Opinions Clash on the Surprisingly not-Simple Topic of Bicycle Helmets

LR_Spokesman_helmet_01_Hobvias_Sudoneighm.jpg
Hobvias Sudoneighm / Flickr
See? You can do it and still look cool.
When it comes to polarizing social issues, the choice of whether to wear a helmet while biking is midrange. It's below legalizing same-sex marriage, but above, say, the battle to digitize the nation's medical records.

In the behelmeted corner, we've got your mom, anyone who's seen or done something like the above helmet-cracking mountain bike crash, and professional cyclists who like their job as is. Most of the facts support their case. Helmet use reduces the risk of head injury by 85 percent, and head injuries are cited in the vast majority of cycling-related deaths. And if you live, head injuries are a bad, bad thing. Ever see the film Memento, where the guy looking for his wife's killer has to tattoo things on his arms to remember them? That's the afterparty of a head injury. Avoiding head injuries where possible is a sign of basic competency in adults.

As for the unhelmeted contingent, the reasoning turns fuzzy and anecdotal, abetted by the relative rarity of streetside brainings and by an abundance of excuses. You know the ones: People don't need them in Amsterdam or Portland! It won't work with this hairstyle/fancy clothing/hot weather! I just forgot it today!

But there's a subtler line of thinking regarding the "brain bucket." Some cycling advocates assert that pro-helmet information campaigns and laws mislead the riding public into thinking that they're covered on road safety simply by wearing a helmet. They say that the "ride with a helmet or not at all" approach alienates non-riders, and gives new riders a potentially terminally false sense of security. If you had to choose between learing about how to avoid getting hit by cars or a helmet, they say "ditch the helmet." Yet they also acknowledge you'll not have to make that choice, so do both.

Some respected figures even advocate not wearing a helmet, citing the role helmets play in today's culture of fear. Going lidless, they say, forces cyclists to ride more cautiously overall. (Note that this man lives in Copenhagen, whose name comes from an Old Norse phrase meaning "unimaginably slow and safe.") Nonetheless, there is research that suggests bicyclists who wear helmets are at higher risks of being hit.

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lumachrome / Flickr
This bicyclist loves her brain.
Most of the time, I wear a helmet. Sometimes I don't. In those cases, I'm usually on my mountain bike, pretending that its slow beefiness will defend me against some sudden force. Maybe I'm just going a few blocks. Also, maybe I've got a nice outfit on, and I want to stay unencumbered for the night, and I forget how easy it is to lock it with my bike (threading your lock through the rear adjustment mechanism, mind you, not the straps, which thieves can easily cut).

Sure, critics of helmet laws seem justified in some theoretical sense. (Although their high-minded focus on safe riding techniques ignores chance accidents where a helmet might be life-saving.)

Principles are nice to have when biking, but they ignore the physics of what helmets do in practice. They're not some passive hedge against road scrapes. Helmets directly absorb the impact of a fall, so that your skull doesn't absorb it. They're meant to compress or even crack a little bit upon impact. Anyone who's ever gotten a concussion knows the sickeningly sharp surprise followed by the fear and confusion of dulled senses. Why tempt that feeling or worse? The crash's circumstances, your speed, and who is to blame are all background noise when the body's physics takes over. Imagine the tip of a bullwhip in mid-crack, fluidly concentrating its channeled energy into the final segment. In most crashes, that segment is your noggin.

With that in mind, I'd like to adapt Pascal's Wager for an era of red-light runners and trolley tracks: You gain more by wearing a helmet and never crashing than you gain by never wearing a helmet and crashing even once.

Without sounding like a Reagan-era "Just Say No" ad, I encourage the lidless to embrace the well-chosen helmet as a part of life. I'm not only talking about fashionable cityfolk, for whom wearing a helmet should be another welcome opportunity to accessorize. (I have many different jaunty cycling caps for wearing under my helmet.) Because kids under 14 are the most at-risk population, parents should know better. Fit kids' helmets in a way that doesn't make them look like dopes.

By the way, if you've ever crashed and hit the ground with your helmet, throw it out now and buy a new one -- it has served its purpose and won't work again if you crash. Same thing if you've had it for more than a few years or store it in the sun, as the foam will break down.

Digitizing medical records is a larger battle for another day, as is bicycling infrastructure and mode-sharing theories. Today, very easily, you can do your part to temper America's health-care costs and tame that pesky culture of fear. Statistics show injuries from bicycle crashes are getting more severe -- and such statistics are made of up humans, remember -- humans with soft, lovely treasure inside, a trove that's worth finding again and again.

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13 comments
Davekarney
Davekarney

 I agree. I don't wear a helmet mountain biking because it's uncomfortable, makes me sweat more and looks ridiculous. I'm also sick of being asked by the sheeple "you don't wear a helmet?" Obviously not. Learn to ride within your means. Learn to jump off your bike and learn how to fall and roll.

DIzzle
DIzzle

I always wear a helmet, but I don't want anyone telling me that I have to.  I've been riding bikes forever on and off road and remember a bunch of times that I found myself sliding down the road or trail on my helmet, very thankful.  I wear helmets for abrasion protection as much as impact protection. And I don't really care if you don't wear a lid, but if you choose to go without, own it:  Don't give some lame excuse, just admit you think they're uncool or whatever.  If you don't like the truth about why you don't wear a helmet, maybe you should reconsider protecting your dome.

streetsblog reader was here
streetsblog reader was here

Last year some Australian source (Australian College of Road Safety or something like that) published interesting results. It's well known that when the helmets became mandatory there, the KSI dropped, but so did the levels of cycling so there was no detectable safety improvement to be seen on the statistics.

In the new research they examined if there was a change in the difference in the ratio of injuries in heads and arms. A cyclist might fall and get injuries in his arms when he landed, but if he was wearing a helmet there should be less head injuries. This ratio is also independent of the number of cyclists, so they could do a reliable "before and after" comparison.

Now, in Australia they actually enforce the law and give tickets if you're not wearing a helmet. Before the law there were people cycling without helmets, but after the law there wasn't. So there should be a big steep change in the curve showing the ratio around the new law. Was there? Nope. There was a continuous downwards trend both before and after the law, showing the effect of helmets was minimal. There were also other changes (campaings agains DUI and speeding) which seemed to have more effect on head-arm-injury ratios that the helmets. The old research told helmets had no effect on KSI's and now the new research had problems with head-arm-injury ratios showing any effect. That 85% claim is totally ridiculous.

So their study found mandatory helmet law to be a poor tool to improve cyclist safety. And looking at the situation in the Netherlands where nearly everyone cycles without a helmet safely, I might say they really aren't the magic bullet.

Now, of course they ride Dutch style bikes on wide, safe, segregated bike paths so the risk of getting injured is low. In fact, injury rates not involving motorized vehicles in the Netherlands is the same as in the UK with it's lousy conditions for cycling. So, cycling itself is as equally safe in the UK and in the NL, worlds safest cycling country. The thing is British cyclists are ten times more likely to get hit by cars.

People usually try to protect themselves from injuries. Wearing a hard hat at a construction site makes sense. But is it really be needed if there's nobody working there and there's no danger from falling hammers? The Dutch try to keep the hammer-dropping motorists away from cyclists, and they really don't need cycle helmets.

Here's part of the problem of helmet debate. When thinking about cycling some people think riding on Dutch style bikes on segregated paths, which is low risk. Others think MTB'ing over rocks and tree roots, doing stunts on your bike or downhill racing, it's a high risk activity. Others think riding road bikes (which have you in a head-first position where you can hit your head easily) at high speed through busy streets. Does one shoe fit all?

Helmets are a symptom of lousy cycling conditions. Just like "vehicular cycling", it's a coping mechanism. Helmets require no money from government, so they're easy option to building bike paths.

This got a bit long, so I'm not going to rant how the helmets are there to protect the top of your head at low speed impacts. The speed is what your head would have if you fell while standing still. That is the standard they're designed to fill. Still, even a styrofoam hat can give you some protection, just don't expect it to save your lives.

As to increasing severity of head injuries: do you think the guy would have done that if he had not been wearing a helmet?

Rob Anderson
Rob Anderson

There's this study by New York City, which found that more than 90% of cyclists who died in accidents weren't wearing helmets, and more than 70% of those fatalities involved head injuries.http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/do...

TAPman
TAPman

Nutcase helmets just got a very poor rating from Consumer Reports.  According to tests in Europe, they will keep you alive but turn you into a vegetable because they do not absorb the shock at all.

Roy Crisman
Roy Crisman

Is there really a market for stolen helmets with the straps cut?

Opus the Poet
Opus the Poet

That 85% reduction was from one study from one hospital in Australia after their helmet law was implemented, and has since been proven completely invalid, unless you want to believe that helmet usage reduces leg injury by 77% as well. What the study did prove after taking the reduction in other injuries into account was that helmet laws drastically reduce the number of people riding bicycles.

voltairesmistress
voltairesmistress

Yes, you are correct.  And increasing the numbers of cyclists on the road makes drivers aware of cyclists probably being there.  That awareness leads to much fewer automobile-bicycle collisions, a leading source of rider fatalities.  See Holland for low collision and fatality rates.

And yes, let's leave helmet wearing for adults to those who want that extra level of protection -- I recommend them for anyone going out by bike, walk, or drive.  When people consider putting on a helmet for a walk around their city, they will become aware of the absurdity of helmets as an accessory to living life.

Rev JT
Rev JT

The logic of "just in case" extends to walking, driving and taking a bath, all three larger annual sources of head injury.

Guest
Guest

You've missed the point. Try again.

Dick
Dick

The research cited above about car behavior does not conclude that it is safer not to wear a helmet.  It merely shows that in England, car drivers who see cyclists wearing helmets don't give them as much clearance when passing as they do those not wearing helmets.  Generally the biggest risk to cyclists are the drivers who don't see them, NOT those that do.

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