The Helmet Dilemma


If you’re a Boston biker, you probably heard about the Boston Public Health Commission’s recent helmet campaign.  In an attempt to encourage bikers to wear helmets, the BPHC commissioned graphic posters (see below) of injured cyclists which were displayed prominently around the city.

I recently met with Nick Martin, the Director of Communications at the Boston Public Health Commission, to discuss the campaign.  I have two main problems with this effort, and I thought I’d share them here.

Problem #1: What are they advertising?

Here’s the thing about helmet awareness campaigns: the only way that they can be effective is by promoting the idea that you’re likely to crash.  Essentially, they have to advertise for bike crashes.

That’s because the sole purpose of a bike helmet is to protect your head in the event of a crash.  That’s all it does.  So, the only way to properly promote such a device to the people who don’t use them is to remind them of its benefits, and of how much they’ll inevitably need them.

Nick and I talked about this problem, and he was quick to point out that the Commission was very careful about how they crafted their message when creating these advertisements.  They opted not to portray a crash scene or a mangled bike, and they didn’t show any cars or busses, to avoid fostering any sort of “bikes vs. drivers” sentiment.

While I truly appreciate the thought behind these efforts, they’re unfortunately irrelevant.  They do nothing to change the fact that the undisputed goal of these posters was to advertise bike crashes.  And that’s a problem.

It’s been shown that more bikers on the road makes things safer for everyone.  Drivers become accustomed to sharing the road with bikers and checking before they turn or change lanes, and bikers can ride more confidently and visibly in groups.

This city has made amazing progress in getting people out riding bikes, and this attempt to scare people into wearing helmets is an clear step backwards.

By indiscriminately promoting the likelihood of a crash, the Public Health Commission gave Bostonians a reason to fear biking.  While their message undoubtedly reached some number of helmetless bikers (who for the most part, I’d argue, were likely unmoved), it also reached all the curious non-cyclists who were thinking about trying out that new bike lane that goes right by their work.

Anyone already on the fence about whether they should ride a bike in this city was confronted by the official stance of an organization that’s charged with keeping them healthy: biking = crashes.

Problem #2: To what end?

It’s easy to argue that the ends justify the means with these sorts of campaigns, and that encouraging helmet use is always a good thing, no matter the potential (and unproven) consequences.

It’s understandable that cities like Boston focus their resources on trying to get more people wearing helmets—after all, they’re the first thing most people think of when asked about bike safety.  They might not know about the door zone, or proper lane selection to avoid a right hook, but every non-biker knows about the special plastic hats we wear to protect our noggins.

But even if it makes sense to non-bikers, and even if we dismiss all the possible downsides of decreased ridership, just about any helmet awareness campaign is still misguided from the start.  That’s because they’re focusing on the wrong end of bike safety—they’re starting with the crash.

The Boston Public Health Commission (and organizations like it) should be focused on efforts that can prevent crashes, helmeted or not.  Even if their campaign had somehow resulted in 100% helmet use across the city, it would still have done absolutely nothing to reduce the number of crashes that occur.  It couldn’t, because helmets don’t prevent crashes.

Let me be perfectly clear: this isn’t about whether or not wearing a helmet is a good idea.  This is about the best way to keep bikers safe.  Preventing crashes from happening is what saves lives, and that should be the primary goal of any safety campaign.

Focusing on helmet awareness takes attention and funding away from more urgent initiatives, like getting all bikers to ride with lights at night, or making drivers aware of their responsibilities when sharing the road with bikes. (Boston’s recent campaign, for instance, cost the city $40,000.)

Boston has already set an example for bike-friendly cities everywhere by expanding bike lanes, installing the Hubway system, and appointing a Bike Czar to represent the interests of cyclists.  I want us to continue to be at the forefront of the movement towards more bike friendly cities.

Hopefully the reaction to this campaign among bikers has started a conversation that will lead to truly effective safety initiatives in the future.  There really is no good excuse not to.




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