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Opinion: Helmet debate saps energy we need to increase light use

Posted by on November 4th, 2010 at 11:40 am

Bike Light Parade

Whether or not people should wear — or be mandated to wear — helmets is the bike world’s pro-choice/pro-life debate. From Europe to Australia and definitely here in the U.S., people are passionate about the topic and they cling adamantly to their positions. Personal anecdotes about a life saved due to a helmet are on one side and on the other side people simply don’t feel it’s neccessary and want to make their own choice.

Here in bike-centric Portland, it’s not unheard of to get called out by others in traffic for not wearing one. We have programs at local hospitals and events that give helmets out for free. Bike rodeos put on by police and fire stations always include helmet giveaways and our Bureau of Transportation measures helmet use in annual bike counts (but not light use).

Up in Vancouver (WA), former Mayor Royce Pollard helped push through an all-ages, mandatory helmet law. Back in 2008, an Oregon State Senator floated a similar idea, but backed down after massive push back.

I won’t be surprised if the issue comes up again in future legislative sessions.

With the dark season upon us here in Portland, I’ve been thinking… would it do more for safety if all (or more of) the pro-helmet energy was poured into bike light use? People riding bikes at night without lights is insane. It goes way beyond the whole, “don’t-tell-me-to-wear-bright-clothing” thing. Being a vehicle in traffic without lights other vehicles can see just makes no sense.

When I posed this thought to friends on Twitter, a lot of people seemed to agree. One of the folks who liked the idea was well-known advocate and author Kent Peterson from Seattle. He shared an informal study by bike safety expert David Smith that backs up my hunch.

Smith analyzed six fatal bike crashes in Seattle as well as data from the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission.

His findings were clear. Of the 10 adult fatalities, eight were at night, all involved a rider without a front light and in the four rear-end collisions (all at night) the rider did not have a rear reflector or light. Whether or not a helmet was worn did not factor as large as light use in the fatalities. Here’s an excerpt from Smith:

Only one adult cyclist out of five reported killed had a helmet. My observations are that helmet use is much more popular than consistently following traffic procedures or using lights at night. Perhaps 70 to 80% of cyclists use helmets. In this case the 20 to 30% of cyclists without helmets had 80% of the cycling deaths. Helmets have received much more attention than the utility of following the rules of the road and I often see cyclists being advised to “always wear a helmet” without any mention of traffic safety.

For me, the light issue isn’t just about community activism and doing more free bike light events, it’s about the bike industry. Here in the U.S., there are far too few bike companies that take real bike lights seriously. Walk into a shop and count how many bikes made for commuting and urban riding come with integrated front and rear lights. I bet in most shops you won’t find any at all.

Here in Portland, we’re lucky to have high awareness of bike light use. We’ve got the successful Get Lit program now run by the Community Cycling Center and tomorrow we’ve got a bike safety event by our regional transit agency that will include a “Most well lit” bike contest.

But despite these efforts, their are still many people riding “ninja” in the dark without lights. If we make this as big of an issue as we’ve made helmet use, I think we could have a significant impact on safety. It’s about a switch from crash mitigation to crash prevention.

Here are some questions to consider…

  • Would we prevent more crashes and save more lives if the pro-helmet camp shifted some of that passion and energy to being pro-bike lights?
  • Why has helmet use spurred so much debate and controversy, when bike lights barely get mentioned?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Guest

footnote: the reason PBoT does not count lights is that they are counting during daylight rush hours on clear days.

Good point are. Didn’t think of that! — Jonathan

Matthew
Guest
Matthew

Not really sure why anyone would go without helmet OR light, but is a campaign really going to convince anyone? If someone doesn’t have the common sense to light up in the first place, being told to by cops or politicians or whoever probably isn’t going to make much difference.

Duncan Idaho-Stop
Guest
Duncan Idaho-Stop

it’s not unheard of to get called out by others in traffic for not wearing one

I love it when people riding the wrong way on a bridge or in a bike lane come out with “Where’s your helmet?”

I also would like to see more mirror use — it’s a crucial safety device.

Michael
Guest
Michael

I believe this is an awareness issue. The Seattle statistic is strongly suggestive that bike lighting can increase the life expectancy of a cyclist. This is worth knowing and sharing.
As to whether or not people who learn about bike lighting take action is another question, but based on how many people have taken up helmet or seat belt usage, I’d guess the results would be similar: more commuter bikes lit!

Matthew
Guest
Matthew

@ Michael (#4)

Fair point!

TonyT
Guest
tonyt

A-freakin-men.

I wear a helmet, the vast majority of the time. If I choose not to, it is really none of your business, and frankly as has been said, I think it’s a distraction from greater safety issues.

Lights? Now that it’s winter, I’m encountering dozens of sans-lights riders everyday whose invisibility DOES impact me, perhaps literally. If I can’t see you, I can get hurt; it’s now my busines.

Get them. Use them.

Rob
Guest

Actually… Groupon and the Active Transportation Alliance are working together to equip 200 bikes with lights. (click here)

Maybe Groupon in Oregon and BikePortland can do something similar?

J
Guest
J

I have a question.

Seat belts increase safety in cars. But first, the feds required that cars came with them, and then local places followed with laws requiring their use.

Why is the light issue with bikes backwards?

Why arent new bikes required to come with essential safety gear like front and rear lights?

All new bikes in Germany and France must be sold with lights, thus encouraging their use. Why isnt that the case here?

Can you imagine if cars were sold without lights and you had to buy them yourself? Or airbags?

Marcus Griffith
Guest
Marcus Griffith

New bikes are required to come with reflectors but that is about as much safety equipment a new bike needs to come with (hey, even brakes are optional)

daisy
Guest
daisy

Okay here comes two salvos.

Keep your laws off my bicycle.

Keep your laws off my body.

And a third one.

Don’t ever, ever, never tell someone you don’t know what to do or how to do it.

Alex Reed
Guest
Alex Reed

I think that Jonathan is right to put some emphasis on bike shops. People being exhorted to wear seatbelts already have functional seatbelts in their car.

People being exhorted to use lights probably do NOT have functional lights on their bikes. That makes it a more difficult behavior to change just through social pressure. We need to get lights on these bikes in the first place.

Personally, I think dynamo lights should be standard issue for any non-mountain non-cyclocross bike. Nobody ever says “Whoops, my seatbelt’s batteries are dead.” When the same is true for lights, THEN bike light use will approach 100%.

jeff
Guest
jeff

Lights are already required by law, are they not, for every road user after dusk?
There is zero excuse to not use them. Do these same people drive around at night in their car without their lights on?

Dan
Guest
Dan

I think going out without a helmet or lights is dumb, but here in ‘murica, being dumb is our god-given right, isn’t it?

Dave
Guest

Promoting lights makes way more sense to me – helmets only help you if you crash, and even then there are no guarantees.

Lights help prevent crashes, both by allowing you to see better, and by allowing other people to see you better.

It’s like preventative health care (exercise, eating well, etc) versus blood pressure medication or stints or open heart surgery. Sure, it’s fine to have those other things just in case, but if you eat well, exercise, relax, enjoy yourself, it’s much less likely that you’ll need them.

This is also a great argument for improved education, law and infrastructure. Prevent crashes and the need for protective gear will go way down. Bog down on the protective gear, and the education, law and infrastructure will never improve.

Tomas Quinones
Guest
Tomas Quinones

Sad observation: I see more homeless than hipsters using bike lights.

Unscientific, perhaps but it’s a notable trends worth watching.

wsbob
Guest
wsbob

Better, standardized, consistently used lighting on bikes would certainly help them become more visible, and help reduce road user stress in general.

I think at least some of the animosity that occurs between motor vehicle drivers and people riding bikes is due to the fact that bikes not equipped with lights are so very much harder to detect against the congested backdrop of a busy road than are bikes with lights.

Except for the expense, if they were more regularly equipped with them, bikes with hub dyno lighting could help a lot to have more bikes on the road be consistently illuminated.

I think people commonly have got so much more worked up about bike helmets compared to their reaction towards the question of bike lighting, due to the fact that a helmet is so much more a personal item than bike lighting is.

A bike helmet is in part, clothing and fashion. Helmets directly effect a person’s image. People naturally resent when efforts are made that result in that part of themselves possibly being altered on a level they have no personal control over.

I’d say definitely put efforts towards better lighting for bikes over efforts to encourage people to wear bike helmets. I hope that adults not required by law to wear one, seriously consider wearing bike helmets for fast and inherently more risky kinds of riding, but it’s likely that more safety gains are to be made by bikes on the road being better illuminated.

neighbor
Guest

@ J #8

Bicycle shops (at least in Oregon) are required to equip all sold bikes with front and rear reflectors. I think that’s as close as you’ll get to a requirement since battery and motion-powered lights are prone to failure & wearing out.

Jonathan- I think this a great point and a great effort. Well put and I’d love to see some momentum behind your ideas here.

I’d rather see bike ninjas invest in lights than a helmet- if you’re going to get them to spend money on anything but PBR and ironic clothing, it should be lights before helmets.

For inexperienced recreational bikers- Sunday drive-to-the-trail bikers- helmets are still key. They rarely ride after dark and typically don’t have the skill and wherewithal to keep themselves out of dangerous situations.

Brock Howell
Guest

The statistics you cite are exactly the same for no-helmet fatalities v. no-light night fatalities: 80%

buglas
Guest
buglas

Helmets, by themselves, don’t prevent accidents. Effective lights do.
The first word about riding in traffic, the one that makes it possible for other other roadway users to respond to and accommodate your presence, is, “Visibility”.
Helmets don’t help until things have already gone south. Lights can help every day, including those overcast days when they’re not legally required.
[For the record, I ride with both. Always]

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

Doesn’t take but 1 dollar to buy an led light at dollar store and tape it to the next light-less rider you encounter. If we cared.

Ian Stude
Guest
Ian Stude

Thanks for posting this Jonathan. I think you bring up some very compelling arguments and I mostly agree with you. I would add that there is another distinct difference between light use and helmet use:

Lights help prevent collisions.
Helmets help prevent damage in a collision.

While I am strongly committed to using (and promoting) both of these “safety devices”, the future I advocate for is filled with millions of bike lights, and far fewer helmets. The reason we need helmets (and seatbelts) is because too much of our personal safety in traffic is predicated on individual responsibility. If we designed our streets and set our speed limits with a true priority of safety BEFORE convenience or “efficiency”, then we wouldn’t need to protect ourselves so much from those ‘inevitable’ collisions…

For more info about safety-oriented transportation systems, please check out the Vision Zero project.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_Zero
http://www.cts.pdx.edu/seminars/index.php (Oct 15th presentation from this list)

Sonia Connolly
Guest

Agreed, visibility is crucial to safe riding, especially at night and in the rain. And also agreed, retail policies and perceptions are part of the problem.

I went to REI recently to buy a bright, waterproof bike jacket. They had plently of red, orange, and yellow men’s waterproof jackets. Women’s waterproof jackets came in blue and purple. Apparently REI believes that men need to be visible, but women need to make a fashion statement.

I wrote them an email and got back an excuse about running out of stock. In early Fall. In Portland.

I bought a visible women’s waterproof jacket at River City Bicycles and I’m delighted with it. Support the retailers who support our safety!

David
Guest
David

No shout out to the forum thread I posted 3 days ago on this exact topic? Where’s the love!?

Lisa
Guest
Lisa

Timely article.

I was driving uphill on NW Cornell Rd approaching the intersection with Skyline at 7:25 yesterday morning. It was dark and I was going below the posted speed limit. Up ahead, I could barely see a cyclist pedaling uphill. He had one measly red blinking tail light.

I was tempted to stop and wait for him up at the four way intersection to tell him how inadequate his rear lighting was. The posted speed limit there is either 40 or 45 and I was going just barely 30. There is no shoulder and he was really tough to see. It’s easy to imagine a cyclist getting taken out by someone going 45 and not being super alert to the potential presence of commuting cyclists.

Dave
Guest

If we designed our streets and set our speed limits with a true priority of safety BEFORE convenience or “efficiency”, then we wouldn’t need to protect ourselves so much from those ‘inevitable’ collisions…

Exactly. Even some of the need for super bright lights would be alleviated by better street design, law and education.

drew
Guest
drew

You are spot on, Jonathan for highlighting this issue. I see it as a failure of the bicycle industry to equip bikes with dynamo lights by default.
The technology is finally here to have lights on all the time. LED lights and dynamo hubs work great together. You don’t think about having to turn on the lights; you just ride. I have mine on much of the summer, and leave them on permanently during the winter, day and night. I consider the lights and my visibility vest to be more useful than the helmet I frequently wear. Cars just give me more space, and they see me.
Go in any bike shop and what you see are mostly toys, without a light system, sold to people who are trained by magazines to ask about bike weight. They turn into death traps when the sun goes down. Why do some motorists think bikes are toys? because that is what most of them are as they exit the bike shop.
Professional racers don’t need them during a race. The rest of us do.

Al from PA
Guest
Al from PA

Bikes used to come with lights. When I was 10 (1962) I got my first “real” bike, a 26″ metallic blue 3 speed Schwinn “Racer,” complete with fenders and a light/tail-light set, bottle-dynamo powered. The set came with the bike. Total cost (for the bike plus lights): $52. Solid, metal, unlike today’s little plastic thingies that break the first time you try to take them off (to change a battery). Made by Miller (?), plenty bright most of the time. And (dare I mention?) made in the US (the lights, but most of the rest of the bike, too).

We didn’t appreciate those old Schwinns–how was it possible to give so much quality, practicality, and solidity at such a low price? And this at a time when “no one rode.”

Jesse
Guest
Jesse

I wholeheartedly agree that lights are essential, but I think putting the onus on manufacturers is misplaced. Manufacturers are already required to equip new bikes with reflectors and people just take them off. If required by law manufacturers would be likely to install the cheapest lights possible. As an aside, I am also not a big fan of dynamo lights. It seems like the good ones are prohibitively expensive for most cyclists. My wife’s bike has dynamo front light. My battery powered unit is cheaper, lighter, brighter and stays lit when I stop pedalling.

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

They sell spoke lights at wal mart for five bux. They’re neat since it looks like your whole wheel is lit when spinning. I’ve had compliments.

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

I like full face helmets since it hurt like hell the last time I dislocated my jaw. A regular helmet keeps your brain awake to feel the pain of the rest of your body after a crash or collision. Facial injuries hurt the most.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

+1 to the prevention vs. mitigation idea. An ounce of one is worth a pound of the other…

jv
Guest
jv

This article is right on point. Real safety is about situation awareness, communication, and preventing accidents, all of which properly used lighting (or any at all!) does very well. Ninja riding is dangerous for all road users. Think about the corollary – what if cars routinely drove at night without lights? Having lights and being seen is much more important than helmet use. For the record: I am always reasonably lit, but selective about when I do or don’t wear a helmet. My response to people who yell “wear a helmet” is: “ride safely and pay attention”.

AP
Guest
AP

I agree lights are critical, I am all in favor of even some extreme measures to raise light usage, like regulations requiring lights on every new bike.

But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

I think it’s important to acknowledge other obstacles to bike light use this discussion is lacking –

– Theft – Yes, it happens, and it especially seems to happen to those people out there who are less inclined to use lights in the first place: bar-hopping twenty-somethings who are a bit too absent minded to take their shiny blinking light off their handlebars downtown at 11pm. A few layers of duct tape is usually enough of a deterrent, so let’s include bike light RETENTION in any education piece regarding lights.

– Cost – Seriously, a lot of people ride bikes because they can’t afford to drive or take the bus. These are people who won’t buy a pair of pants at goodwill because they are 6.99 instead of 5.99. You can have all the discount bike light events you like but until some company or co-op steps forward, contacts some slave-employing factory in china – and starts producing lights available for $3 in any bike store at any time, you won’t see usage increase. A previous poster alluded to the dollar-store LED lights. I tell you from experience that those things are actually decent, especially for $1!

Batteries – I have three lights on my bike (Headlamp + 2 Blinkies). As with most every light without regulated current, after the batteries are at 50% or so, the light output is terribly reduced. And batteries are NOT cheap to replace, especially if your and eco-conscious consumer (hmm I tend to think of many cyclists that way) and you have to swallow your pride when you buy and dispose of such toxic things. A low battery light is almost no-dangerous than none at all, as it gives the bike user a false sense of security. There should be just as many free battery events as free lights.

Use – lastly, please educate on proper light use. For example, getting your 5 LED rear light looking all pretty in a dancing pattern might make you feel cute, but it’s pointless. If you are going to put your light on a pattern where only 1 LED is illuminated at a time, well them, just buy a 1 LED light. All LEDs on, all blinking in unison is the proper method – only then is your light producing the most amount of light it can produce at any given moment. Common sense but I even see obviously well-educated and successful business commuters not following this principle.

Disclaimer, yes there are huge generalizations in this post – I hate generalizing too much but this is a big problem, and if you want to talk about solving big problems you have to talk in big scales and target groups.

Charles Procner
Guest
Charles Procner

You can rectify ignorance but you can do nothing about stupid. It’s a Darwinian thing. Eventually we will not have to worry about the dumbbells riding without lights. I saw a man with a 6 or 7 year old boy (father/son?)out the other night on unlit bikes after dark riding the wrong way crossing an intersection. Too bad about the kid.

Oliver Smith
Guest
Oliver Smith

Inexpensive lights are available that can be bolted to a fender, seatpost or rack and are convenient and thief-resistant.

The generator hubs and lights have also improved so much, with very low resistance and “stay-on-while stopped” features. These are so convenient and bright. Prices are dropping too.

Mindful Cyclist
Guest
Mindful Cyclist

Helmets to me have always been a personal choice. I chose to wear one, but will never call out another cyclist for not wearing one. I have worked with people with head injuries and the idea of having to potentially having to be re-potty trained at the age of 37 does not sound like a good time to me.

Lights are a whole different ball of wax. I see way too many people riding without them and it is too bad small battery powered ones are not included in the sale of a new bicycle. It is a clear safety issue.

One little hint about cycling at night. Always carry a spare bus ticket with you. There have been times I have gone by bike some place and stayed much longer than expected and it was already too dark to ride. Plus, lights are an easy thing to steal.

night-blind
Guest
night-blind

On the other side lights are good but can be taken too far, I met some riders going the other way on a neighborhood greenway last week. I had a light on my bike but stopped because I couldn’t see a thing as these people had brighter than high beam lights on their bike turned onto strobe. We need a high and a low limit on brightness, or at least point them down at the ground a little. You are blinding other cyclists.

Joe
Guest

Here in Murfreesboro, TN the casual cyclists all wear helmets, the commuter cyclists (mostly college students) almost never do. I’ve noticed some blinkies at night but not nearly the brightness necessary to be really visible.

I wear the helmet any time I will be on a road with a speed limit over 30, or when we go on family rides. I am doubtful as to the effectiveness of a helmet if you get hit by a car going 45-50 and it would certainly be useless if a bus runs over your head. So I tend to side with the folks emphasizing care while riding over bodily protection.

I’m always well lit at night with various reflective items, bright lights and blinkies. I agree more emphasis should be placed on visibility. We have quite a few lower income riders without lights and I think a light giveaway could save lives.

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

Another alternative to buying expensive bike lighting systems(I’m talking about ones that light the road) is to go to harborfreight or costco to buy their multi LED(the ones with 30 or more bright whites) and tape it to your handlebar. Then charge from an outlet overnight for the next day’s use. They’re about 10 bux or so, but heavier than compact lighting systems. These are used to light the entire road so aiming is crucial. Sometimes I like to go on night excursions through the woods on my mtb.

buglas
Guest
buglas

With my last bike purchase, the shop had a “commuter package” of rack, fenders, and kickstand at a flat rate. It would be nice to see shops offering a lighting package in a similar fashion for new bikes going out the door.

@AP #32 – on the subject of batteries, I prefer rechargeables. The front end cost has more than paid for itself.

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

What are they doing on the wildwood at night anyway? Probably up to no good if they’re not on a bike.

Ron
Guest
Ron

I ride most of the time, and nothing aggravates me more (or undermines the cycling community) than an idiot wearing black and/or riding at night without lights. It’s hard to feel sorry for them, and in many ways maybe it strenghens the gene pool. But I feel bad for a motorist who hits and kills one of these cyclists and has to carry that burden around with them for the rest of their lives.

spare_wheel
Guest
spare_wheel

“And batteries are NOT cheap to replace, especially if your and eco-conscious consumer”

rechargeable batteries — virtually all the major brands sell “eneloop-like” batteries that hold a stable charge for months. and if you buy online you can get them for a buck a piece.

“Sad observation: I see more homeless than hipsters using bike lights.”

i don’t think its at all sad that homeless people use bike lights.

mello yello
Guest
mello yello

Bike lights are necessary at night, but sometimes drivers are simply blinded by their own stupidity. Last night I was on Cornell approaching Skyline and this crazy lady had the nerve to shout at me for not having a bike light. I had three rear facing planet bike superbrites and a forward facing headlight by supermegabrite. She was wearing sunglasses and had her fog lights on in addition to her driving lights. There was no fog, none at all.

Alan
Guest
Alan

I won’t should on you if you don’t should on me. Deal?

I think helmets and lights are good safety devices and I use them accordingly. I don’t need to be told to use them again, thanks very much.

Getting in my face, whether personally or by media onslaught, with Nanny-inspired messages that I’ve heard over and over for decades just turns me off to all such hype. I’ll do my best to avoid that noise, maybe even rebel against it a bit. That said, low-hype, voluntary programs like “Be Safe and Be Seen” seem like a good way to go.

The time to teach bike safety habits are when kids learn to ride…3, 4, 5 years. Once we’re adults, please back off the Nanny Sez lectures.

Ed
Guest

In Vancouver BC the city recently passed a law that all cyclists must ride with front and rear light on, a bell, and helmet. At first I thought it is ridiculous to put so much pressure on cyclist, especially people that are homeless or low income with bikes. But, I always ride with lights and helmet (without a bell though), and I can’t imagine myself or my boyfriend riding without helmet or lights. I had too many close calls with car accidents that I can’t imagine what would happen without my helmet on or my lights beaming at night. I think the CCC lit program is great for educating the locals about bike safety. The city should provide more educational programs to children and adult. I don’t know if a law like Vancouver BC will force people to wear their helmet or put lights on their frame. It might work better if you educate people instead of sending out police giving traffic tickets to cyclists. But maybe that will work too.

http://vancouver.ca/engsvcs/transport/cycling/safety/regulations.htm#bylawBikes

Dave
Guest

Totally agree with nightblind #36. I’m often blinded by people with super-bright LED lights mounted on their helmets or on their handlebars tilted upwards – not to mention that while you are then clear about where that person is, you can’t see anything else around them (and I’m guessing, neither could a driver going towards them), so they are making other cyclists riding the same direction as them less safe by making them less visible.

Everything in moderation – be visible, but don’t harm other people’s visibility/vision to do it.

jim
Guest
jim

All you have to do is talk to a trauma nurse at Emanual to realize just how stupid it is not to wear a helmet.
I do however feal it should be an adults choice if they want to be brain dead and fed with a tube. children under 18 don’t have the choice to make that decision, they do need to wear helmets

jim
Guest
jim

I almost ran a guy over one night at an intersection where I was pulling out because he had no headlight, I saw him at the last second and stopped. Ironically he did have a back light.
Headlights do affect me as a driver, I don’t want to be involved with an accident that wasn’t my fault.
I was 1 car back from a bike that got trounced because he had no light. He argued that in Portland bikes don’t have to have lights. that may be true because the police don’t enforce the headlight laws. The guy over the police chief says “let them go”

murph
Guest
murph

When I managed a bike shop in San Diego the bikes require light law was used to harass the homeless. Every fall the police ticketed them for not having a light. And every fall the incidents of shoplifting in my store went up.

h
Guest
h

I have seen cyclists without helmets but it does not really bother me. I have had close calls with cyclists without lights in dark. Same with runners and walkers. One thing bothering me is some lights too bright or flashing too strong for me to see well on my side.