Helmets, hygiene, hair… help?

I subscribe to a Google News feed for “bike parking” where I find many articles about grander issues but they get caught in the search. When people talk about increasing or improving bicycling, they almost always talk about parking (it’s a necessity). A recent article talked little about bike parking; The short blurb about a hygiene “problem” of helmet hair piqued my attention.

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A bicyclist on her first commute by bicycle wears a helmet in San Jose, California.

Helmets

As DOTS pushes biking, gender gap persists” (by Lauren Redding in the Diamondback, student newspaper from University of Maryland). DOTS is the University’s Department of Transportation Services, which has a goal of 9% of students getting to campus by bike and recently conducted a count that found only 20% of biking students are female. The article cites DOTS as saying that safety and hygiene are the major barriers that keep the frequency of women bikers low. Somehow, hygiene is related to helmet hair.

Helmet hair is not as important as building safe bicycling routes to the school, educating students on how to ride safely and locking their bikes correctly. The article in no way describes the University’s Transportation Services group as “helmet pushers,” but this comment bothers me: “For women especially — when you put on a helmet, you mess up your hair.”

Let’s stop building bike lanes and deal with this, stat! Okay, for real: There is a gender gap, but dealing with helmet hair will never match the effects of making cycling safe (or normal) on increasing the number of women who bike.

After I began an obsession with Dutch bikes and bicycling “culture” (a culture of safety and high numbers riding bikes), I learned more about helmets and the reasons people use them. My position about wearing and promoting helmets has changed somewhat, but my behavior, so far, hasn’t. Rarely does a Dutch person wear a helmet. From the research:

In the Netherlands, a survey of pediatricians found that 94% never wear helmet, but that 82% agree that helmet use should be advised for children (source). Overall, “less than 1% of adult cyclists wear helmets, and even among children, only 3–5% wear helmets” (source: “Making Cycling Irresistible” [PDF], the best article describing bicycling in the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark, comparing it to countries with low bicycling rates, United States, United Kingdom, and Australia).

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I bought this new helmet in Summer 2009, to be more comfortable and to look better. Like I said, my position has changed, but my behavior hasn’t. I think everyone should make their own decision about helmets; helmets are only useful to prevent head injuries once a collision or crash has occurred. It’s more important to build facilities and educate people to reduce the likelihood of a collision or crash.

My Dutch fixation continued to the end of the last semester – I presented and wrote a paper for my Sustainable Development Techniques class about what makes bicycling in the Netherlands safe and easy, and how the United States can learn. Dutch bicycling presentation for class (PDF) and the Dutch bicycling presentation for class (DOC).

The bike helmet-American relationship is amusing. I can’t explain it as eloquently as Mikael Kolville-Anderson in Copenhagen: he mentions it a hundred times (search of Copenhagenize for the term “helmet”). The latest news, although not about America, but relatable: Israel is getting ready to repeal part of the all-ages helmet law, which is seen as discouraging bicycling in the country.

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About Steven Vance

Enthusiast for urbanism, bicycling as transportation, and open data. Building a bicycle culture in Chicago.