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On Helmets and Dooring

Broadway bike lane, Providence.
It's taken me a week to follow-up on Bike-to-Work Day, but there was a set of bullet points sent out by the City of Providence that I wanted to go over. From GoLocalProv:

The City of Providence encourages all bicycle commuters to take the following safety measures when biking to work: 
·         Have your bike checked over by your local bike shop
·         Always wear a helmet

·         Ride in the right-most lane that goes in the direction that you are traveling
·         Obey all stop signs, traffic lights and lane markings
·         Look before you change lanes or signal a turn; indicate your intention, then act
·         Be visible and predictable at all times; wear bright clothing and signal turns
If any advice was offered to drivers, the GoLocalProv people edited it out. But my guess is that no advice was offered in the first place.

Many of these bullet points are arguably good advice, say, if given by a friend, but feel like inappropriate advice given by a city. Let's take a prominent lightening rod: should we wear helmets? There's mixed evidence on helmets. Some studies have said that they reduce head injuries very significantly, while others have been unable to repeat the same results. Moreover, some advocates of helmet-less biking have pointed out that very few of the serious injuries on bikes are due to head injuries. You'll see this in action when a journalist covers someone whose legs were run over by a truck, i.e., "The cyclist bled from his legs and died. He was not wearing a helmet." And Dutch cyclists have been very vocal that Americans should stop promoting helmets, because they're nearly completely absent from biking in the Netherlands. 

Dutch don't wear helmets.

I've always been a helmet wearer. In the one instance where I was in a serious collision on my bike, having a helmet seemed to have been helpful, because the helmet broke (as it's designed to do) but my head did not. I also broke my collarbone clear through in that crash, and had to get two (luckily Medicaid-covered) surgeries (Medicaid covered me in a by-gone pre-Obama era because I was unable to work as a dishwasher and janitor, my jobs at the time, while my collarbone healed).

Here's where I get into the role of government and the role of friends. The reason I got into a crash was that I was talking to my friend Thomas, who was riding behind me on his cruiser without a helmet. Thomas was making me really nervous, and I told him as much. I turned my head just enough to talk to him, and when I turned it back a person had swung their door open right in front of me. I had no time to stop. I hit the door, went over the handlebars, and landed half-sprawled in the trolley tracks on Philadelphia's Baltimore Avenue. Adrenaline is an amazing thing. I not only immediately got up (thinking, urgently, "GOTTA' GET OUT OF THE TROLLEY TRACKS") but picked up my bike with my broken collarbone and carried it to the sidewalk. Pacing around, someone told me I ought to sit down. When I tried to get up again to pace some more, I realized I couldn't lift myself off the ground with my arms anymore.

The driver was a real jerk and blamed me for the crash. The Philadelphia Police were also jerks. I went to the precinct after getting out of the hospital and asked for the police report, and the officer played runaround with me and refused to give it to me. Another officer came out later, and urging me to leave, told me that the officer was friends with the driver who had doored me. Pennsylvania law is actually very clear that dooring is the responsibility of the driver, so there wasn't any question that he was responsible. But eventually I let the situation go, because there was Medicaid to cover my surgeries.

I share this because this incident forms one of the kernels of why I hate door-zone bike lanes so much. If I had been doored at a time when a trolley was coming by, I'd not be telling you this. If a delivery truck had been passing through, I wouldn't be telling you this.

Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia.
In Providence, traffic moves much faster than in Philadelphia. The Broadway bike lane feels like a death trap to me, because the traffic is moving around 30 mph or greater, except during brief periods of traffic jams (Philadelphia traffic averages around 15-20 mph). I have never understood people's willingness to settle for such a lousy piece of infrastructure on Broadway, because it's truly not good enough. It doesn't make me--a seasoned bike rider--feel safe. But it especially is unlikely to get small children, elderly people, or disabled people biking. Send me a photo if you ever seen a child with training wheels in the Broadway bike lane. You never will see it.

So, the appropriate role of a mayor is to fix things like this. The appropriate role of a friend is to counsel the wearing of helmets. The mayor has gotten far more praise than he deserves for riding his bike everyday. Don't get me wrong, it's a great thing, and I applaud it for as far as it goes. But Jorge Elorza has the power in his position to fight for institutional changes to our streets, and has so far failed to follow up on that promise. He can take the city SUV everywhere for all I'm concerned, so long as he turns this around.

But one thing I don't want to see his administration doing is putting out silly bullet points telling people to wear helmets, not putting out similar bullet points for drivers (who, after all, are the responsible parties controlling the huge, fast-moving machines), and not putting enough effort to infrastructure improvement.



  1. Not having parking spaces where the driver's side car door suddenly swings into the established bike lane (see picture of Broadway) should reduce dooring. Also, reducing access to cigarettes should reduce lung cancer. Unfortunately, the government doesn't believe in taking drastic actions.
    --Paul Klinkman

  2. It's not exactly how I'd put it, but I get your drift.

    The comparison I'd use is stairs without a hand-rail. You know that an accident is rare, still, when it happens it's serious.The solution is simple. One could educate people to walk gingerly down the fifth-floor walkup steps of a building without a railing, but it'd be better to just put a railing in.

    I'd say people should be free to smoke or drive, and this is more like allowing a non-smoking section to exist than it is like banning cigarettes, or even like banning public smoking. Everyone is required to pay for cigarettes, effectively, even if they don't use them.