I’ve been biking to work for all of my five years here in Beijing, and I still love that community connection I feel during my commute. Sandstorms, rainstorms, winter cold — dou meiwenti. I’ll even bike during the bad pollution days, with an N95 mask. But one thing was conspicuously missing: a bike helmet. I have a lot of fun hats and loved to take turns wearing them on my commute. But a few weeks ago I saw another bicyclist get hit by a car and perform somersaults in the air off of the car’s hood — and land on his feet. He was incredibly lucky, but I was shaking, and I started to think a bit more clearly. I mostly pictured myself flying through the air if I were hit by a car, my skull careening towards the asphalt, and I’m sure in that moment I would be picturing my wife and I’d be thinking, “wow, this is a really stupid way to die.”
So I put away the cool hats, went to my local Giant bike store and spent 190 RMB on something even cooler — a bike helmet. It’s a lot more comfortable than I remember them, and I already don’t even notice wearing it. More importantly, I do feel a lot safer on those “bicycle lanes” that cars constantly “share” inches away from me.
But I certainly am in a minority on the Beijing streets and get a few looks. As we all know just by looking around, the helmet rate here is very, very low. Many expat kids wear them, and a few helmeted adults whiz by, again usually expats. But a local Beijinger? Very rare. This is not unusual; in Amsterdam, where bikes are kings of the road, helmet use is only 0.1%. But the big difference there is that bike accidents in the Netherlands apparently are quite low. This seems due to good education and awareness of proper road rules by both drivers and bicyclists. I don’t have the stats for Beijing or China, but I bet the helmet usage is around the same miniscule 0.1% — minus all of the well-trained driving and biking etiquette. It’s a recipe for chaos and accidents.
And the danger is real. The Safe Kids USA group has some data from studies:
- Bicycle helmets prevent 52 to 60 percent of bike-related head injury deaths (for all ages), as well as an estimated 68 to 85 percent of nonfatal head and scalp injuries, and 65 percent of upper and middle face injuries, even when misuse is considered.
- In 2008, males accounted for the majority (75.6 percent of bicycle-related deaths.
- More children ages 5 to 14 are seen in hospital emergency rooms for injuries related to biking than any other sport.
- Universal use of bicycle helmets by children ages 4 to 15 could prevent between 135 and 155 deaths, between 39,000 and 45,000 head injuries, and between 18,000 and 55,000 scalp and face injuries annually.
- Helmet use can reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent and severe brain injury by 88 percent.
But I don’t want to scare people off from biking — I strongly encourage it for everyone! As I wrote last year, the health benefits of urban biking outweigh the risks. This was proven in a study with Chinese women, and was also reviewed in a worldwide meta-analysis last year which showed that, even in polluted cities, biking’s health benefits far outweighed the risks. I also don’t think biking in Beijing is the worst in the world. In fact, I felt much more scared biking in San Francisco or any American suburb, mostly because drivers aren’t accustomed to sharing roads with bikers and drive too close to them.
The bottom line is that people really should bicycle in Beijing — the health benefits far outweigh the risks. But if you bike to work or anywhere in busy areas, using a bike helmet is a smart choice. Your loved ones will thank you.
You can gorge yourself on the scary statistics of bike accidents and deaths, an alarming amount of which are in children. And if you have more questions, this FAQ page has a lot of information for you. The Safe Kids USA group also has links to research and websites.
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