Remember when bicycle helmets were ugly, and nobody wore them?
Joe Traill remembers. When he was a kid, he would bike for hours from his home in Sparks with no helmet on his head and no thought of one in his brain. He remembers watching racers compete without helmets in the Tour de France, a practice that was allowed on the final mountain climb until 2003.
Now, Traill sells helmets in a rainbow of colors, styles and price points at Joe's Bike Shop, the Mount Washington store he's owned since 1999. As helmet use increases, so do the choices. But there are still people who refuse to wear helmets.
"We're seeing more people wearing helmets regularly now," says Traill. "But until everybody wears helmets every time they're balancing on two wheels, then no, they're not wearing helmets enough."
Sometimes customers tell him they don't need helmets because they are just riding in the neighborhood, or just commuting to work. In response, Traill tells them of the time his front wheel sank into a storm grate at the start of a ride. "I hadn't even taken the first pedal stroke," he says. "I was quickly deposited straight on my head. I don't know what would have happened if I hadn't been wearing a helmet."
Traill now owns six helmets, switching them up based on the mood he's in and the ride he's planning. "I have helmets like women have handbags," he says.
Since 1986, helmets have been mandatory at USA Cycling Events, and since 1995 they have been required in Maryland for bicyclists 16 and under. Helmet use has become the norm, spurred by public safety campaigns and reports that credit helmets with saving lives and preventing brain injuries.
In 2013, 726 cyclists were killed in collisions with motor vehicles, including seven in Maryland. Nationwide, 88 percent of the victims were male, and in 69 percent of cases they were riding in a city, according to an October report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. More than two-thirds of the fatally injured bicyclists were not wearing helmets.
Though 21 states and the District of Columbia have enacted helmet laws for young cyclists, no state requires bicycle helmet use for adults. In 2013, Maryland lawmakers considered a bill that would have extended the law to adults, but resistance was passionate, particularly in the bicycling community.
"I think the current laws we have in place are perfect," says Nate Evans, executive director of Bike Maryland, a nonprofit advocacy group. "It gives protection to kids, who are more susceptible to brain injury. For adults, we strongly encourage helmet use, but we don't want to see any law that mandates it."
He contends that mandatory helmet laws would discourage cycling and actually decrease safety by removing incentives for communities to create bike-friendly road conditions. "It's safer when there are more people cycling," he says.
Federal Hill resident Dr. David Scharff is an avid cyclist who races with a group called Lateral Stress Velo. An internist, he regularly commutes by bicycle to his Canton office, a distance of about four miles. Scharff rides 5,000 to 7,000 miles each year, but he says experience is no guarantee of safety. Recently, he says, a friend was riding in Hampden when a car door opened in front of him. "He went flying over the handlebars," Scharff says. "Luckily, he was wearing a helmet and nothing happened."
Scharff, the father of boys ages 10 and 12, says it is important to set a good example for his children, who have been brought up to use bicycle helmets as automatically as they buckle seat belts. But that message can be eroded when the family spies people riding without helmets around Baltimore.
Scharff says he's heard all the excuses. "The people who don't wear helmets say it's too hot, or messes up their hair, or they don't need to wear one because they're only going around the corner," he says. "There are a lot of people out there who feel it's a real push against their freedom."
Helmets are now available to suit every taste, Scharff says. "They come in a million different colors and shapes and sizes. I'll wear one that matches the color of my bike when I feel like it. If you're really into fashion, you can go kind of crazy with the helmets if you want."
Paul Cavalieri, manager of the Race Pace bike shop in Federal Hill, says all helmets must meet federal safety standards, but once that requirement is met, the styles can vary widely.
While any bicycle helmet is acceptable for any discipline, urban commuters tend to be more concerned with style and keeping their head and hair as free of sweat as possible, while serious mountain bikers are looking for back-of-head protection. Road racers prefer sleek helmets with minimal drag and venting for coolness. More expensive helmets tend to offer added safety.
Bern Unlimited, which makes helmets that start at $59, is popular with young urban commuters, Cavalieri said. Bern, based in Massachusetts, launched in 2005 selling helmets for winter sports, and its sleek bicycle helmets reflect that cold-weather aesthetic, selling in a range of bright colors, with a removable visor that helps keep the cyclist cool. Many of the helmets can be used for both summer and winter sports.
Also popular, says Cavalieri, is the Bontrager Solstice helmet, which starts at $44 and is especially popular in Baltimore's steamy summer months because it is lightweight and well-vented. It comes in 10 colors, for people who like to coordinate their helmet to their outfit. Representatives of the Trek-owned company even go to fashion weeks in New York and Milan to select on-trend colors, says Antonio Paterniti, a sales associate at Race Pace.
Serious racers are more likely to plunk down $270 for the POC, which "has huge vents to keep your head cool, and it's very lightweight, which is a major concern for most road riders," says Paterniti. "They don't like to feel like there's a big, bulky thing on top of their head."
Traill notes that helmets degrade and must be replaced every three to five years. And once you've been in a crash, you need a new helmet, even if you are emotionally attached to the one that saved your life.
"From a price ... standpoint, there is no reason not to get a helmet. And from a safety standpoint, there is no reason not to get a helmet," says Paterniti.
Even though riding without a helmet is legal for adults, his advice is simple: "Protect your noggin."