A Fear of Cycling

Background Reading


Plastic shells keep our heads from coming open, but they also deter us from riding bicycles. And riding bicycles is good for people and Earth. 

— James Hamblin, MD, is The Atlantic’s Health editor.

I’ve hear this adage a hundred times or more. The first time was in reference to one of Mikael Colville-Andersen’s TED Talks:

Most of the information you gather by listening to the High Priests of your Movement are as accurate as the information gathered from listening to Fox News TV or better yet a Fox News Radio personality. If you repeat something often enough the listener begins to assume it must be “true“. And after that you can move on to something else equally inane and pound home that “truth” before moving on to the next.

What makes it equally difficult to resist this method of absorbing “truth” is that you are likely to hear someone in your favorite forum group tell you precisely the same thing at a pub gathering. And before long you have absorbed it well past your ability to think about the correctness of the thing. And you can tell when this has occurred because anyone who disputes that “truth” becomes either a “troll” or a “bicycling hater” in your mind.

With respect to folks who feed at the Fox News TV trough only “liberals” and “socialists” take umbrage with anything spoken on the air by Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity and you know how un-American these Leftists are.

Dr. James Hamblin and the Bicycle Helmet Paradox

Dr. Hamblin is addressing the central tenets in the argument put forth my Colville-Andersen. He writes:

Admonishing a teenager for smoking is commonplace. Reprimanding people for taking antibiotics when they don’t really need them is the next big thing. And giving people a hard time about biking without a helmet is still entirely in vogue. It’s because we care. But as we learned from the original food pyramid, sometimes good intentions pave the road to adult-onset diabetes.

People are still questioning whether bicycle helmets, compulsory or voluntary, reduce injuries. Do we ride more aggressively when we wear them, because we feel invincible, putting our whole bodies in more dangerous situations? Drivers are more cautious around riders without helmets. While good evidence says helmets do their job in reducing head injuries, we’re best to — as in all things — think outside of our heads.

Helmet laws are associated with a number of less intuitive behaviors. The case against them is increasingly compelling — surfaced again last week in a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Analogously, the argument tests a culture where we helmet-shame people into either wearing a helmet or not riding. It’s not a libertarian crusade; it’s a public health question. And it’s not as straightforward as Officer Friendly taught:

To start, it’s unfortunately relevant that many find helmets unbecoming. They also mess up our hair. The dead keratin strands on our heads — they put them out of order, and that upsets us. These factors do matter, in that they affect our behavior. Sometimes they keep us from biking.

More to the point, detractors contend that helmets make biking seem like too much of an ordeal, a perilous endeavor. Intimidation, of the process, means fewer bikers.

Let’s Suspend Judgment For A Moment

Let’s put aside for the moment the assertion by Colville-Andersen that bicycle helmets are promoted by automobile companies to help encourage the sense that cycling is dangerous. This bit of subterfuge supposedly helps sell automobiles. And let us not disagree that helmets tend to make cycling seem like more of an ordeal and that we opt to drive instead. Let us assume to posture of True Believers. So while keeping your legs straight and bending at the waist, grab your ankles along with me and let’s test out other similar assertions concerning safety.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does having seat belts and air bags make me anxious about riding in cars? Would I rather walk to the store or ride my bike instead?
  • Does having the stewardess explain the location of the exit doors and the use of the seat cushion as a flotation device increase my anxiety about flying? Would I rather take a bus or a train to my destination?
  • Does the warning on the side of the package of cigarettes I just bought make me anxious about using tobacco products for fear of developing cancer? Would I rather drink some coffee or perhaps chew some nicotine gum instead?
  • Does the possibility of contracting an STD or HIV raise my anxiety about taking home that fine young thing across the bar, tonight? Or would I rather grab the latest copy of Playboy and head on home alone?
  • Does reading a sign in the mens room that “all employees must wash their hands before returning to work” raise my anxiety about the cleanliness of the eating utensils and the sanitary conditions under which the food was prepared and served? Or would I rather return home and cook the meal myself and save a few bucks?
  • Does listening to the “fine print” during a television advertisement for a prescription drug raise my anxiety about the drug itself? Or would I rather continue to suffer silently knowing that I am unlikely to encounter any side effects?
  • Does hearing my financial adviser tell me that stocks have no guarantee against loss of principal raise my anxiety about investing in the market? Should I simply keep the money under my mattress where I am certain to be able to recover it without loss of principal?

My response to most of these question is that the world is full of uncertainty. Taking risks is difficult and should be mediated by using diversification strategies where financial investments are concerned. But I prefer to hear about the risks before attempting to do something or use a product. And seldom am I persuaded to avoid the thing in question because someone posited the possibility of risk.

The real issue is as Mikael Colville-Andersen stated not so much whether someone is attempting to drive your towards them as a customer, but whether the science they use is actually “valid”. Even food choices (some that are wildly popular) have succumbed to “bad science” in an effort to prove the worthiness of the alternative they offer:

Is it really too difficult for the average person to discern when they are being “driven by fear” into the arms of a charlatan? Perhaps. But being a cynic (as are Mikael Colville-Andersen and I) is also not an inoculation again “bad science“. Every bit of science is generally aimed at outlining the “dangers” of something. What is often instructive is to find out who is sponsoring the scientific study.

Sadly folks who are allies in the Cycling Movement are just likely to be lining their pockets as the folks who favor automobiles or perhaps mass transit or walking. There is someone out there selling green paint and he is pulling for the protected bike lane approach with all his being. Even the groups that get formed to promote green lanes are not doing what they do because of the joy they have of cycling. They are either getting monies for their efforts or are being funded by companies that sell bicycles and bicycle accessories. That is the way of the world, in essence Capitalism.

You have to ask who “pays the rent” for people like Colville-Andersen. That will tell you far more about the origins of his beliefs and understandings than anything else.

The Testing of Helmets Is Indeed “Hinky”

Colville-Andersen is quite correct in that the testing strategy used to determine whether a helmet meets certain safety requirements is a bit silly. You place a weighted object into the helmet and drop it on what would be the crown of the wearers head. The helmet should survive intact when dropped from a proscribed distance.

What should be checked is whether the helmet survives side impacts as well. And another very important question is whether the helmet skin is slippery enough to avoid snagging on the ground during a fall and jerking the neck in a awkward fashion. The helmets of the 1990s used to have a cloth cover over a foam core. These covers were deemed unsafe when the rider fell and slid along the ground. Now helmets are routinely slippery to the touch and have fewer sharp corners that could snag the helmet and snap the riders neck.

But does this mean that helmets should be abandoned?

Before answering this question, let’s take a look at the whole notion of bicycle infrastructure. We are constantly told by the same folks who do not wish us to use helmets because they impose a level of anxiety on us that is intended to put profits into the pockets of the helmet vendor, that unless we have protected bike lanes we cannot be safe on the roadways. Is this really true?

Now we get to the question of how does one test for this sort of thing? What we know of most bicycle infrastructure designs is that the single most important things they do are:

  • Narrow the roadway surface for automobiles,
  • Which instinctively causes drivers to “slow down”
  • Slower speeds give drivers a greater chance to react in panic situations (should they occur)
  • And because drivers are traveling slowly they get into fewer panic situations to begin with

Anybody disagree with anything I have written just now?

Well if you are onboard with my assertions then “riddle me this”, why not simply lower the in-town speed limit to 15 MPH across the board? You can still have “sharrow lanes” and I would not even complain about pretty green paint (although it seems unnecessary). Now I chose 15 MPH because that is slow enough that even “slow riders” can take the lane an not be a burden to a really impatient driver. And if 15 MPH seems too fast then lower it to 10 MPH across all in-town roadways. That should do the trick and no special infrastructure would be needed.

Now of course the folks that sell PVC pipes for bollards and green paint for lanes will not be happy. And politicians and cycling advocates are going to have to find some other way to fleece assist the public. Perhaps they can all find jobs with helmet manufacturers?

Any takers?

Oh, one last thing. Bicyclists would be allowed to travel at a maximum speed of 20 MPH as an incentive to get people out of their cars during the warmer months. All bicycle parking would be free because it would be subsidized by increased parking rates on motorists.

Any takers, now?

Some Food For Thought About Cycling Forums

All this talk about invoking fear in driving people to one choice or another got me to thinking about something that goes on every day over at the ChainLink Forum. There is always some sort of thread about one of these “fearful” things:

  • There is an ongoing thread about what are generally nasty encounters with auto drivers where the cyclists gets to “vent
  • There is another ongoing thread about riding into work or back home and it is almost always laced with accounts of the struggles a rider had in dealing with the weather conditions or the ground surface conditions brought on by poor pavement, etc.

The very first time I read these threads I wondered to myself whether the writers ever considered how “fearful” these accounts were? If asking someone to ride a helmet is likely to make them consider cycling “dangerous“, how much more do blow-by-blow accounts of all the actual things cyclists endure conjure up “fears of cycling” for newbies? Most ChainLink denizens are probably certain these rants have a “cathartic effect” and they probably do but only for the writer and perhaps a few seasoned cyclists who have been in the trenches.

But like soldiers coming back from war zones, talking about these sorts of experiences is not what you want to do in place of polite dinner conversation. The mothers of soldiers still in harms way are not likely to want to be reminded of their loved ones daily encounters. So why do cyclists who “really want to grow the movement” relish the times when they can reveal the gory details of a close encounter with yet another jerk behind the wheel?

Now About Those Helmets

I’d be glad to jettison helmets if in turn anyone riding a bike with “no brakes” on public roadways was prevented from doing so. I think that would just about make this a perfect world. Let’s move on to solving the problem of how to obtain “world peace“.


  1. The helmet debate is trivial and irrelevant in the US context. This is a country so ingrained in the culture of fear that a significant number of citizens claim it is necessary to carry firearms for their safety. You think the Danes do this?

    The justification for bike facilities (lanes and such) in the US is that people are afraid of cars. If the Danes _aren’t_ afraid of cars, then there must be some other justification for the facilities. My guess is that if you had cycling levels like the Danes, the vehicular cycling model of cars and bikes in the same space would not work.

    Right now, we don’t have that many bikes, but it might be that you have to have the facilities first.

    AFAIK there is no law in the US requiring adults to wear bike helmets. I see people with them and without. Nor do I really see any campaigns. I get it that it can discourage cycling in other countries. That does not mean it matters in the US.

  2. I went straight to the TED talk, which I disagree with in the US context. With regard to the article itself and your follow-on link, I had no idea so many towns had laws requiring adults to wear bicycle helmets. If Hamblin is arguing against those, I am fine with that, not because I believe it has an impact on cycling one way or another, but just because I think people should be able to decide on their own.

    As for the rest of it, I disagree with several points. Road narrowing, for example. I had a lot of experience with this in Toronto. Cars did not slow down. They just hit things more often. Mostly mirrors on parked cars.

    RE forums, I consider that under “hearing about risk” mentioned earlier. One thing I have learned from forums is that if you have video evidence, you have way more legal recourse than if it is just a verbal complaint. I think one of the jurisdictions where I ride is going to get an ordinance against harassing cyclists. Another reason for a video camera.

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