There’s been a lot of discussion in San Diego lately about making the city more bike friendly.
Mayor Sanders held a media event not long ago touting a public “bike sharing’ program, a low cost rental system that could encompass downtown, the beach areas and midtown by next spring. Three bike ‘corrals” that allow riders to safely park their bicycle in crowded urban neighborhoods have been opened recently.
And it would appear that the people in charge of the area’s roads are starting to take a more serious look at making the streets more user friendly to riders.
From the venerable New York Times Sunday Review comes an article suggesting that, if we truly want to succeed in making San Diego more bike-centric, we should look at what many will consider a heretical idea: lose the helmets.
In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke. Cities are aggressive in helmet promotion.
But many European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.
Recent experience suggests that if a city wants bike-sharing to really take off, it may have to allow and accept helmet-free riding. A two-year-old bike-sharing program in Melbourne, Australia — where helmet use in mandatory — has only about 150 rides a day, despite the fact that Melbourne is flat, with broad roads and a temperate climate. On the other hand, helmet-lax Dublin — cold, cobbled and hilly — has more than 5,000 daily rides in its young bike-sharing scheme. Mexico City recently repealed a mandatory helmet law to get a bike-sharing scheme off the ground. But here in the United States, the politics are tricky.
The article goes on to cite Piet de Jong, an Australian researcher who has studied the issues of cycling’s health benefits versus its risks. He concludes the benefits outweigh the risks by a ratio of 20 to 1, pointing out that it makes more sense statistically speaking for people to wear helmets when climbing ladders or getting into a bath tub, because there are lots more injuries during those activities.
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This is a section of Doug Porter’s Starting Line column from Oct. 2, 2012.