Shame on You?

In yesterday’s Examiner:

One of my favorite cycling sites,, published a picture on the last day of 2008 that drew a “Shame on you…” letter from at least one reader. Velonews’ sin? Depicting a rider sans helmet.

The controversial photo was attached to an article proposing that everyone try to replace at least one car trip of a mile or less with a walk or bike ride on a weekly basis. The rider in the photo appears to be an elderly gentleman on a city bike, complete with rear rack dangling storage bags. Velonews’ letter editor, apparently agreeing that the photo was inappropriate, promised to dissuade the employee who selected the helmetless photo from doing so again by threatening to “…whack him over his (helmet-clad) head…” if the error were repeated.


On further reflection, I realize that I don’t think it’s such a sin to depict individuals riding without helmets, especially when they appear to be on short shopping trips on city bikes. The one-mile solution proposed in the Velonews article will attract far fewer practitioners if we insist they don a helmet every time they take a short trip on a bike. Although the habit is catching on rapidly, many European bicycle commuters still do not wear helmets. On my recent trip to Dubai, I saw zero commuting bicyclists with helmets on.

I have to agree with the author; a photo depicting an elderly gentleman on a city bike, riding to the grocery store without a helmet, is not likely to corrupt the cycling youth of America.

Read the full article

31 Responses to “Shame on You?”

  • RJ says:

    On the “shameful” scale, that photo isn’t exactly showing up on my radar..

  • mike says:

    One hopes it encourages the cycling youth in the country. It seems that in cities and countries with high mode share for bicycles have low head share in helmets.

    A skull bucket is a tool. Use it when it makes sense. Riding to the grocer and doing other errands sans helmet is OK by me.

  • Donald says:

    A society that cycles sans helmets is better than a society that does not cycle at all. Let it be a personal choice.


  • Thom says:

    No helmet, no problem, but he should have a hat on in that rain!

  • Vance says:

    I assume majority of the bicyclists who went about without a helmet already know the risks involved. On one hand, each have a weighty personal reason to defy the general practice. On the other hand, aren’t bicyclists entitled to their rights? I’d love to get biking under the rain with only a raincoat on than I would under the scorching sun with a helmet.

  • Chris says:

    Personally I think riding a bike without a helmet is for the people without a brain worth protecting. However, I have no problem viewing people riding without one, I simply judge the rider, not the publication.

  • Croupier says:

    A co-worker of mine, a former professional track and road cyclist, used to tell me, “a helmet is not so much about personal safety as it is a courtesy to those you ride with because, if you’re bleeding from the head, they’ll inevitably feel somewhat obligated to stop… and no one want to do that.”

  • Chris Cowan says:

    Wasn’t there a study a while back that claimed drivers are more careful around people who didn’t wear helmets? I also remember something about how they pass closer to people with helmets on because of some kind of illusion of safety.

    Wearing helmets doesn’t really make cycing safer (there I said it). Most of the people I know that have died in the last couple of years on their bike were wearing their helmets. Cars are dangerous reguardless of what measures you take. I will say that helmets do come in handy when your head hits the pavement/ground during low speed accidents (with or without cars).

    (BTW… I wear a helmet everytime I ride and the only time I really used it was while I was Mtn Biking. ENDO!)

  • tdp says:

    I usually avoid these kinds of hot and passionate topics because I can tend to get heated and passionate about them but even I can’t escape the lure of this discussion and will bite this time.

    To wear a helmet or not depends on where I am riding: mountain biking – of course I’ve got one on, busy streets – I would probably wear one, back roads with nary a car or a hot summer day on a lone stretch of highway- probably not.

    And to the self righteous – If they want a better role model for their kids then they should do a better job at raising them, it’s not my job. I am not their kids keepers. Some people feel it their sanctimonious right to judge others, I say go harass obese people or smokers for raising your premiums before passing judgement on me. Better yet go after people who are driving their cars without a helmet… that’s right far more head traumas from auto accidents could have been prevented if the occupants had been wearing a helmet than people who suffer head injuries from bike related accidents.

    Okay now that I’m off the soapbox: I am of the frame of mind that much more effort should be put in to trying to get people to get ON their bikes and save the planet than trying to then scare them off their bikes by forcing them to wear a helmet.

  • Chris C. says:

    @tdp AMEN! AMEN! AMEN!

  • Rene says:

    In the Netherlands people really bike a lot (I am just about to bike my two sons to school) but for ordinairy use nobody wears a helmet (except some small children). People on fast racebikes usually do wear them.

    The (relative) number of bike-cycle accidents here is very low so please don’t say riding a bike without a helmet is for those without a brain worth protecting. If helmets were compulsory here I guess there would be less people cycling. Research has shown that more bike-related accidents happen when less people cycle.


  • Harry says:

    No helmet? No problem here.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    “Far more head traumas from auto accidents could have been prevented if the occupants had been wearing a helmet than people who suffer head injuries from bike related accidents”

    This is something I’ve often seen repeated but I haven’t seen a source for it. Could someone provide a link? Thanks.

  • tdp says:

    @eric Sandblom

    Drudged this up from an old Copenhenize article: (

    Original discussion:
    And another interesting one:

  • beth h says:

    Once upon a time, almost NO ONE rode with a helmet. Hardly anyone besides a handful of well-endowed college students could afford them, and they were either goofy and pointless (remember the Skid-Lid?) or bowling-ball heavy (like the Bell Shell). I didn’t wear a helmet until i reached my early thirties. And LOOK! I SURVIVED!

    I wear a helmet today, but only because I have to survive on streets filled with more and more cars than I ever encountered in my youth. If we lived in a car-free world, or at least got to ride around truly livable cities that favored bicyclists and pedestrians and made it much harder to drive in town, well, I’d be done with the helmet in a heartbeat. And I think that while helmet use is a good idea, making it mandatory (either socially OR legally) puts the blame for bike-car crashes solely on the cyclist, when in most cases it’s because we have to survive on roads designed for cars.

  • No says:

    Helmets don’t affect the serious injury figures of population wide studies so clearly any benefit is extremely limited. Numbers, infrastructure and training are all far more important!

    – Why would you think they will protect your brain?
    – Why would you see wearing one as a good role model?
    – Why should a magazine use only helmeted photos?

    It’s a contentious subject that has not been resolved. So assuming helmets are good and that a photo of an normal person is bad, is clearly flawed.

  • 2whls3spds says:

    Political correctness run amuck…

    In Australia mandatory helmet laws reduced the number of cyclists on the roads and did little to nothing for the reduction of head injuries caused during cycling. If someone will do an in depth study I bet you would find that the incident of head injury while riding a bicycle like the on pictured above would be less than those on those funny looking bikes with the curly handlebars. AFAIK NO ONE has done real world comprehensive testing of bicycle helmets in a real world situation, until they can do that and publish tangible results helmet wearing should continue to be up to the discretion of the individual rider.

    I have ridden for over 35 years, crashed several times without a helmet and even once wearing one…no debilitating brain injury here…antedoctal evidence for you ;-)


  • Darryl says:

    Safety notwithstanding, clearly there is a dearth of important information not being issued with the photo. Where was the picture taken? Are helmet laws enacted and enforced at that location? When was the picture taken? Was there a helmet law at that time? Is the cyclist in a race, heavy traffic or on difficult terrain? If no, is a helmet really necessary?

    But what can we tell from what we see already? An elderly cyclist is riding in the rain past a busy gas station. So what does that convey to us? That old folks can ride. Rain doesn’t deter this cyclist or any cyclist. This cyclist doesn’t need to fill up, this time.

    What does this picture imply – because we aren’t certain.
    This cyclist has disregarded the products of the biggest industries in America. This is a spontaneous, or spur of the moment ride. He enjoys riding in the rain. He does not have automobile to use. Why? we don’t know. It could be he doesn’t have one, his is in the shop, his priviledges are restricted, or he ran out of gas.

    Or there could be no real hidden meaning. The cyclist caught the photographer’s eye for some reason and the photographer took the picture of the ironic juxtaposition of the cyclist in front of a gas station. The photographer would then let the viewers come up with their own caption.
    If it were me taking the picture in my news photography days, I would have chased him down, got his name, and asked what he was doing on his bike in the rain, so I can get the answers to the questions.

    Probably, the subject of the picture in the newspaper, would not have been the cyclist, the gas station, the ironic juxtaposition, or the fact he isn’t wearing a helmet (which isn’t mandatory here in Wisconsin – home of the Harley motorcycle) but the rain itself, which is a constant news story from day to day.
    “Cool rain in Southern Wisconsin brought (x) inches yesterday afternoon as local citizens find ways to cope as is avid cyclist John Doe, Anytown, going to market on Main Street,” a basic cutline would read.

    Helmetless as a subject? Not this picture.

  • Audeamus says:

    I’ve managed to stay out of the helmet wars so far, and it’s precisely because of people who think that wearing a helmet is some kind of talisman that will ward off evil spirits. First, there is the problem of people not realizing or acknowledging that the reason why helmets are mandatory in American cycling events is because it “protects” everybody from liability more than it actually protects riders in many instances, and then there’s the problem of cyclists acting just like religious evangelicals who are more than happy to tell others what to do and what not to do, acting on blind faith rather than facts. Just to make matters worse, many cyclists are more than happy to express their opinion, learned or not, thereby forming circular firing squads who squelch progress and also manage in public meetings and hearings to make all cyclists seem like aggressive idiots.

    I say all this as a frustrated city planner who’s trying almost every day to make our fair city more amenable to cyclists of all stripes. I’m sorry if I offend anyone, but it’s stupid stuff like this that makes me sometimes fantasize about a different profession.

  • Alan says:

    What I found most interesting was the response from Velo News’ letter editor:

    “Velonews’ letter editor, apparently agreeing that the photo was inappropriate, promised to dissuade the employee who selected the helmetless photo from doing so again by threatening to “…whack him over his (helmet-clad) head…” if the error were repeated.”

    Even though it’s perfectly legal (over the age of 18) to ride without a helmet in the U.S., it appears to be politically incorrect (and possibly bad for business?).

    In my favorite magazine, VeloVision, at least 50% of the riders depicted are helmetless, yet I’ve never heard an outcry about that. I’m sure it’s because VV has an international audience and the attitudes toward helmet use in other countries are generally more liberal than here in the U.S.

  • Karl OnSea says:

    This sort of thing drives me nuts. Better to ride without a lid, than not ride at all. The former carries a minimal risk and huge health benefits, while the latter is a short cut to an early death.

  • Duncan Watson says:

    This picture is more of a “good for you” shot rather than a “shame on you shot”. I am glad to see the guy on a bike running errands in the rain.

  • Helton says:

    Why so many people advocate helmet use and almost NOBODY talks about LEARNING TO CONTROL YOUR BIKE?! I’ve read some place that “Superior riders use superior knowledge and superior experience to avoid situations that require superior skill”, and I agree somewhat, but let’s face the fact that SUPERIOR SKILL is far much more important that helmet or not-helmet, because it PREVENTS the accident itself in the first place.

    Best regards

  • Chris C. says:

    @Helton People are generally lazy and don’t want to be superior if it requires REAL work. It’s much easier to strap a helmet on and ride around like an idiot chastising people without helmets then it is to learn (or teach) how to ride a bike safely.

  • Concretin Nik says:

    Wearing a helmet… what a wonderful CHOICE for adults to make. I choose to wear one (I skateboard much much more than I bike ride). I ride a cruiser bike, and I keep it off the busy streets (Yep, I’ll even ride it on the sidewalk. My bike will only go so fast and I am much safer there, and my saftey is much more important to me than anything you can point out), but I do occasionally ride without a helmet. But my child will wear one, or he won’t be riding.

    It comes down to this… I wear one simply because my head has hit concrete with and without one. I got up much quicker when I was wearing it, and it hurt less.

    And how much do you trust the next guy? I don’t trust him, at all.

  • KWW says:

    Its personal choice and an element of political correctness. I see nothing wrong with it.

    Just don’t assume that short trips justify ‘no helmet’ if you make a distinction. Most (motorized) vehicular accidents occur within 5 miles of home.

    Further, also don’t assume that 50 cents of expanded foam will protect you in any way from a 2500 pound vehicle at any speed. Helmets by safety standard definition aren’t designed for that at all.

  • Allen Shropshire says:

    What is it that makes a photo of a helmetless man inappropriate? As I ride around town, not only am I without a helmet, I see that at least 50% of the other riders are without a helmet as well. To ignore the fact that people choose to go unprotected (myself included – although I am in the market for one) or that they exist and only write about and publish photos of the same, seems quite inappropriate in itself.
    Shame on the Velonews editor.

  • Spokes says:

    What we really need is for more people to wear rubbers…thereby producing fewer weenies that feel the need to inflict self righteous opinions on the rest of the world.

  • charles says:

    Until the helmet police started emerging about 1980-1990 we rarely saw any cyclists wearing one. I got my first in about 1982 but didn’t wear it often. I still don’t when I am doing a bunch of climbing on hot days or when its real cold and my wool cap works better at keeping my head warm. My own Dad (God rest his soul) never had one and I rode sans helmet until my mid 20’s. I think the millions of cyclists, worldwide, for the last hundred years are proof that it is possible to bicycle without a helmet.

  • EcoVelo » Blog Archive » Helmets: Had Enough Yet? says:

    […] Shame on You? (383 views) In yesterday’s Examiner: One of my favorite cycling sites,… […]

  • Ari Hornick says:

    Alright, I’ll bite…

    The benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by 40 to 1 even if you’re not wearing a helmet. Of course, of the few people who do die while cycling, something like two thirds of them would not even have had a head injury had they been wearing a helmet. I suppose I should dig up the study in case anyone wants a cite.

    I didn’t even have a helmet until I landed on my head. I was 15 years old. I bought a helmet the next day. I wear it religiously. Here we are 22 years later, and I haven’t landed on my head since.

    Maybe the best reason to wear a helmet is something that I read in Bicycling magazine once upon a time. Your head is 3 times more aerodynamic with a helmet as opposed to hair. I have no idea if that’s true, but I like the sound of it. Then again, maybe that’s an argument for shaving my head. :)

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