Last semester, a car stopped suddenly in front of my bike. I smashed into the back windshield, a dramatic cranial clunk heard far and wide across the Elm City. This could have been the end of my academic career (and perhaps even my prehumous existence as we know it), but I survived. Why? Because I was wearing a helmet.
Every year between 700–1000 people die in the U.S. from a bike accident. In a study conducted by the New York City government from 1996 to 2005, 97 percent of people who died in a cycling accident were not wearing a helmet. In 2009, a study from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons reported that cycling, with 85,000 head injuries, represented the highest number of injuries of any sport. Causation, no?
Yet when I look across Yale, a majority of students who bike are not wearing helmets. To me, this is appalling. Bicycle helmets help prevent concentrated forces from hitting the head and reduce injury. They work by the same principle that we use to protect our phones by wearing a case. Yet, I see more Yale students with cases on their phones than wearing bike helmets.
Your head is probably worth $250,000 by the end of your education, if not more if you went to some fancy prep school. By contrast, a helmet is only $20. In economic terms alone, this feels awfully silly.
When I confront my friends about wearing a helmet, I hear convincing arguments such as “it messes up my hair” and “it feels uncomfortable.” These arguments are, in a word, ridiculous. Wear a helmet; a fractured skull seems slightly less aesthetically pleasing than hat hair.
There are, in fact, rational reasons to not wear a bike helmet. One argument is that per mile, you are more likely to suffer a head injury as a pedestrian than as a bicyclist. Helmet opponents (yes, there are quite a few) argue that to be consistent, you should wear a helmet when crossing the street. This is absurd: Since helmets prevent injury from happening in the first place, they can lessen accidents to the point where they are not even reported.
The most commonly cited reason against helmet legislation is that it might discourage people from riding their bikes. While this argument could hold water in a car-oriented city, it does not a apply at Yale: No one is substituting a car for a bike. However, we do risk taking cyclists off of the road. There are fewer accidents in areas where drivers are accustomed to cyclists, so this is a serious concern: More bikes mean safer biking for everyone. And with New Haven’s potholes and terrible drivers, I worry for my peers.
But we’re not talking about legislation; we’re talking about a code of cultural conduct. Wear a helmet not only because it protects you and your head, but also because it will lead to a culture of wearing helmets. Who knows? You could start a trend and inspire a fellow student cyclist to take the few minutes to go to any one of New Haven’s three bike shops. Or even to order one online.
The decision to wear a helmet seems radically personal. The prevalent Yale philosophy of “you do you” should instruct that personal decisions are left to the individual. However, this seemingly personal decision is, like all human actions, a social decision. Choosing to wear a helmet will encourage helmet-wearing campus-wide. Talk to your unhelmeted peers (in a non-shameful way) and tell them that you care. In doing so, you’ll help our community make safer decisions together in both seemingly personal and also self-serving ways.
Unlike laws, cultural codes do not have fines for disobeying. Creating a culture around bike-helmet usage is safe and smart. It allows people to make personal choices around helmet use without discouraging them from biking altogether. People could bike without a helmet, but a cultural helmet-wearing norm pressures people in less harsh and forceful ways to change their behavior. With cultural codes, people are allowed to make personal choices. But the cultural code pressures us in ways that are still consistent with free choice to do what is certainly best for the community.
If people have to bike once or twice without a helmet, there is a low chance that they will be injured or killed. Statistics show that people are far less likely to get in an accident on familiar ground. It’s probably not life or death for one person, one time. But it’s safer overall for all people to wear helmets. Not worth the risk, don’t you think?
Peter Chung is a junior in Pierson College. He was a former editor of YTV. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .