Marion Renault thinks bicyclists should wear helmets, and she always wears one herself. But in a story at Slate, she writes that "helmets are simply not the road-safety panacea we want them to be." The point is brought home with a combination of two stats: American riders tend to wear helmets more than riders in other countries, but American riders also hold the rate of highest fatalities per distance traveled. The reason is that those other nations—or more precisely, drivers in those nations—have embraced bike culture far more than the US. (Think better bike lanes and less animosity on the road toward two-wheelers.) On American roads, the helmet might provide a false sense of security, writes Renault: It can protect someone from head injury if they hit a pothole and fly over the handlebars, but it won't do much if they're hit by a car or truck at 50mph.
Despite that reality, the US tends to put the onus for bike safety solely on the bicyclist. "Asking individuals to spend money on helmets, lights, and reflective gear without investing in better transit culture ignores the fact that the real danger to cyclists comes from behind the wheel, not from behind handlebars," writes Renault. Or as Alison Dewey of the League of American Bicyclists puts it: “Looking at helmets as a solution is very shortsighted. It’s like a tertiary, or even farther down of a level, to keep you safe.” The story takes note of a study suggesting that US drivers, counterintuitively, tend to give more space to helmeted bicyclists than to non-helmeted ones. Read the full piece, which also notes that some cities (including Seattle) have dropped their helmet requirements. (Read more bicycling stories.)