Great post today on Boston Biker about scaring cyclists into wearing helmets, a strategy which is at best useless and most likely counterproductive if your goal is increasing safety for non-motorized road users. It is, however, quite useful as a scare tactic -- probably an unintentional scare tactic -- which discourages bicycling by making it seen incredibly dangerous. Never mind that the injuries shown in the photo would not be prevented by a typical bike helmet. Boston's Public Health Commission has been pushing helmets for quite some time. It's great that they are provide free helmets to anyone who asks for one -- just as it is great to give out food, condoms, legal advice or bus passes -- but by actively campaigning for helmet use they are neglecting the things that would actually make bicycling safer. Thus any time spent actively pushing people to wear helmets is time wasted.
I have no doubt that the people who push helmets are well intentioned. It's just that, as a commenter noted on the Boston Biker article, the increasingly graphic ads are just "another well meaning but misguided cycling project created by folks who haven’t ridden a bike since middle school. But it’s cheap, requires little effort, and it probably allows them to qualify for some federal dollars..." Since the sponsors most likely don't know anything about driving a bicycle, they don't have any desire to pursue more effective initiatives like street redesigns, public education or enforcement against dangerous motorist behavior. And thus they take the easy route by default.
And we know from experience that blaming the victim:
- makes bicycling seem very dangerous, which keeps new bicyclists off the streets,
- sends the message that dangerous driver behavior is not a problem,
- says that bicyclists are irresponsible and their concerns are unimportant, and
- discourages the police from taking conflicts seriously, adding insult to injury and making it difficult or impossible to seek justice when needed.
All of these are significant obstacles to growing the number of cyclists, which we know is the most effective way to increase safety. Safety in numbers = more bicyclists on the street = more respect = safer streets for all users.