Here are the reflections and impressions of a US resident who has observed the emergence of bicycle helmets in the United States over the last 40 years. While many of these observations cannot be confirmed without dedicated investigative journalism, they are informed by decades of attention to news articles, bicycling publications, bike organization policies, plus conversations and other interaction with helmet lobbyists.
Frank Krygowski is a retired professor of Engineering Technology, and a lifetime commuting, utility, recreational and touring cyclist. He is active in cycling advocacy on the local, state and national levels.
Personally, I think U.S. helmet laws arise from a combination of factors. Here’s my completely undocumented impression of the history of bike helmets in the U.S.:
- First, we had a culture in which there is no history or tradition of bicycling. Until the 1970s people thought bikes were only for kids. Very few adults rode at all, and only an infinitesmal number rode for utility or for sport.
- Second, we had a big bike boom in the 1970s. Suddenly there was a huge upsurge in novice riders, most of whom knew very little about cycling, and (worse) did not realize there was anything to learn.
- Third, some very opportunistic companies – primarily Bell Sports – realized that there was a market among all these new, easily-misled bike riders for a high-profit special hat. (And seriously, people do have an immense psychological urge to wear special hats! Gardeners, sailors, cowboys, baseball fans, military personnel, fishermen and countless others revel in their own stylish and “useful” headgear.)
Bell began a campaign of misinformation, claiming that any bike rider could easily fall at any time, then suffer a truly debilitating brain injury; and that therefore, smart cyclists always wore helmets. There was never any consideration of whether this possibility was at all common, or worse than for other common activities. Bell backed this effort up with very slick and generous ads in low-profit-margin bike magazines, plus (I’m guessing) some back room politicking.
Soon bike magazines showed fewer and fewer photos of bareheaded riders, giving the impression that any “serious” (e.g. club or racing) cyclist always wore a helmet. About this time, “Always wear a helmet” became the first rule of bicycle safety.
This gave Bell some decent profits. But eventually (due to a change in management, I believe) things suddenly pushed further. Bell produced a helmet not for enthusiasts, but for kids, and increased the “danger! danger!” hype. And critically, Bell began donating heavily to Safe Kids Inc., with (doubtlessly) more back room politicking. This was the real genesis of mandatory helmet laws for kids. The national Safe Kids organization began working to convince local chapters, parents and lawmakers that riding bikes (and any other wheeled toy) was as dangerous as juggling chainsaws. “If only one child can be saved…” became a battle cry.
I think this is what caused the surge in statewide MHLs through the 1990s. Since then, things have cooled off quite a bit in the U.S. Most helmet laws are not really enforced, from what I observe. Safe Kids has – for whatever reason – made car seats their prime issue instead of bike helmets (although of course, they still call for bike helmet use). Now we seem to deal with only two factors:
- One factor is a cadre of do-gooders left over from the 1990s who have made helmet promotion one of their life’s guiding principles. Randy Swart is probably the prime example, but I suspect most American bike clubs have one or more local examples. These people will probably never admit that they wasted their time on a counterproductive effort. Data will mean nothing to them.
- Another factor is that the efforts of Bell, Safe Kids and the do-gooders have worked, in that a very large number of Americans really do believe that a simple bike ride imposes a huge risk of serious brain injury. Oddly, this impression seems greater in higher-income areas, where the little suburban princes and princesses must be guaranteed to rise to their highest creative and earning potential. I suspect, though, that this population can be swayed by data, logic and fashion. This is a group that might eventually be convinced that ordinary bicycling is not dangerous, and has benefits that greatly outweigh it’s tiny risks. Even without a special hat.