Blog Archives

Bike Helmets and the Culture of Driving

Bikes lined up in Copenhagen (image pradadearest).

Bikes lined up in Copenhagen (image PradaDearest).

A host of observers argue that cycling is saddled by a “culture of fear”: apparently terrified by warnings about the dangers of cycling, many people fear biking, and even disciplined riders seem compelled to wear bright clothing, confine themselves to bike lanes, and wear safety gear, such as helmets.  Many of these commentators decry a “nanny state’s” construction of cycling as a “dangerous” activity that breeds fear to hawk commodities that will make us impervious to all possible threats.

Hush’s Chris Bruntlett, for instance, captures the contorted logic (and unsubstantiated science) that helmets increase the danger to cyclists:  “the mistaken sense of invincibility provided by safety gear drastically changes the dynamic between road users, and not in the favour of the cyclist.  Armoured cyclists have been statistically documented to indulge in ‘overcompensation’, taking additional risks, riding quicker and more recklessly than they otherwise would. Similarly, in a scientifically proven phenomenon known as the Mary Poppins effect, motorists also conduct themselves differently around cyclists dressed in protective equipment, leaving less space when passing, and travelling notably faster around them.”

Mikael Colville-Andersen's constructions of cyclists as the perfect aesthetic marriage of function, beauty, and style unmarred by an obtrusive helmet (image from Mikael Colville-Andersen).

Mikael Colville-Andersen’s constructions of cyclists as the perfect aesthetic marriage of function, beauty, and style unmarred by an obtrusive helmet (image from Mikael Colville-Andersen).

The most persistent volleys against helmets have come from Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Andersen, who has been lobbying against helmets for most of a decade.   Colville-Andersen’s Cycle Chic  blog champions stylish urban bike culture; he argues that “Copenhageners have demystified the bicycle and use it without any form of bicycle ‘gear,’” a dig at cycling style dominated by lycra, skin-tight jerseys, and helmets.  Cycle Chic comes armed with its own pretentious manifesto including the directive that “I will refrain from wearing and owning any form of ‘cycle wear.’”  Sociologist Dave Horton sounds much the same tone about cycling fear, but he acknowledges that anxiety about cycling is an emotional apprehension of accidents as well as the uncertainties of being a rider in public space.  He laments that cycling anxieties are symptomatic of a broader “culture of fear,” with the apprehensions fostered by helmet laws typical of our deep-seated dread of everyday social life.

Colville-Andersen secured international media coverage this year with his shallow ethnographic analysis that “it’s an interesting cultural question as to why, in Anglo Saxon countries, there’s this almost pornographic obsession with safety, whereas in France and Spain they don’t promote helmets.”  For Colville-Andersen, the confidence in helmets is misplaced faith fueled by “fanatic safety nannies” and overwrought emotion.  In 2008, Colville-Andersen’s Copenhagenize exhausted the metaphorical link between faith and helmet rhetoric when he suggested that “people insist on sticking to their beliefs that they are wearing a polystyrene, all-powerful halo that wards off all traffic evils and will ensure a long, healthy life.”   He theatrically refuses to cycle in Australia in protest of compulsory helmet laws, arguing that “Australia is held up as the example of how helmet laws destroy urban cycling.”  Colville-Andersen’s desire to cycle without the imposition of an intrusive state perhaps strikes a populist sentiment allowing him to unleash his long locks and wear trendy clothes, but his assessment of the social and material conditions of cycling in America at least is fundamentally flawed.

A Copenhagen bike lane (image Cian Ginty).

A Copenhagen bike lane (image Cian Ginty).

My hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana has a bike-friendly mayor whose office has led a push for bike lanes throughout the city, and those lanes and bike trails provide a modest foothold for cycling in the state’s capital city.  Bike lanes are routinely considered confusing to motorists, and after construction of Indianapolis bike lanes in 2011, one local TV station reported that “The bicyclists, at least the ones we talked to today, know the rules. The problem is everyone else on the road beside them.”

These bike lanes are routinely the targets of local critique.  Indianapolis cyclist Paul Ogden assessed the city’s bike lanes in October and concluded that “too many bicyclists entering bike lanes think they’re riding in a magical place where they no longer have to worry about the dangers of riding a bike in traffic. . . Now confined to a little strip of pavement along side of the road, the bicyclist is actually more likely to be hit at, and certainly so at intersections.”  In July he attacked “bike boxes,” sounding the same mantra that “bike lanes and bike boxes often cause bicyclists fall into the false sense of security that a line on the pavement will protect them from a collision with a several thousand pound vehicle.” Read the rest of this entry