know the point, the benefit of us mentioning whether the person had a helmet on or not. I don't know that there's any benefit to that."

Aftermath of a collision involving a cyclist and a dump truck in Ottawa's Chinatown on July 2014. Following a backlash, paramedics stopped reporting whether cyclists involved in such incidents were wearing helmets. (CBC)

Trottier's Ottawa police counterpart, Const. Chuck Benoit, an avid cyclist who's part of the Ottawa police media relations team, admits that helmets don't often play a role in cyclist fatalities, but says the official police stance remains that everyone should wear a helmet. And he personally never goes without one, he says.

"Wearing a helmet is always going to protect your head, no matter how old or how young you are, and in all cases ... you should be wearing a helmet," Benoit says.

"When you're talking about the cycling community, it's one of those communities where they're very, very vocal about their opinions. You see it on Twitter, you see it on Facebook, and you see it in person."

So, why do people tend to get so emotional about their opinions and choices?

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper says he was touched when constituents expressed concern for his safety, but might still be cycling helmetless if it hadn't been for the outcry. (CBC)

Leiper says it's probably because Ottawa isn't yet a cycling-friendly city. We don't have enough connected cycling networks, drivers don't accommodate cyclists well or often enough, and there isn't enough of a cycling critical mass.

If Ottawa were more like a city in the Netherlands, where cycling is far more common, we wouldn't be so uptight.

"If we had that kind of a city, then I don't think we would be having this helmet discussion," he said.

Find Kristy Nease on Twitter @kristynease and cycling on Centretown streets, sometimes helmeted and sometimes not.


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