More Helmet Wars

Matthew Modine, actor, environmentalist, and founder of Bicycle for a Day (BFAD), is getting a lot of press recently over his choice to not wear a helmet while bicycling. It all started when Modine mentioned in a New York Magazine interview that the League of American Bicyclists refused to link to a BFAD promotional video in which he’s shown riding helmetless. From there, the story was picked up by Treehugger, Copenhagenize, and finally, Streetsblog.

It’s always amazing to me how contentious this subject can be; follow the links below if you’re up to diving into the fray.

NY Mag
Bicycle for a Day

41 Responses to “More Helmet Wars”

  • ksteinhoff says:

    Life is too short for me to get embroiled in helmet wars.

  • Alan says:

    I hear ya’…

  • Len says:

    Yep, Mr Modine looks to be over 18 and able to make his own decisions. The League of American Bicyclists should let the helmet manufacturers do their own advertising and stop pushing helmets on everyone. Life is too short to be focused on helmets when you could be encouraging bike riding.

  • Andy K says:

    Amen Len. I wear a helmet, and could give a rats ass if someone else does not.

  • Tom says:

    Life is too short. That’s why I never miss a helmet war.

  • Alan says:



  • Ron says:


    I never used to wear one for commuting, though friends eventually convinced me to wear one mountain biking, mostly by refusing to ride with me, citing my sometimes reckless tendencies off-road coupled with their unwillingness to scrape my grey matter off a tree trunk. About the same time, helmets progressed beyond the choices between hardshell and leather net, and started coming in sizes that actually fit my jumbo gourd.

    After a couple of events, I’ve come around on commuting as well. I used to believe I was possessed of handling skills which would allow me to avoid hazards on the road (based on the aforementioned off-road recklessness, which seemed more dangerous than anything I encountered around town). Then I watched as a driver cut off a friend of mine, and she slammed into his rear fender, endoing hard into pavement. I heard her helmet smack the road, followed by a great rush of air as all of her breath was forced out of her. I am convinced the helment saved her life. I also had to admit I couldn’t have avoided the unpredictable, erratic driver.

    That incident convinced me to wear a helmet, albiet sporadically, for getting around town. Then my wife wrecked because of a plastic bag tangled in her front brake. She crushed her helmet. She still doesn’t remember the helicopter ride, the MRIs, or three days under observation in the hospital. Again, I believe the helmet saved her life. Now that we have a little girl, I always wear my helmet, both to keep my daughter from losing her dad, and to set an example.

    I do remain somewhat resentful that I have to wear a dorky styrofoam hat just because drivers can’t be trusted, and unanticpated road hazards like plastic bags exist, but it is what it is.

    Still, I understand why people don’t like them, and I respect anyone’s choice to not wear one. Go ahead, tug on Superman’s cape, piss into the wind, fuel yourself with nicotine and corn syrup. It’s your life.

    As far as people fretting over cyclists’ as rolling role models goes, I agree with Grant Peterson–goofy helmets, neon bike clothes, and noisy tap shoes depersonalize humans and do more to discourage potential riders than any perceived disregard for personal safety.

    So I’d say it’s a good idea to wear one on the bike, if you choose, but lose the Fred gear when you get where you’re going.
    Happy Trails,
    Ron Georg

  • Ken Pendergrass says:

    I wear a helmet. It is a very selfish thing not to. Not all head injuries are fatal. Many are particially to fully disabling. Talk to me about your right not to wear one after your ducks are in a row. By that I mean after you have enough insurance and savings to not condem your familly and or loved ones or your fellow tax payers for that matter to cleaning your diapers for years into the future.

  • Sharper says:

    I agree, Ken, but not fully — the potential for a disabling brain injury is not the entirety of bicycle safety and the “selfishness” thereof. For my part, I don’t want to be a vegetable, but nor do I want to suffer through another six bikeless weeks waiting for my collarbone or ribs to heal after an accident, either.

    I thought it was pretty common knowledge that bicyclists are safer overall when there’s more of them in the traffic mix. Considering helmet haranguing has been shown to reduce cycling levels, I’m quite happy being selfish imploring people to bike, helmet or not, because their presence on the roadway increases my safety. And if that recent University of Bath study is right, cars tend to drive closer to helmeted riders. Demonize me for being “selfish” when I ride capless through the streets (though I do wear my helmet for my off-street trail commute), but please don’t trivialize the fact that I’ve come to a slightly different rational decision than you have.

  • ksteinhoff says:

    OK, I guess this Ken will have to agree with the other

    I learned first-hand how someone’s life can change in milliseconds when they go over the bars without a helmet.

    I’ve posted the link here before, but it pretty much sums up why I wear a helmet every time I’m on my bike, so it’s worth a reprint.

    Take it for what it’s worth.

    (Before you ask, my riding partner is still unable to work or ride a bike.)

  • Duane says:

    I wear a helmet. Yet, I staunchly adhere to wearing a helmet being a personal decision. I spent several months in rehab (spinal cord injury) alongside tbi (traumatic brain injured) patients (mostly from auto accidents; helmets in cars anyone?). Trust me, you want to do as much as possible to avoid admission in that club.

    I ride a Windcheetah recumbent trike and one of the pluses is of course their stability. Don’t let that fool you. They can tip over if the right speed and the lack of body lean and even a small edge come together at the same time. My (helmeted) brain was met by a generous curb at the same time my shoulder came in contact with the gutter. The worst that happened was a broken flag pole ($70.. yikes!) but it could have been worse.

  • Michael says:

    I’m helmeted.

    First off, it’s illegal to ride sans helmet where I live and I don’t want a ticket. Second, I have a friend who was in a low-speed, no big deal, fall-over wreck and smacked her head on the way down. She was wearing a properly fitted helmet properly and still got a TBI. I try not to think about what would have happened if her helmet wasn’t there to take up some of the shock. Third, (and probably foremost) I have a 9yo niece that would kill me if she saw me riding without a helmet.

    I, also, have a theory that the more we make bikes conform to the same laws as motorcycles the more they’ll be accepted on the road for transportation, not just recreation. So, helmet on the rider and headlight and taillight on the bike.

  • Jeff says:

    I think everyone should make their own decision about helmets. I ride with a helmet 99 percent of the time, whether commuting, on errands, or road riding. I wear a helmet for safety and to provide a good example for my kids. Every once in a long while I’ll take off without my helmet, usually when I’m in a hurry, and not realize it until I’m a ways from the house. I have to admit that I sincerely enjoy riding without a helmet… but, for me, the risks are too great to purposely ride without a helmet, and I really don’t mind wearing one.

  • No says:

    The League of American Bicyclists should reconsider – don’t they know that cycling is more important than whether it is done with a helmet or without. Cycling improves your life expectancy (even allowing for the supposed risk of cycling).

  • MiracleMike says:

    I survived an anoxic brain injury following a sudden cardiac arrest two and a half years ago. The neurologist urged my family do discontinue life-support, there was no hope. I lost two months of memory and it took a year to make it back, but I now ride 10-20 miles a day on a Stratus XP and wear a helmet. I can remember not remembering. I can remember being smart. Smart is better…..

  • Ari Hornick says:

    I’m basically in the Copenhagenize camp on this one. It’s not that I haven’t had all kinds of wrecks – some involving cars, some involving my head, none involving a car *and* my head – it’s just that anecdote is a crappy substitute for robust statistical analysis, and there’s a huge difference between actual risk and perceived risk.

  • HowardBollixter says:

    To each his/her own is best.

    This isn’t new information to anybody here, but given that half of head-injury fatalities occur in car accidents, shouldn’t there be a push for helmets there as well?

    I wear one selectively, like mt biking or icy conditions, but rarely around-town riding, and I’m 99% car-free, so that’s a lot. I just figure, perhaps naively that what’s in the head protects better than what’s on it. Tangling with a car, blunt trauma will take you out as readily as head damage, and the helmet won’t help with that.

    20mph city speed limits nationwide would be my preference, there’s just no need to go faster.

  • Gerhard says:

    Not wearing a helmet is idiocy! Just last Saturday we were on a ride and one rider’s frame collapsed. Even with a helmet some very serious injuries, I don’t even want to imagine the outcome without helmet.

  • Ari Hornick says:

    If not wearing a helmet while cycling is idiocy, not wearing a helmet while walking is worse – let alone riding in a car. The data are quite clear on that point.

    Again I would emphasize the important differences between anecdotes and robust statistical analysis and between perceived risk and actual risk.

  • ksteinhoff says:

    I wondered how long it would take for the “why don’t you make motorists wear helmets” argument to come up.

    Ron, at Cozy Beehive, addressed that issue last month is his normal rational engineering approach.

    Worth reading.

  • Alan says:

    The scientific data on whether or not helmets are effective has been available for many years; it’s clear they provide some level of protection.

    I think this is more a question of whether helmet use is a public health issue or a private matter. Because bicycle injuries are such a miniscule portion of overall health costs, I lean toward viewing helmet use as a private decision.


  • Andy K says:

    As I get older, I am realizing that speed in traffic is more of an issue than helmets. I like nothing better than speeding down a city street or down a long windy road on my bike – but, I have come to realize that this puts me at serious risk. My brakes and reactions are only so good.

    Like all the talk about stats regarding helmets and injuries.

    I have a helmet and wear it – i feel almost naked without it. Others can do as they please.

  • Stephen says:

    I wear a helmet…most of the time. Sometimes I don’t, but usually just when I’m riding to the local liquor store for a bottle of wine or to work on a day when a hat does a better job of keeping my head warm.

    Yes, I’m well aware of helmet issues and the arguments on both sides. However, I live in a state where it’s legal to ride motorcycles w/o helmets, which is about the stupidest thing I can think of. A motorcycle can weigh hundreds of pounds and some of them can go 180MPH.

    I question LAB’s motivations. I’d rather the LAB worry about creating more places where bicyclists can safely ride over being OCD about helmets.

  • Ari Hornick says:

    I agree whole heartedly with the public health versus personal choice distinction. Going after Matthew Modine for his effect as a role model is definitely in the public health discussion. Of course, I think that’s counterproductive. Going after the personal choice discussion is a waste. It’s like arguing over abortion or climate change. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone change their mind during one of those discussions. I’ve almost never seen anyone change their mind on one of those topics. Come to think of it, why am I still typing? :-)

  • Croupier says:

    “The dead know only one thing: It is better to be alive,” Pvt. Joker

  • Sharper says:

    I like that Cozy Beehive’s rebuttal to the flawed “then helmets should be mandatory for drivers” argument itself relies on the unspoken assertion that mandatory requirement of a safety device can ultimately be less safe for the vehicle operator and other road users.

    Cute touch, that.

  • HowardBollixter says:


    Stealing a riff on the Car Talk guys, the safest car would be one with a metal spike sticking out of the steering column, aimed at the driver’s chest. Talk about cautious driving! The concept is not unrelated to helmets, as I feel more focussed and alert naked.

  • Sharper says:

    Howard, I snort every time they utter that line, and bicycles are effectively the two-wheel version; there are so many things that can go wrong and turn a rider into a permanent non-cyclist that the only way to be truly safe is not to ride (or, alternatively, to only ride in an extremely well-padded titanium plate mail suit). Since that would decrease ridership a little, I couldn’t claim it’s sound policy.

    If you feel more focused and alert sans helmet, go for it — I assume you’ve got the ability to rationally determine that yourself. What gets my gall is when folks use terms like “selfish” and “idiocy” to attach moral values to the helmet/no-helmet decision (as happened in this thread), which can easily seem illiberal and paternalistic and can shut down rational debate.

    ‘Course, this is the internet, and I’ve happily thrown my share of stones, too, so…

  • Michael says:

    I’d probably ride sans helmet every now and again if:
    I didn’t have a 9yo with some sort of built in “Uncle Michael’s breaking a rule” radar built into her head around. She always busts me!
    It was legal. I don’t need the ticket or the hassle.
    I didn’t live where it’s hilly. I’m either going 8 or I’m going 25 (or more). If I was tooling along at a steady 10MPH I wouldn’t worry so much.
    If I lived where there were a lot of bike trails. In a car V. bike wreck my helmet wont count for much, but I’ll take whatever advantage I can get.

  • Ari Hornick says:

    Hold on a second. If we’re having a public health discussion, the cozybeehive blog suggests no requirements for helmets. If we’re having a personal choice discussion, the cozybeehive blog says people should mind their own business. The blog offers some statements in favor of choosing to use a bicycle helmet, but those statements are based on emotion, wild conjecture, and invalid assumptions rather than data. I guess I’m confused as to why some of the comments in this thread refer to it.

    Here’s an analogy for you: If Matthew Modine needs to wear a helmet to be a good role model, why doesn’t Michael Phelps have to wear a flotation device? Certainly, lots of people drown every year. Now that has me thinking, I live near a very popular beach, and I almost never see anyone with a flotation device…in the ocean!…maybe because the risk doesn’t warrant taking protective measures even though one possible outcome is death…hmmmm…reminds me of the warnings against accidental death on the fabric towel rolls in public restrooms.

  • Michael says:

    Thinking about my niece who always busts me for everything (and caught me with a chocolate bar about an hour ago…) got me thinking about helmets and kids. The argument that requiring helmets lowers bike usage gets turned upside down in regards to kids as parents feel it’s safer for their kids to ride with helmets. As long as they have a cool looking, properly fitting helmet kids seem fine with wearing them. Bike usage goes up with helmet use in this case.

    Safety concerns are one of the most common reasons adults don’t bike. Would having better looking helmets help people feel safe and get on bikes?

    I’d love to have one of these helmets!

  • Mario Sol says:

    helmet dork factor is impressive, formally dressed people simply cannot get along with that

  • Ari Hornick says:

    There are lots of relatively safe activities that can be made a little safer by some precaution or other. The movies “Along Came Polly” and “Darwin Awards” devoted an hour and half each to making fun of the extremes. If wearing a bicycle helmet reminds you of the main character in “Darwin Awards”, I understand. If you don’t feel comfortable cycling without a helmet, please wear the helmet and ride the bike. The main issue in this thread (I thought) was Matthew Modine as cycling role model. In that narrow slice of conversation, I think the pro-helmet crowd should be quiet for a moment and let the man promote cycling.

  • Scott says:

    Although it’s not an original thought, the statement I tend to think about when I don’t feel like putting on my helmet goes something like this:

    You’ll likely only need your helmet ONCE during your cycling lifetime … and you’ll never know when it’s coming … but that will be the one time you’ll be very glad you put it on.

    Not sure where I heard it, but for me, it makes such a small effort seem worthwhile. Now if someone could only start designing safe headgear that doesn’t have a dork label attached …

  • ksteinhoff says:


    A buddy sent me a link for some de-dorked helmets.

    I’m not sure they exactly fit the bill.

  • HowardBollixter says:

    A billion people around the World ride bikes on a daily basis, but pretty much only in America is there such a fuss about helmets. It would be nice if we could encourage bicycle riding, a la Mr Modine as Ari said, and just let people make their own helmet decisions, full-time, part-time, never, whatever. Harpin’ helmets just encourages the Bikes Are Dangerous attitude so prevalent. The safest thing for all bikes is more bikes on the road, anybody championing that should get full support.

  • donald stewart says:

    there are thousands of stories like Ron’s but if people aren’t willing to learn from others I guess darwinian evolution will take care them. it really seems too bad though. It is such a mystery that people will buy lottery tickets for lotteries they are extremely unlikely to win but are unwilling to take simple precautions to avoid disasters that they are very likely to be involved in.

  • Elliott @ Austin On Two Wheels says:

    We entered the fray with an article about this which included a reference to the League of American Bicyclists not working with Modine over helmets, which was mentioned in the New York Magazine article. It turns out there was never a disagreement. I spoke with Modine and LAB and it turns out the reported took the whole thing out of context and took the story wrong.

    I wrote a followup article posted today about what really happened.

  • Paul Johnson says:

    First time here….
    I think helmets make sense. I think a lot of it has to do with where you ride. If I were lucky enough to have bike lanes, flat terrain and good weather…I would go without a helmet. Where I am, Bainbridge Island WA, I have to ride with traffic, all the time. In fact, this a.m. I had a woman cross over the fog lane at 60 mph and squeek by me….literally. I made a motion toward her….she pulled over. When I rode up to her window she asked, “do you know where furry-tail farms is”….I rolled my eyes, said Good Luck, and rode off. I would not think of riding my commute without a helmet. However, I would never impose one on somebody else. Our local PD used to write ‘Health Code Violations’ for $47. These are immediately dropped if taken to court…but who has the time.
    Regardless, cyclists have to accept the responsibility of being a vulnerable entity.
    Just like guns, cars don’t kill people….people not paying attention while driving them kill people…..

  • John Boyer says:

    Power of choice is still senior here. If we leave it up to the individual to make this decision, I feel the collective ability to be responsible(cause) over ones own life is increased NOT decreased. I like Sharp pick and choose the time to wear a helmet. Always at night as I wear a frog light fore and aft on my helmet.

  • Mel Hughes says:

    OK, two things here. I have been an EMS helicopter pilot since 1984. Ihave flown many people who were involved in bicycle accidents. In all that time I have never flown anyone who was wearing a helmet who suffered because their head was protected by that thin sheet of styrofoam and plastic. On the other hand, I have flown many, many people who suffered greivous head and brain injuries because their unprotected head came to a sudden stop against the ground, trees, cars, or bridge abutments.

    Perhaps my judgement is skewed. After all, I have been wearing helmets while flying helicopters since 1970. Add to that the only bicyclist I see in my helicopter have been involved in accidents. But the math is sure easy for me to figure. I need all the brain function I can muster to live my life as well as I can. A little discomfort or inconvenience before or during my bike ride is a small insurance premium.

    Second, like a previous commenter, the only time I have been involved in a bicycle wreck, I was riding beyond my ability and lost control on a fast downhill. My head bounced on the pavement as I skidded down the road. Fortunately, the helmet cushioned those bounces. I can deal with road rash and broken bones. But spare me the head injuries!

© 2011 EcoVelo™