Death of a Helmet Nazi

For many years, I have been a member of the Helmet Nazi Party.

Which is to say, I have suggested to people in fairly uncertain terms that they ought to be wearing a helmet when they ride.  I have muttered “organ donor” to my kids when I’m driving and see unhelmeted cyclists.  I used to leaf through Nashbar and Performance catalogs looking for the coolest (in all senses) helmets.

I used to argue that people without helmets were a drain on my tax and insurance dollars–someone was going to have to take care of these idiots when they get hurt.

I am further convinced that helmets have saved my bacon (or at least a few slices) a couple of times.

And then, some time in the past few weeks, I realized something.

Don’t. Be. A. Dick.

It’s almost certainly true that helmets stop some injuries.  It’s also possible that (as some folks argue) they can make others worse.  And while it seems unlikely to me that helmet requirements cause some people not to ride, it’s certainly possible.

But here’s the thing–it’s not important enough to argue about.

Here’s why.  Every year, there are a number of cyclists killed or injured in accidents on the roads.  And as awful as it is in individual cases, it’s a small number.  I don’t know how small, I just know that it’s small enough that I’m still willing to ride on the roads almost every day (granted, I do not live in Chicago, New York, LA, or Miami).  Let’s just make a number and say that the probability of being in an accident is 1/1000 (like I said, a made-up number).  And let’s say the probability of having a head injury (that is preventable by a helmet) if you are in an accident is quite high, say 1/10. 

Two possibilities emerge from that–one is that you should always wear a helmet, since it gives you significant protection in an accident.  The other, and it’s one that I’ve become more impressed with of late, is that you should look at things you can do to lower the possibility of an accident in the first place.  That is, that the marginal utility of wearing a helmet, even if it’s an order of magnitude, isn’t really that great, because most cyclists don’t have accidents to begin with.


I had a paragraph there with suggestions as to when/how/who should wear a helmet.  But you know what?  It’s not that important.  Don’t wear a helmet if you don’t want to, wear one if you do want to, and don’t make up a lot of sh_t about people who aren’t like you. 

Don’t. Be. A. Dick.

So I’m hanging up my HN uniform.  I am removing my HN jackboots.

I’m not hanging up my helmet.  But that’s my choice for me.


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8 Responses to Death of a Helmet Nazi

  1. Yay!

    I decided a while back that I’m going to look at risk in absolute terms. In other words, given the most dangerous thing I’m willing to do on a regular basis, which is riding a motorcycle with all the gear all the time, is X this dangerous? When X = riding a bicycle without a helmet, it’s nowhere near as dangerous as riding a motorcycle. And since I don’t particularly like wearing a helmet, I don’t.

    So it’s nice to know there is one less person out there telling me how I’m doing it wrong. The drawback is that you’ll never get to hear my snappy comebacks to “where’s your helmet?” 🙂

    • Awwww, let’s hear ’em anyway!

      • Standard response to pedestrians and motorists is “Where’s yours?” I am fully prepared to tell them how falls in the home and motor vehicle accidents are the two leading causes of head injury in the US.

        Standard response to other cyclists is “Backseat of your wife’s car.” I, too, should probably not be a dick.

        This one time, a roadie in full team kit going the other way yelled “Hey!” and then started pointing at his helmet. It was one of those things where I didn’t think of a good response until days later. I should have replied with “Hey!” and then point to my rear, and I swore I would the next time it happened. But it’s never happened.

      • Harald says:

        Scott, thanks for sharing. Will have to remember that one. There are instances when it’s okay to be a dick 🙂

        Andy, anecdote to underline your point: I recently went on a bikey event in a city in the Midwest. It was beer-themed, and other than me there was only one other bare-headed cyclist (the announcement didn’t say anything about helmets). Of course, I got the usual comments — from people who in the same breath told me how they brought their bike with platform pedals because they were too afraid of riding home drunk with their SPDs and shared anecdotes of riding totally shitfaced. But yeah, the helmet is what makes the difference. Sigh.

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  3. Chuck Davis says:

    Riding a bicycle should remain a simple and personal activity. The passing roadie pointing to his helmet was not saying anything about bicycling or helmets. At best it a was an indication that his team kit jersey needed a larger pocket to carry his ego

  4. InvisibleHand says:

    Yeah … broadly speaking, I find that most advice is a waste of breath unless it’s in the right context. Yelling at someone riding by is almost never the right context.

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