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Minneapolis bike and pedestrian coordinator Shaun Murphy, right, took traffic engineer Allan Klugman for a ride along the Greenway.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Tevlin: Bike helmet debate hits evocative fork in road

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • August 11, 2012 - 9:35 PM

In a Star Tribune story earlier this week, Minneapolis Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Shaun Murphy was photographed on his bike, without a helmet. He told the reporter that he doesn't always wear a helmet because he doesn't want the activity to appear dangerous or scary.

"I just want it to be seen as something that a normal person can do," said Murphy.

As you might imagine, comments posted online and letters to the editor took Murphy to task. After the story ran, Murphy was told by supervisors that he now has to wear a helmet on the job.

But at least one Minnesota bike advocate is on Murphy's side, presenting some counter-intuitive data that is stirring up controversy on two wheels.

Griff Wigley, of Northfield, had recently taken training to become an assistant coach for the Cannon Valley Mountain Bike Racing Team this fall. He was also a volunteer mountain bike ride coordinator for the Cannon Valley Velo Club.

That changed after Wigley posted his opinions about helmets on his popular blog, (www.locallygrownnorthfield.org). Wigley said he didn't think the government or biking groups should spend time advocating for helmets for casual, around-town riding. Wigley also posted some studies that led him to question helmet policy, including one from the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation in Britain.

"While wearing a bike helmet might be good for you personally (I always do, but even the research on that is questionable)," Wigley wrote, "it's bad public policy to promote the wearing of bicycle helmets."

Wigley stressed he believes in wearing helmets for mountain biking, road biking and competition. The two Cannon Valley groups said his message -- even though on a private blog not read by the kids -- was inconsistent with their missions, however, and would confuse kids. So, Wigley was told to change his position or quit.

He quit.

Wigley's evolution on bike helmet policy began while he was washing dishes. He was listening to a radio program about how Germany mandates many biking rules, but does not even promote helmet use because it causes Germans to stop biking. In fact, even helmet makers in Germany are against any laws mandating their use because the public health impact would be "catastrophic."

Likewise, after mandatory helmet laws were passed in Australia, "the rate of cycling continued to decline," said Wigley.

"It's widely accepted that the more people we have riding bikes, the safer it is for all of them" because car drivers become more aware of bikes. "So if fewer people ride bikes, it's less safe. It's an unintended consequence."

Ridership declines for several reasons, Wigley said. Kids become teens and are obsessed with "looking cool"; to avoid wearing helmets, they don't ride their bikes.

Adults who don't want sweaty hair or "helmet head" might not ride to work. And, the public helmet promotions make bicycling look dangerous, as Murphy pointed out earlier this week.

According to the British research agency, the Netherlands is the safest biking country in the world, but only 0.5 percent of bikers wear helmets. Yet, a high percentage of bikers who go to the hospital are wearing helmets. The study speculates that wearing a helmet might prompt bikers to ride more recklessly.

Don't tell that to Carol Bufton, president of the Minnesota Safety Council. She said that head injuries account for two-thirds of bicycle-related deaths and that bike helmets can reduce the risk of head injury by as much as 85 percent.

Bufton wasn't aware of the European studies, but she asked a good question: "Do we want more bikers on the roads if they are not riding safely?"

"The studies out there are irrefutable that wearing a helmet is safer than not wearing a helmet," said Bufton. "The cost is low and the return is high. We're not militant on it and we're not at the Legislature asking for mandatory helmet laws."

Wigley is happy about that. Meanwhile, he will continue to ride his bike and wear a helmet, but he sure won't tell you what to do.

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

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