The Bike Helmet Wars

The Wall Street Journal, "Commerce & Culture" , October 09, 2010

Poor Barack Obama. He can't take a simple bicycle ride without attracting criticism.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama was photographed wearing a bike helmet while cycling in Chicago. Critics said he looked like a dork. Then last year, when he rode handsomely bare-headed down the paths of Martha's Vineyard, the safety lobby lambasted him for setting a dangerous example. So on last month's return to the island, the carefully helmeted president appeased those critics—only to reawaken charges that he looked like an unmanly wimp. Maybe next year he'll give up and leave the bike rides to the First Daughters.

This no-win situation reflects more than the president's political troubles. Bicycle helmets excite all-or-nothing passions. To advocates, riding without a helmet is little better than chain-smoking while driving 80 miles an hour without a seat belt. To opponents, including many European bicycle fanatics, helmets unfairly stigmatize cycling, making it look dangerous, difficult and decidedly uncool. Walking is more hazardous, they note, but we don't demand that pedestrians sport protective headgear.

The debate would be nasty enough if helmet partisans were only passing judgment on one another's prudence, courage, environmental commitment and parenting skills. But there are laws at stake. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia require kids, usually defined as those under 16, to wear helmets.

The laws do tend to cut the number of deaths in bike accidents, according to a forthcoming study in the Journal of Law and Economics. The economists Christopher S. Carpenter of the Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, and Mark F. Stehr of the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University compare the year-to-year change in bicycle-accident deaths for states that enact a helmet law with the change for those that don't.

The result: A new helmet law reduces bicycle deaths among the affected age group by about 19%. It doesn't affect older riders. Since serious bicycle accidents are rare, however, the absolute numbers are still small, about eight fewer deaths a year among kids 5 to 15 than would otherwise occur in the states with helmet laws. "It's not a ton of lives when you compare it to something like wearing your seat belt," says Prof. Stehr.

One reason for the drop is, of course, that more kids wear helmets when they get into accidents. But another is that many give up cycling altogether. Using surveys of parents, the professors find that about 650,000 fewer children ride bikes each year after helmet laws go into effect. That's about 81,000 fewer riders for every life saved. Helmets may save lives, but the dork factor also takes its toll.

In bicycle-loving Denmark, where the parliament soundly defeated a helmet mandate last year, a group of designers has attacked the aesthetic problem directly. Founded in early 2009, their company Yakkay sells a standard helmet shell with switchable covers that look like stylish hats, providing protection without stigmatizing either the cyclist or cycling.

Aesthetics isn't the only issue. Even with the best imaginable data, we couldn't answer the fundamental questions: Should you wear a bicycle helmet? Should you make your child wear one? Context matters and so do personal values. An either-or prescription recognizes neither.

Take President Obama. When he hasn't been mau-maued by safety fanatics, he makes sensible distinctions. On a Chicago street where he might collide with a car, he wears a helmet. For a leisurely ride on a smooth bike path away from traffic, he doesn't. There, he simply isn't going to have the high-speed collisions for which helmets provide valuable protection. The First Daughters' helmets, like his, are largely symbolic. They are amulets against vulnerability, their gracelessness a sacrifice to the fates.