Cycling, women, and safety in numbers

bikesandbrains poster, image of a brain

I’m a speaker at a community event called Bikes n’ Brains. It’s here in London, Ontario at the end of the month. I agreed as long as I get to put a gender angle on it. 🙂

My plan is to talk about women and cycling, and what it takes to get more women out on bikes. For some, but not all of us, that’s cupcake rides but for pretty much everybody it’s safety.

But what makes cycling safe? There’s a tension between institutional solutions, like better cycling infrastructure, and individual solutions, like wearing helmets and bright colours.

I’ll actually set aside, for the purposes of this event, some of my skepticism about the usual individual safety tips.

Does high visibility clothing make a difference? No, actually. (See Why cycling in high-vis may be not as safe as you think : A study of motorcyclists shows head-to-toe fluorescent yellow does not always ensure you are visible and High vis clothing doesn’t make cars pass you more safely, says new study.)

And then there’s the debate on the internet that I hate having: Should bike helmets be mandatory?

For the record, I’m opposed to mandatory helmet laws for adults even though I never ride without a helmet and my children ride without a helmet on pain of losing their bikes.

Why? It’s complicated.

Here’s part of the answer. The biggest predictor of cycling safety is numbers. The more people who ride, the safer it is. Helmets put people off in two different ways. One, they contribute to the perception of cycling as unsafe, as risky. “Look you need special gear!” Two, they’re awkward and ugly and mess up your hair. Fine, whatever.

We don’t make joggers wear helmets even though they’d be safer if they did. I’ve got a friend recovering now from a pretty severe concussion caused by tripping on a curb when she was out for a run.

And, in the kind of crashes cyclists most fear, impact with cars, helmets often don’t make a difference.

Why do I wear one? Despite what I’ve said the answer is still safety.

I’ve “come off my bike” as cyclists say a few times. One time involved another bike. The other involved a car passing too closely and an unexpected pothole. Both involved visits to the hospital, scans of various sorts, and replacing my helmet. Mild concussion in one case, nothing in the second. In both cases, I was told by emergency workers that my helmet made a huge difference in the outcome.

That said, I don’t wear a helmet riding in European cities or even in large North Americam cities on rental bikes, in segregated bike lanes. There I’m riding very slowly, away from cars, and around thousands of other cyclists all riding without helmets.

So my safety focus will be more on infrastructure, less about individual behavior though I’ll always push individuals to wear helmets, remain attentive, and obey the rules of the road.

I love the contrast, by the way, between today’s bike safety posters and the ones from the 1940s, reprinted here from the blog The Retronaut. Enjoy!

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