At the end of April, I had a serious bike accident. Upon hearing about it, everyone asked the same question: Were you wearing a helmet?
I was, but the helmet had absolutely no role in protecting me from injury.
However, one simple thing could have saved me from the hospital: fixing a depression in the road that was unnoticeable to a car but caused me to lose control of the bike.
Staying last week in the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, I got a chance to reflect anew on how we ask the wrong questions about bicycle safety interventions—whether helmets, special bike lanes or dedicated trails.
For days I walked the narrow streets in a place whose street grid was set in the 1700s and has scarcely changed since. (Photo: Zack Clark)
Sidewalks average about a meter wide and narrow further wherever barred windows project into the walkway. Each block is built right to the corner. The only traffic controls are alto signs painted on the sides of buildings.
There are no lanes painted on the streets, which are cobblestone canted toward the center for drainage. On the outskirts, there are speed bumps, but the irregular pavement in the central city functions as one continuous deterrent to speeding.
The streets fill with pedestrians, cars, motorcycles, trucks and tuc-tucs, while the town's distinctive buses prowl the main drags.
Not exactly what you'd call a welcoming urban cycling environment, right?
Nevertheless, bikes were part of the traffic and after three days of walking, I was ready to jump on one of the bikes at the place we were staying. A Murray Baja with no working rear brake, it looked about average for the beat-up mountain bikes I saw on the street—underinflated tires, discount store frames and missing or maladjusted parts.
However, I did enjoy several rides through the city, sans helmet, and never felt endangered in this foreign environment.
Speed. The narrow, bumpy streets, short sightlines and mixed traffic meant everyone was going at approximately bicycle speed—6 to 10 miles an hour. The mass of larger vehicles is a lot less dangerous at these low speeds.
Driver attention. Although I saw lots of Guatemalans looking at cell phones on the street, the drivers didn't. There was simply too much going on, with tuc-tucs and motorbikes and proximity to pedestrians, for a driver to be inattentive or to have the illusion that he was in control. Likewise, there was no advantage to racing to beat a light or to pass another vehicle.
Cyclist attention. A lot of cyclist bad behavior is related to maintaining momentum or taking advantage of gaps in traffic. The same factors that slowed down the drivers and made them pay attention affected the cyclists, too. I saw only two riders in full kits with road bikes and helmets during my stay. One was walking and the other was rolling along at about 4 mph. Neither of them looked as happy as this guy, who was the only other rider I saw wearing a helmet, with good reason.
My Guatemalan experience reinforces that we are asking the wrong questions and arguing over the wrong solutions if all we talk about are adjustments like helmet use and advisory bike lanes.
As one expert says:
It’s safe to say that there isn’t any conclusive evidence that helmets help. The scientific community has been split down the middle for two decades. There are basically two camps: those who look at head injuries and look for ways to prevent them, and those who work towards getting more people to choose the bicycle as transport.
Another, unnamed camp has the biggest voice in the matter, though.
Our cities are built and engineered for cars, so car traffic rules. Whatever changes are made to help equalize that difference will be more effective than putting every cyclist in a helmet.