Bike Durham board members and volunteers have been grappling with tough questions and instead of keeping the conversation to ourselves, we think it’s important to create dialogue around these sensitive and sometimes deeply personal issues. Recently, in planning the annual Ride of Silence, two topics came up that gave us pause and forced us to work through some differences in perspective and experience:
Should we require helmets on the ride? Who would that exclude?
Would a police escort for the ride add to the feeling of safety or detract from it?
Ultimately, through productive discussion and open-mindedness all around, we’ve settled on some positions for the Ride of Silence that can guide us for other events as well. We encourage healthy, respectful conversation around these topics and welcome members and the biking community to talk about these things, because that’s how we can learn and grow.
Our position on helmets
We consider wearing a helmet while biking a good idea.
Many of the Bike Durham leadership wear helmets habitually. Many of us have been in crashes where helmets have helped prevent serious injury. Like bicycle lights, which are required by law at night in North Carolina, wearing a helmet helps keep your noggin safe when it hits something hard. The foundation of Bike Durham is the desire to prevent senseless deaths and foster liveable streets. Helmets and lights are part of that.
However, a lot of the time, when helmets are promoted by advocates, legislators, or transportation departments, they are pitched as a cure-all for safety, often ignoring the larger, systemic, and more obvious threats to safety. There is a simple truth that if a vehicle hits you while you are walking or biking, a helmet is usually not enough to prevent injury.
Helmets are not the ultimate solution. Helmets provide a foam cushion when something smacks your head— they do not prevent all head injuries, they don’t stop cars, they don’t protect the rest of your body. If Bike Durham put helmets on everyone biking in Durham people would still die because of car crashes. So while we encourage helmet use, we put most of our time and effort into preventing crashes in the first place and believe that those who design our roads need to do the same.
We have chosen to prioritize changing and improving the built environment (ex: streets, sidewalks, crosswalks) over changing individual behavior. Encouraging helmet use will probably protect some noggins— just like teaching drivers the Dutch Reach probably prevents some doorings. We certainly believe in a world where everyone who wants a helmet has access to one, especially children. But we are concerned with making the biggest change with the longest effect. That’s why we’re focused on building a low-stress network that keeps you, grandma, your little nephew, everybody safe throughout the city. If you look at cities with strong bicycle infrastructure, you’ll notice that helmet usage is not the norm and it can be quite rare. Why? Because it is safe for young and old to ride their bikes without a helmet— the built environment is what creates safety.
Public education campaigns that focus on wearing helmets and reflective clothing (or pedestrians looking up from their phones) place the burden of safety on the individual biking or walking. Intended or not, these campaigns are apologetics for a car-dominant transportation system and contribute to a culture of victim-blaming in media coverage of crashes. ‘If you get hit, it was because you didn’t respect the car’s space.’ Bike Durham has a vision where it’s pleasant and normal to walk and bike to work in Durham and our advocacy should reflect that future rather than preparing everyone merely to survive the streets.
Car-centric safety campaigns on the left and political cartoons satirizing them on the right
All this leads to our last point: we are not just committed to preventing senseless deaths and injuries, but also to creating more livable streets. That happens when we build the street for everyone who uses it (all modes). And we cannot build livable streets while prioritizing car speeds. We want to build a Durham where you don’t have to gear up and wear a helmet to be safe on the roads— because those safety accessories aren’t solving the problem now anyway.
So, we don’t require helmets on our rides, though we do recommend them because we are more focused on the important factors of infrastructure and cars.
Our position on the police
Bike Durham is seeking to become more equity-focused, inclusive, and diverse. We’re living that out in various ways. We made this commitment essential to our formal statement of purpose. We are actively recruiting board members of color to better represent and advocate for Durham’s diversity. The leadership is attending seminars and workshops as part of our ongoing anti-racism work, and we’re challenging ourselves to think differently about everything the organization does. One way this has come up recently is around the presence of police at our events.
Every year Bike Durham hosts the Ride of Silence, as part of an international community of nearly 400 cities worldwide who organize these grassroots memorial rides on the third Wednesday every May. The slow group ride is held in complete silence to honor and remember victims of traffic violence. Traditionally, in many cities, this ride is held with the assistance of law enforcement personnel. Since the ride is silent and ride marshals cannot address the group or announce a change of plans at the moment, the police have served as escorts, commanding the respect of motor traffic on the route.
For some, the presence of police at rides like these offers comfort and a feeling of safety as they may be already hyper-conscious of the threat cars pose to vulnerable street users. For others, police presence causes anxiety and fear. For those who live in Durham without documentation, the police often embody the ubiquitous threat of capture, deportation, and separation from their family and community. For many, especially people of color and those in poverty, the police personify a long history of excessive force and community terrorism, playing crucial roles in the mechanics of institutional racism such as the school to prison pipeline and the war on drugs.
The reputation of violence is so deeply entangled with police that people of color and vulnerable communities avoid events where law enforcement is present. Mending those relationships and improving that reputation are worthwhile goals, but the responsibility for that reconciliation lies with the police, not with Bike Durham. This is an instance when we are not able to satisfy everyone.
We have decided that being true to our commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion means creating a welcoming environment for those who are usually ignored or unwelcomed in these environments. In this case, it means that we will not invite or pay the police to attend our events.
Without sacrificing safety and to ensure participants feel comfortable, we will have informed volunteer ride marshals supporting the Durham Ride of Silence. We hope you will join us!