18 March 2011

Heads and tales

Here's an observation fresh from the bicycle lanes of Copenhagen. It has to do with the old question of the hen and the egg: which came first? Is it that people who wear Styrofoam padded plastic hats are transformed into rotten bicyclists, either by riding recklessly and showing blatant disregard for fellow bicyclists, or by turning insecure and wobbly? Or is it that these hats just attract that kind of bicyclists?

You want numbers to back that up? Nine out of ten times the bell is used on the Copenhagen bicycle lanes, it is by someone wearing a helmet. And nine out of ten times for no good reason. Eight out of ten bicyclists I have seen crossing red lights are wearing helmets. Half of those cross several in a row. Entitlement is the word, really. And here is where it gets weird: they even wear their hats in the supermarkets. It is almost like this little piece of overpriced plastic empowers them. The entitlement you sense from them on the lanes transforms seamlessly to the great indoors. "Out of my way, I need milk"! I am not kidding you. They will aggressively bump their cart into you, perhaps for no other reason than you are being such a suicidal ignorant not wearing a plastic hat when shopping for lethal and skull fracturing groceries.

Half of the time I feel sad for them. The other half I just want to smack them on the damn plastic hat and tell them to snap out of it. I have been riding a bicycle since I was about four years old, going from three wheels to two. Naturally over the years I have fallen off my bike a couple of times, and I have seen people fall off their bikes too. What happens? You put your foot down, you bruise a knee or a hand. But I have never in all my time on a bike fallen on my head, nor have I seen anyone do so. Any collision that may occur is unlikely to involve the head at all (I am not saying it is impossible to be torpedoed by a car, but are we really at the point where we should dress for that?). So how did the manufacturers succeed in scaring everybody into these ridiculous hats?

Scientific studies suggest the helmets don't work, unless you count the overwhelming effect they have in discouraging people from riding bikes in the first place. With the fresh label of being dangerous, and all. Studies even show that you may be worse off by wearing a helmet. On the off chance you do have an accident involving your helmeted head, it is more likely to get caught and twisted. Not to mention that drivers buying into the false sense of security are reported to take less precautions around helmet-heads. 

And the strangest thing about the helmets is that they just seemed to appear overnight. Ten years ago, before the Copenhagen infrastructure was nowhere near as bicycle friendly as it is today, no one wore helmets. But along the way the nation have been bullied into believing that the most natural thing in the world that we have been doing for hundreds of years, is suddenly dangerous. Why was this such an easy sell? I still don't buy it.


It's that simple.

If you want to educate yourself on the subject of bicycle helmets, try:
 Cyclehelmets.org for the English version
 Cykelhjelm.org for the Danish version

29 comments:

  1. I never used to wear a helmet in Copenhagen. It was one of the small pleasures that I had in life- to feel the wind in my hair. Cheesy? Probably ;)
    I only started to wear a helmet because of the other crazies who wore helmets. I felt that I was at risk because of others who felt that they were invincible. Also, because my then 2 year old son started to ask why he had to wear a helmet when mor didn't have to. He got me!
    Funny, now living in North America, I have similar complaints but against those in the "bigger than humanly necessary" SUV cars. People who drive the BIG Lexus, Porsche Cayenne, BMW and Dodge Caravans. Brr... they give me the shivers. I am sure that they are also the ones who cut others off in grocery stores!
    I think that our culture is becoming more and more rude and selfish. Sometimes I like to throw people off and wave them first or let them pass in front of me. I am sure that it ruins their day ;)
    Good luck on the cycle paths! Maybe you can get some heavy artillery?

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  2. Ah, nothing cheesy about that, that is the most liberating feeling in the world. It is funny how the same size of cars make me feel this way too, people who go for these cars always seem to be (taking themselves a lot more seriously/) going places faster than everyone else. To me they represent a way of thinking that is very dated.

    Your way is the best, throwing people off by being the exact opposite, that is so funny. We already see that here more with the smile campaigns around the city, both private/street art, but also on the buses (remember that one?).

    On the helmets, I remember my sister telling me something similar: How can I ask my child to wear a helmet when I am not? If it was me, I would simply say that it is the law, and the reward for growing up is not having to wear one. :D

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  3. HaHa! I should try that: Mamma can have as much chocolate as she wants because it is a reward for growing up. Good one!

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  4. Ej, jeg er en af DEM!

    Købte plastikskal til hovedet, mens jeg boede ved Sankt Hans Torv og hver dag cyklede over Dronning Louises bro i myldretrafikken. Hvor cyklisterne, faldt som fluer. Især om morgenen.

    Hadede det.

    Det var før, Nørrebrogade blev lukket. Og virkelig ikke for børn.

    Væltede selvfølgelig aldrig, trods et par nærdødsoplevelser. Men skallen sidder der stadig. Også en gang imellem, når jeg handler, fordi jeg er en distræt idiot, der glemmer, hvem og hvor jeg er.

    Og sig mig lige. Er det også helt vildt dårlig stil at ringe med klokken, når man skal overhale, og folk gerne må trække ind til siden?

    Og hvad skal man ellers gøre?

    Hilsen æggehovedet

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  5. Åh, nej, min amarOrama helt, er du et æggehoved? Nu bryder min verden for alvor sammen! Det er ikke dårlig stil at ringe hvis nogen blokerer hele vejen, så du ikke kan komme forbi. Det er dem der hænger på klokken i eet væk, fordi de ikke kan overskue at køre i en bue udenom, eller fordi de bare vil have vejen fuldstændig ryddet så de kører klokken pre-emptive allerede 5 meter fra dig, som en anden sirene.

    Jeg er begyndt at bruge mundtøjet i stedet for klokken, for både cyklister og fodgængere er blevet immune overfor bjælderne (og hvorfor mon?), nogle gange synger jeg (det får ryddet vejen, siger jeg bare), eller laver trut-kysse lyde. Det er også meget sjovere, og man kommer glad frem.

    Men lagde du mærke til om dem der gjorde trafikken farlig på din rute tilfældigvis også var dem der havde plastik hat på? Det er nemlig ifølge mine målinger der cykelskoen klemmer.

    Angstkultur er så deprimerende, det må du da give mig ret i?

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  6. Ha. Sang og kysselyde holder.

    Tror de farlige var en god blanding utålmodige kamikazeæggehoveder, bedstemorcykler med mobiltelefoner, kærester der skulle holde i hånd og folk, der så ud som om, de aldrig havde siddet på en tohjulet før.

    Men førte ikke regnskab, og det er jo længe siden.

    Angstkultur stinker. Desværre fik jeg den ind med modermælken og ved derfor, at alt fra humlebier til flyvemaskiner er dødsensfarligt.

    I øvrigt tog min kollega en tur ud over styret og fik kraniebrud en uge før, jeg købte hjelmen. Det tæller vel også lidt.

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  7. Kender alt til at blive opflasket i angst. Hjemme hos mig var alt højspændt og farligt (ifølge min mor ihvertfald): juletræer var brandbomber, telefonerne blev aflyttede, uenighed med højeste instans (one guess who) var lig med et terrorangreb. Men jeg gik så i modsatte grøft og blev immun overfor fanden på væggen.

    Folk der afslutter turen over styret må nødvendigvis være oppe i ekstrem høj fart, ellers kan det jo ikke fysisk lade sig gøre at blive slynget. Så jo, hvis man er oppe i racergear og er typen der skal overhale alle biler, så er en plastik hat måske en idé. Men det er jo liverem og seler typen der er flest af, med mariehøner og jumboprikker og "snyde hatte". Altså, hvis de gør dem glade så er det jo sådan, men jeg vil satme ikke ved lov presses ned i sådan en, som det er på tale. Og uanset hvad er en hjelm jo ikke en licens til at sætte andres cyklisters sikkerhed.. over styr?

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  8. Ha. Nu var jeg jo ikke med på turen. Men vi taler en dame godt oppe i halvtredsene, som ikke umiddelbart lignede en fartbølle. Tror bare, hun var lidt uheldig med noget, der stak ind i hjulet.

    Cykelhjelm ved lov? Sindssygt.

    Kan i øvrigt godt lide din modsatte grøft.

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  9. Ja, du er altid velkommen til at krydse over :D

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  10. Jeg kører med hjelm hver eneste dag -den holder på mit hår, så min virvel i pandehåret ikke blæses frem, når jeg lige har brugt et kvarter på at glatte den :)

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  11. I've pretty much given an overview of what I think about this here: http://www.portlandize.com/2010/11/downside-to-our-safety-obsession.html

    The helmet craze kind of happened overnight here, as well. My dad, for instance, rode a bike all over Portland during the 1960's and 1970's, a time with probably one of the worst traffic safety records (considerably worse than now), and never thought about a helmet at all, had several crashes, including running into a bus.

    Now, he won't get on a bike without a helmet, and I get the feeling he's even hesitant to ride a bike at all on the roads. There is no objective reason for this, as he never sustained any major injuries, nor does he know anyone who did.

    But it has just become a sort of prevailing orthodoxy in North America that if you get on a bike without a helmet, you're certain to regret it. It's been a massively successful propaganda campaign.

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  12. Jamen Mette, hele mit Amar' billede ramler jo fuldstændig nu, haha. Pludselig er hele verden blevet sikker på at uden hjelm går det helt galt, det synes jeg stadig er meget underligt. På den anden side nægter jeg altså at tro på at du er en bølle under hatten. :-)

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  13. Oh, you're feeling brave today, Sandra. Opening up this emotive issue!

    Human beings are proven to be extremely bad at evaluating risk. So when someone says to me that I should wear a helmet, like them, when cycling I ask them if they also wear a helmet whilst they are taking a shower because that is a far more dangerous activity than cycling around Copenhagen.

    /Neil

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  14. Hi Dave, I wonder if your dad maybe just feel less invincible as he gets older? I know some people who get increasingly worried about all kinds of little potentially life shortening things (like eating barbecued fat or chicken skin..). Riding a bike will probably enter that long list sooner or later.

    You are missing some of the comments here in Danish, from a couple of cool bloggers that I would never in a million years have imagined wearing plastic hats.. but there you go. I will just have to deal with this blow, haha.

    I still say that riding your bike now is if anything safer than just 10 years ago, and back then everybody did just fine without the gear. And if you go to Amsterdam no one wears protective gear. Maybe this fear based hype will eventually fade. I can't tell you how much I hope so.

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  15. Haha Neil, you are right, I am feeling brave today. I was just thinking about it earlier that this may make a lot of people angry, but so far everybody have played nice..

    On showering with the plastic hat on, I wouldn't put it past some people. And it is true, you are far more likely to slip and fall in the shower, than on your bike. So funny.

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  16. laurenlilaMarch 18, 2011

    You make some good points, but I think you're giving the non-helmeted folks too much credit. Within one year, I've had a guy pull out right in front of me on the bike lane, causing me to smack right into him (there was zero time to brake) and all my stuff - me, bike, purse, lunch, etc. - go flying (luckily into the sidewalk and not the main road). He didn't wear a helmet. Another guy tried to pass me on tiny one lane path with snow drifts on the side and knocked my back wheel, actually knocking himself down in the process and almost throwing me into the drift. No helmet. And I had another close encounter with the pavement when I was cut off by someone going right on a red light on a major lane at morning rush hour. Again no helmet.

    I read a lot of these Copenhagen/biking blogs and the authors are always going after helmeted cyclists or helmet laws or helmets in general. I've never understood what the huge battle against helmets is here. Where I'm from, it's usually a law and you just wear them and no one really cares. Or you don't wear them. I've gone back and forth. Whatever, it's not a big deal.

    But at least be fair to those of who do wear helmets on the morning commute and who abide by traffic rules, by not forgetting all the other bareheaded crazies out there...

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  17. Hi Lauren, I think I know why my point of view is tailored like this, the mystery may be solved: I don't do morning traffic. Haha, At the most I get tangled up in the evening rush. I am not trying to glorify non helmet heads, bad riders come in all flavors, only the absolute worst I encounter are helmeted.

    It is interesting how they appear to be aware of safety measures (what they believe to be so), but when it comes to the safety of others they couldn't care less. That bugs me.

    I don't know if you were here for the hat free times? If you have seen your city go from carefree to petrified, you would probably see this issue differently. And the very idea that we could all be forced to wear helmets freaks me out.

    Maybe I should have been splitting this post up in more parts, because my issues with the helmets are plenty as you can probably tell. But a nice debate is always good. And if people give you a hard time on the bicycle lanes I can recommend letting out a good roar.

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  18. Preach it sister, modig post!
    Og du ved nok allerede hvor jeg står; hvis du nogensinde ser mig med en emsighætte må du godt lige stikke hovedet forbi Schleppegrellsgade og banke lidt fornuft i mig.

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  19. Haha, mange tak. Vi er mindst to der aldrig trækker i emsighætten, det er jeg ret sikker på.

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  20. Fantastisk hvordan folk der kører med cykelhjelm IKKE bruger den til gåture eller biler - hvor de har en højere risiko for hovedskade. Bilisthjelme og gåhjelme til folket!
    Og en retur til rationalitet i det danske samfund hvor sund fornuft er blevet en mangelvare.

    Og ja, grunden til at man har en 14% højere risiko for at være udsat for en ulyukke med hjelm PÅ er kaldet risikokompensation. Folk 'tror' de er beskyttede og kører over evne. Idioter.

    Emsighætten... hidsighuen...

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  21. "they even wear their hats in the supermarkets" you just made me laugh...
    I must say I was yelled at the other day for not wearing a helmet on my bike by an angry car driver. Californians are the nicest persons except when they drive. I talked about it at the bike store, and the guy told me he was wearing a helmet when mountain biking and it saved his life. But no mountains in the streets of Copenhagen I presume...

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  22. Hi Carole, no mountains in Denmark, but lots of mountain bikes. I don't know if it is mandatory to wear a helmet in California, but if not, they should really mind their own business. I even read about a man getting shot by a crazy driver because he was riding with his son on the bike. Unbelievable! And so out of proportion.

    If anything someone should yell at the driver for polluting the air we breathe, that would be a great place to start if he is so concerned about your well being.

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  23. Well It is not mandatory in California to wear a helmet except for children. As a child I fell off my bike many times. Never hurt my head though. (my knees remember that time though).
    I feel the same about big cars, they feel so entitled with their cars, so big that they can't be called cars anymore.
    Back to Paris, I will ride my bike and probably will have eventually a scooter, so handy in Paris. I heard Paris looks more like Rome now scooter-wise. I wonder if they follow pretty girls on the streets like in Italy ;)

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  24. Well then, what you were experiencing was a clear case of "mind your own damn business, Mister", sigh. Over the last couple of years I have noticed a change in the Parisian infrastructure, it has become more bike friendly. And now the scooters are coming, you say? Ah, now I miss Paris again :-)

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  25. laurenlilaMarch 21, 2011

    Hi Sandra, your explanation makes it a little clearer for me. :) I've only been in Copenhagen about a year, so I imagine I missed the helmet-free times. For me then, it was a pretty straightforward transition from a US state with a helmet law, I guess. :) I used to live in Aalborg and never even thought once about using one there. And I generally go without a helmet here in Copenhagen. But, it was only when I started having these close calls with some crazy folks in the morning commuter traffic that I decided to get one. I know the whole spiel about how helmets don't necessarily protect you or whatever, but really, it seems like something is better than nothing, right?

    I realize the biking culture here is something really special, there's a certain style to it, and that adding regulations to it, must make it seem like less of a free, easy-going, fun and enjoyable thing. That's really too bad. And it's even worse that people get helmets and then ride in a more risky way and pose dangers to others. To me, that's not the purpose at all.

    I guess it's an interesting cultural lesson for me to see how this kind of thing is perceived here. In fact, I find it so eye-opening that the fight and arguments against helmets and helmet laws, etc. are so, so strong. You have a great blog and I look forward to more cultural lessons. :)

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  26. laurenlila: I think, speaking from the point of view of a resident of the U.S. - a lot of the reason why there is such an argument against helmets, and particularly against helmet laws, is that governments and organizations have a tendency to 1) Promote protecting yourself, instead of doing their job and making the environment (streets and such) safe for everyone, and 2) exchange money with special interests who *want* to steer people away from certain things, or towards other things (like buying a car). Fear is a powerful motivator.

    I personally don't care if any given person does or doesn't wear a helmet, but I *do* care that they understand how much protection it is actually giving them, and that, relative to so many other things we completely take for granted, cycling with or without a helmet is perfectly safe. I also care that people don't settle for the "wear a helmet and you're safe" campaign, but actually push their leadership to make their city safe enough that people don't feel they need protection.

    If your city felt dangerous enough that you felt the need for a bullet-proof vest, you wouldn't just settle for it and go buy one and wear it whenever you left the house, would you? You'd try to get the city to make it better.

    Yet so many people just put on a helmet and mix it up on the roads, and then get angry at anyone who decides they don't need a helmet.

    I just want a city where people can go about their business in public space without worrying about losing their lives. Promoting helmet use doesn't help accomplish that.

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  27. Hi Lauren, it is interesting for me too to learn how non-Copenhageners react to this, some countries are beyond even questioning the helmets, and I realize that coming from such a place you don't see what the big deal is. But it is a really big deal, and the scare tactics used to bully us are symptomatic of the times we live in. We get manipulated this way and stop questioning everything, really.

    I also find it devastating that people are buying into this idea that riding your bike in the worlds most bicycle friendly city is all of the sudden dangerous. And the prospect of this hysteria reaching the Parliament (well it already has), forcing everyone to wear helmets...

    If that was to happen, some people would not be financially able to stay within the law. Biking would be for the privileged only. And the way we effortlessly go everywhere on our bikes around the clock, any chance that would happen if we had to drag plastic hats around?

    This whole thing is just not thought through, and it makes me really happy to see so many people discussing it. As long as the lines of communication are open, there is a chance that sanity will prevail. :-)

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  28. Very interesting conversation. I never would wear a helmet in CPH. It's so safe for bicyclists. Here in San Francisco on the other hand I feel like the cars, buses and especially the taxis are gunning for you. I don't know if a helmet would actually help if you went flying up and over the hood or ended up under wheel but it gives me a little peace of mind. I will say though that I do wish there was a little more consideration on the road either from other cyclists as well as the drivers.

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  29. Hi Kelly, this conversation is one of my favorite parts of blogging. It is interesting how differently we look at the helmets. Even in Copenhagen we are torn on the subject, and I agree with you: there is no need to wear a helmet here.

    The strange thing is that people feel safer with the helmet on, so they take bigger risks in traffic, and the same goes for the people in cars, who show you less consideration. But really it is just a piece of padded plastic, and an overpriced one at that.

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