A group of riders, with and without helmets, enjoy a car-free Broadway Street during Síclovía. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A group of riders, with and without helmets, enjoy a car-free Broadway Street during Síclovía. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Robert Rivard

Richard Burton wants every cyclist in San Antonio to know one thing: bike helmets don’t make you any safer in the event of accident. He’s adamant on that count, and he won’t rest until I address his challenge.

In the interest of fair play, we’ve invited Burton to submit an article for publication to make his best case. While he considers our offer you can read his arguments in the Comment section of an article I wrote and posted last week: “The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety.”

A couple of dozen people posted comments for and against bike helmet choice  – a healthy dialogue, with plenty of appreciation for the grey space in an issue that is anything but black and white – but Burton’s responses, plural, stand out.

Bike to school day. A father rides with his helmeted daughter to school. Photo: www.pedbikeimages.org /Mike Cynecki
A father rides with his helmeted daughter to school. Photo: www.pedbikeimages.org /Mike Cynecki

“There is no dilemma as helmets don’t make you safer,” Burton wrote. “Increased cycle helmet wearing is not associated with a reduction in risk to cyclists. All reliable evidence shows this, and the evidence showing huge benefits is either anecdote, opinion or just bad science.”

He drifts off into unflattering comparisons of pro-helmet advocates with Nazi propagandists, which make me think his arguments, however unconvincing, are well-rehearsed.

Burton cites the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation and its website, cyclehelmets.org, which he calls the most comprehensive website on the subject. My reading of the site is that it would be more accurate to label it the Anti-Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation. All of its content appears to attack the helmet industry and any industry or independent researchers whose studies draw clear links to increased risk of head injuries for cyclists who don’t wear a helmet.

A group of guys ride together down streets closed off to traffic.
A group of guys ride together, some with, some without helmets, down Broadway street, closed off to traffic for Síclovía .

To be fair, the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, which I cited in my first article, comes from the other perspective, that data and studies over time support helmet use. But cyclists by nature are independent creatures, and nothing in my first article or this one suggests people be required to use helmets. No one in Texas is arguing that, either. As noted last week, Dallas is the only city in the state with a mandatory helmet law, and the Dallas City Council is expected to consider reversing that ordinance so the city can launch a bike share program like B-cycle here.

The intent of my article was not to bully riders into wearing helmets. I merely wanted to explore an obvious generational divide within the fast-growing cycling community in San Antonio, and for that matter, every other major city I’ve visited in recent years. Baby boomers (like me) and Gen X cyclists, especially those who ride road bikes and belong to a team or club, universally use helmets. Few would consider riding without one, even on a casual ride.

Millennials and others who see bikes as urban transportation and more of a lifestyle choice tend to ride without helmets. It’s hard not to envy their youth and carefree spirit. It’s also true they move at slower speeds over shorter distances on safer neighborhood streets and avenues rather than the open road where vehicle traffic travels at higher speeds.

Night riders. No Helmets. Photo by David Rangel.
Night riders. No Helmets. Photo by David Rangel.

I always wear a helmet. After my last article, I decide to cruise Southtown helmet-free and mix in with the riders young enough to be my sons or daughters. I got as far as a neighborhood restaurant and then turned around, went back home, and put on my helmet. I simply couldn’t face encountering someone I knew and having to explain my sudden shift in behavior.

Still, I’ve come to see that many young and not-so-young urban cyclists make a good case for riding helmet-free, taking what they believe is a reasonable, low-risk approach to the activity. I also buy the argument – I first heard made by the mayor of Berlin two years ago – that mandatory helmet laws only suppress the number of cyclists.

Overall, he argued, society is better off with more people cycling, even without helmets, than people giving up cycling as exercise or as urban transportation in lieu of private vehicles that add to urban congestion and pollution.

Hopeful graffiti in New York City. Photo by Tom Trevino.
Graffiti in New York City. Photo by Tom Trevino.

What I didn’t expect were arguments from Burton and a few others that cyclists who wear helmets are only fooling themselves. In my previous article I did link to a well-known anti-helmet cyclist and blogger, Mikael Colville-Anderson, but I didn’t think many street-smart cyclists would take him seriously.

Aren’t we talking basic physics here? Isn’t a well-fitted protective cover over a vulnerable sphere always better than no protection? Isn’t that why animals have skulls enveloping their brains? Isn’t that why football players and other athletes wear protective headgear? Aren’t there companion websites dismissing the efficacy of seat belts and air bags?

The most trustworthy research is undertaken by unbiased entities. That’s why I cited, among other studies and data sources, a New York City city study that showed 97% of all fatally injured cyclists over a multi-year period were not wearing helmets. New York officials, by the way, were not looking to impose a mandatory helmet law when they undertook the study. They were gathering facts, and trying to assess the importance of helmets as the city moved toward adoption of a bike share program.

Frank Krygowski, whose email address links to a site called Bicycling Life,  also posted a comment critical of my article because it did not place cycling-related brain injuries in the context of other everyday accidents, such as falling down a flight of stairs or traveling in an automobile. He’s right. That’s not the issue I was addressing. Nothing in the article suggests cycling is more or less dangerous than other pursuits. I only addressed the reasons why some people wear helmets and others don’t, despite a credible body of research that shows riders wearing helmets fare better than riders without helmets in an accident.

The fact is the chance of being in an accident in a vehicle, on a bike, or coming down a set of stairs, is quite small.  But if an accident does occur, don’t you want to be protected? That’s why we wear seat belts, use air bags, and come to think of it, ask our kids not to leave their toys on the stairs.

Photo by Tom Trevino.
Photo by Tom Trevino.

If anyone local would like to post views in support or against bike helmet use, The Rivard Report invites your submission. I’d especially like to hear from some of my fellow Third Street Grackle riders who have survived a vehicle-cycling accident.

The Atlantic Cities published a story late Tuesday morning about designers working on a stylish portable helmet.

Wednesday we will publish a third safe cycling article that explores proven ways San Antonio can and is become a safe(r) cycling city. While we are still on the subject of helmet use, let me ask this question: If you knew ahead of time that you were going to be in a cycling accident, would you choose to wear a helmet or would you ride helmet-free? How about your child, helmet or no helmet?

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.