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Seymour Gris: Bike helmet or no bike helmet?

Chances are that you're not wearing a helmet today because you're not biking in the downpour outside. But what about tomorrow? Will you be wearing one? Germany and Gris both ponder the effectiveness of a law requiring you to.

Image for Seymour Gris: Bike helmet or no bike helmet?
Photo by Jørgen Larsen

Several times a month, while cycling through Berlin – running red lights, cutting across sidewalks to save time, riding at night without a light because the batteries ran out, squeezing between a bus and a truck, barely avoiding getting stuck in a tramline and getting rammed by a tram – I think to myself, shit, that could have been my life, i.e. the end of it. Images flash through my head, images of mangled arms and legs – my mangled arms and legs. Images of decades in a wheelchair, or worse a crushed skull, brain damage, coma, or simply a gruesome, pointless end.

At these moments I swear to myself that I’ll buy a bike helmet and actually wear it. When in a car, I always put on my seatbelt, even if it’s just a five minute drive. Because you never know, right? But am I really going to put on my helmet to ride up the road to Kaiser’s to buy some milk? Am I really going to put on my helmet when I cycle over to Kreuzberg for drinks on a Friday – and lug it around with me from bar to bar all night – even though the resulting intoxication might be a very good reason to wear a helmet? I might be compelled to anyways as Germany now wants to reduce the legally tolerated blood-alcohol level to equal that of car drivers.

Right now, there’s a new debate in Germany about whether or not a law is needed requiring cyclists to wear a helmet. This follows a judgement in a Schleswig-Holstein court which made a cyclist partially responsible for her own head injuries after she slammed into the open door of a parked car. The judge decided that the cyclist was liable for 20 percent of the damage, meaning any compensation she received was reduced by 20 percent – even though she had just been riding down the street when someone haphazardly opened a car door. It baffles the mind, but this testifies to a new climate that no longer just sees cyclists as the weak victims in accident cases.

Surveys suggest that only 11 percent of cyclists in Germany wear a helmet every time they ride. Insurance companies and cyclist associations are actually lobbying for “Helmpflicht” – or “legal obligation to wear a helmet”. But it’s not going to happen any time soon, says Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer. A strictly enforced helmet requirement would probably reduce bike use. And nobody wants that.

But you should bloody well wear one anyway.