Helmets vs. physical activity: A public health Catch-22

Will encouraging helmet use simultaneously discourage people from riding their bikes in the city? Two public health concerns – obesity and accident prevention – run the risk of being at odds with each other when it comes to promoting bicycling safety.

Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) has been criticized after launching a new helmet safety campaign  that features the bloodied faces of post-accident helmets, with tag lines like “Still think it’s unattractive?”

In defense of the BPHC, it looks like their ads are specifically targeting teenage cyclists, and I’m willing to bet that their research pointed to vanity-related concerns like keeping one’s face scar-free, and preventing “helmet hair” as primary barriers for teens when it comes to wearing a helmet. From this perspective, the campaign makes sense. In order to motivate behavior, you have to make an audience feel susceptible to the consequences of their actions.

However, as Boston Biker points out, this fear-based strategy could very well end up scaring people away from cycling altogether, thereby damaging efforts to get Bostonians to engage in what can also be a very healthy, calorie-burning activity. It’s a paradox that recently got attention from the New York Times as well:

…many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network.

What’s a public health official to do? While the helmet Catch-22 may always be tricky ground to navigate, a more balanced campaign might be achieved by emphasizing the responsibility of drivers to pay attention to cyclists on the road. A campaign with signs that encourage drivers to check for cyclists before opening their car doors or making turns could serve as an important reminder to drivers, while providing reassurance for cyclists that the city is looking out for their safety (without putting the burden solely on bikers).

BPHC might also re-think their bloody fear-based appeal in favor of something a little less threatening. Graphic images and threatening statements often overreach and end up overwhelming people to the point that they tune the messages out–or in this case, misplace the fear onto cycling rather than the specific behavior or cycling without a helmet.

If looks are a priority to people, are there ways to promote helmets that look a little less dorky? Credible role models who can advocate for helmet use? Using the “everybody’s doing it” tactic can also be effective, as people are naturally drawn to following social norms.

A softer communications approach towards helmet-free cyclists, combined with an awareness campaign directed at car drivers, would likely be more effective both at gaining the support of the biking community, and reaching the overall objective of keeping Boston bikers safer.

–Jean Z. Bernard

Jean Bernard is the Web Communications Coordinator at MAPC and has a Masters degree in Health Communication from Emerson College in collaboration with Tufts University School of Medicine.