Hell Yes and Hell No to Bike Helmets

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Robert RivardRichard Burton wants every cyclist in San Antonio to know one thing: bike helmets don’t make you any safer in the event of accident. He’s adamant on that count, and he won’t rest until I address his challenge.

In the interest of fair play, we’ve invited Burton to submit an article for publication to make his best case. While he considers our offer you can read his arguments in the Comment section of an article I wrote and posted last week: “The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety.”

A couple of dozen people posted comments for and against bike helmet choice  – a healthy dialogue, with plenty of appreciation for the grey space in an issue that is anything but black and white – but Burton’s responses, plural, stand out.

Bike to school day. A father rides with his helmeted daughter to school. Photo: www.pedbikeimages.org /Mike Cynecki

A father rides with his helmeted daughter to school. Photo: www.pedbikeimages.org /Mike Cynecki

“There is no dilemma as helmets don’t make you safer,” Burton wrote. “Increased cycle helmet wearing is not associated with a reduction in risk to cyclists. All reliable evidence shows this, and the evidence showing huge benefits is either anecdote, opinion or just bad science.”

He drifts off into unflattering comparisons of pro-helmet advocates with Nazi propagandists, which make me think his arguments, however unconvincing, are well-rehearsed.

Burton cites the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation and its website, cyclehelmets.org, which he calls the most comprehensive website on the subject. My reading of the site is that it would be more accurate to label it the Anti-Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation. All of its content appears to attack the helmet industry and any industry or independent researchers whose studies draw clear links to increased risk of head injuries for cyclists who don’t wear a helmet.

A group of guys ride together down streets closed off to traffic.

A group of guys ride together, some with, some without helmets, down Broadway street, closed off to traffic for Síclovía .

To be fair, the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, which I cited in my first article, comes from the other perspective, that data and studies over time support helmet use. But cyclists by nature are independent creatures, and nothing in my first article or this one suggests people be required to use helmets. No one in Texas is arguing that, either. As noted last week, Dallas is the only city in the state with a mandatory helmet law, and the Dallas City Council is expected to consider reversing that ordinance so the city can launch a bike share program like B-cycle here.

The intent of my article was not to bully riders into wearing helmets. I merely wanted to explore an obvious generational divide within the fast-growing cycling community in San Antonio, and for that matter, every other major city I’ve visited in recent years. Baby boomers (like me) and Gen X cyclists, especially those who ride road bikes and belong to a team or club, universally use helmets. Few would consider riding without one, even on a casual ride.

Millennials and others who see bikes as urban transportation and more of a lifestyle choice tend to ride without helmets. It’s hard not to envy their youth and carefree spirit. It’s also true they move at slower speeds over shorter distances on safer neighborhood streets and avenues rather than the open road where vehicle traffic travels at higher speeds.

Night riders. No Helmets. Photo by David Rangel.

Night riders. No Helmets. Photo by David Rangel.

I always wear a helmet. After my last article, I decide to cruise Southtown helmet-free and mix in with the riders young enough to be my sons or daughters. I got as far as a neighborhood restaurant and then turned around, went back home, and put on my helmet. I simply couldn’t face encountering someone I knew and having to explain my sudden shift in behavior.

Still, I’ve come to see that many young and not-so-young urban cyclists make a good case for riding helmet-free, taking what they believe is a reasonable, low-risk approach to the activity. I also buy the argument – I first heard made by the mayor of Berlin two years ago – that mandatory helmet laws only suppress the number of cyclists.

Overall, he argued, society is better off with more people cycling, even without helmets, than people giving up cycling as exercise or as urban transportation in lieu of private vehicles that add to urban congestion and pollution.

Hopeful graffiti in New York City. Photo by Tom Trevino.

Graffiti in New York City. Photo by Tom Trevino.

What I didn’t expect were arguments from Burton and a few others that cyclists who wear helmets are only fooling themselves. In my previous article I did link to a well-known anti-helmet cyclist and blogger, Mikael Colville-Anderson, but I didn’t think many street-smart cyclists would take him seriously.

Aren’t we talking basic physics here? Isn’t a well-fitted protective cover over a vulnerable sphere always better than no protection? Isn’t that why animals have skulls enveloping their brains? Isn’t that why football players and other athletes wear protective headgear? Aren’t there companion websites dismissing the efficacy of seat belts and air bags?

The most trustworthy research is undertaken by unbiased entities. That’s why I cited, among other studies and data sources, a New York City city study that showed 97% of all fatally injured cyclists over a multi-year period were not wearing helmets. New York officials, by the way, were not looking to impose a mandatory helmet law when they undertook the study. They were gathering facts, and trying to assess the importance of helmets as the city moved toward adoption of a bike share program.

Frank Krygowski, whose email address links to a site called Bicycling Life,  also posted a comment critical of my article because it did not place cycling-related brain injuries in the context of other everyday accidents, such as falling down a flight of stairs or traveling in an automobile. He’s right. That’s not the issue I was addressing. Nothing in the article suggests cycling is more or less dangerous than other pursuits. I only addressed the reasons why some people wear helmets and others don’t, despite a credible body of research that shows riders wearing helmets fare better than riders without helmets in an accident.

The fact is the chance of being in an accident in a vehicle, on a bike, or coming down a set of stairs, is quite small.  But if an accident does occur, don’t you want to be protected? That’s why we wear seat belts, use air bags, and come to think of it, ask our kids not to leave their toys on the stairs.

Photo by Tom Trevino.

Photo by Tom Trevino.

If anyone local would like to post views in support or against bike helmet use, The Rivard Report invites your submission. I’d especially like to hear from some of my fellow Third Street Grackle riders who have survived a vehicle-cycling accident.

The Atlantic Cities published a story late Tuesday morning about designers working on a stylish portable helmet.

Wednesday we will publish a third safe cycling article that explores proven ways San Antonio can and is become a safe(r) cycling city. While we are still on the subject of helmet use, let me ask this question: If you knew ahead of time that you were going to be in a cycling accident, would you choose to wear a helmet or would you ride helmet-free? How about your child, helmet or no helmet?

 

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

 

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The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety

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The Feed: National Bike Month Rides into San Antonio, Just in Time

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There are 31 comments

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  1. Kevin G Saunders

    Bob,

    Kudos for trying the Southtown helmet free experience. I have ridden around on a B-Cycle without a helmet as well and I do think that there is a place for everything. Back in my full time bicycle racing days, I didn’t wear a helmet when training, but did when racing, as it was required. The leather “hair net” did little to protect, but I didn’t put up a fuss as we were all in it to race and it didn’t matter that much.

    I do like the freedom of riding a bike without all the accoutrements and I strongly feel that we lose context of the dangers of riding vs everything else. There are hazards to living and one could make a case for wearing a helmet if occupying a bed that is raised off the floor, prior to ascending or descending stairs or walking on uneven ground.

    There will be no easy answer in this discussion, but you are doing us a service by bringing up both sides in a manner that allows us to really think about risk vs reward. As a society we do tend to legislate and preach towards total risk aversion and as such kids are growing up in a much different world than we did. Somehow we survived being unsupervised, riding bikes without helmets, and going everywhere while learning the rules of the road by experience rather than by a set of written rules.

    In the end, I want to see more people riding bikes. I am thrilled to see a 50 year old guy riding a cruiser with ape hanger bars, as the smile on his face is evident. I am not thrilled to see a spandex clad cyclist flipping the bird at a driver of a car while running a red light. Acceptance goes both ways and keep writing as we are a stubborn lot and it will take a few times for it to sink in!

  2. Bob Cullen via Facebook

    I have taken two significant spills while biking and in each case my head smacked against the pavement and the helmet cracked. I don’t know what would have happened to my skull had I not been wearing the helmet, but I cannot imagine it would be good. I find it hard to credit anyone who seriously suggests bikers shouldn’t wear helmets. Maybe we do need a less bulky helmet for urban bikers who use bike-share programs and want to keep their helmets in a backpack or carry bag when they’re done riding.

  3. Bobby Flores via Facebook

    Its not so much about the helmet. Its more about the fall. I learned how to fall in motorcycle training class. I’ve been cycling SA streets for decades and I’ve fallen plenty of times. Curl up in a ball and roll, that’s what I do. I always land on my back or shoulder. However I did faceplant once. But it was because the street was wet. I wasn’t going that fast so it felt like it happened in slow motion. It was actually kind of nice sporting a shiner on my eye for a week. When people would ask “What happened?”, and I’d say, “Whats the first rule of fight club?”, and then they would respond with, “No really, what happened to your face?” and I would reply, “What happened to YOUR face?” and then we would have a laugh. Anyway, in that instance, wearing a helmet would not have helped me and may have actually caused more harm to my body than good because of the way I landed on my face. But then again, I shouldn’t have been drunk riding a bike.

  4. Rich Marini

    A number of years ago, I was making a simple turn when I ran into a patch of gravel and my wheels slipped out from under me. I distinctly remember feeling the side of my helmet hit the pavement. The fall was bad enough that I cracked a bone in my elbow. I’m much happier that it was that bone that cracked and not my skull.

  5. Jim Smyle

    Bob’s point about basic physics also extends to the “how you crash and how you fall”. Accidents are, well, accidents. They can happen fast and the time to react and “prepare” for the fall is superseded by mass, velocity, angular momentum and that damn light post that is inconveniently placed to catch your skull while you are practicing midair yoga in hopes of gently depositing yourself on the patch of grass just beyond it. You are whistling through the graveyard if you think that it is a matter of your mind over matter. My conversion to “always wear a helmet” came on a morning commute to my Washington, DC office some 12 years ago. I was on a bike path with only runners, walkers and bikers. A twenty-something on a mountain bike burned past me just in time to run into a jogger coming in from a perpendicular path. The jogger hit the ground like a sack of potatoes and the rider went straight up and over his handles bars as the rear of the bike came over and fired the top of his head into the pavement. I stayed with the rider until the ambulance came and had to wrangle him back to the ground twice as he kept fighting his way up and trying to zombie his way into the Potomac River. The guy was out of it. He called me some 4 to 6 months later to thank me for keeping him from drowning himself…he had just been released from the hospital. Conclusion: it’s your skull and traumatic brain injury and your decision to wear a helmet or not. I love riding without one, but I wear one anyway.

  6. Jennifer Martin Hussey via Facebook

    Two Words, One person: Chuck Ramirez. That should be all it takes for anyone in Southtown…

  7. Jesse Torres via Facebook

    It’s more about good common sense than about a law. I agree that bike helmets shouldn’t be mandatory, but why would you not want to wear a helmet? They were mandatory while I was in the military and that’s good enough for me.

  8. Jessica Lynn

    As someone who enjoys riding for transportation and recreation, as I have cycled the streets of SA in dressy clothes, even high heels, I have never worn a helmet. I am a hyper vigilant rider, always aware of the movement all around me, especially cars and never assuming a driver can see me, even if stopped. It is a shame and sad reality to feel as if you are risking your life to simply get somewhere via bicycle. We need dedicated bike lanes with connectivity throughout the city, period. I think we would all be dazzled and amazed how many people would ditch their cars and cycle to work, in a suit, helmet free!

  9. Tony Plutino

    I crashed in the Outlaw 100. I tried to tuck and roll, but it wasn’t enough as ether the force was to great or I just didn’t have time to get my shoulder tucked around. This stuff happens fast! I ultimately had surgery to rebuild my shoulder. After the crash I inspected my helmet and found the Styrofoam severely cracked. Never felt a thing o the noggin. I believe it is foolhardy to cycle without a helmet, but also believe in freewill. However, if one chooses to cycle helmet-free, please have DNR and your signature tattooed on your forehead, so you don’t drive up medical expenses for the rest of us. Have a great, independent and free-spirited life.

  10. David Lopez

    Does an increase in technological advancements lead to a decline in basic survival instincts and gut reactions? Safety equipment is really not the best replacement for skill and experience or am I missing something. Are we all being lulled into a false sense of safety?

    The social mind is going to win over the individual mind so maybe my little argument is worthless here. I just hope the masses are intent on a world that values freedom and choice over safety and security.

    • Kevin G Saunders

      Well stated David. I think that when lawyers try to define everything based on the lowest common denominator, that skills are the first thing to go and risk reduction trumps everything. This is why I point out to folks that the next logical step is helmets 24/7, because we are at risk all the time. I have fallen off a ladder, been in an auto accident, and slipped on stairs. All “could” have caused a head injury. People fall out of bed, and anything can happen. The logic “If you don’t protect yourself and wear a helmet, you impact my insurance rates” applies across the board, so where does one stop? I go back to Robin Stallings’ statement that a helmetless rider is better off than a morbidly obese TV addict. If we have skills, we can take some risks. Legislating risk aversion is a slippery slope, as we take a right and turn it into a privilege.

  11. sam

    a properly fitted bike helmet will protect the outside of your head in a crash up to 15-16 mph.
    Your brain is still going to smack the inside of your skull and you can still end up with a concussion.
    Most bike wrecks are solo falls and can be avoided by riding far enough from the curb to avoid all the crap that collects there (yes even in the middle of a lane, it’s legal if the lane is standard width), and paying attention. You also need to know how to brake hard without going over the handlebars and how to do a quick turn to the right.

    • Frank Krygowski

      Regarding brain surgeons: Yes, American brain surgeons may buy into bike helmet promotion. They are subject to the same propaganda and peer pressure as the average person. But in countries where bike helmets are treated with more skepticism, it most neurosurgeons are also skeptical. for example, Jung, C S et. al., “Attitude and opinion of neurosurgeons concerning protective bicycle-helmet use,” J Neurotrauma. 2010 May;27(5):871-5. doi: 10.1089/neu.2009.1130 reports that in Germany, fewer than half the neurosurgeons wear bike helmets.

      Why would that be? One strong possibility is that those neurosurgeons are familiar with the actual distribution of causes of traumatic brain injury, and realize that bicycling is not, and has never been, a really significant risk for TBI. (Any impartial examination of the data will show this.) They may be familiar with the fact that American bike concussions have actually risen strongly since bike helmets became fashionable. (See the current issue of _Bicycling_ magazine.) They may be familiar with the fact that sudden surges in bike helmet use (just prior to enforcement of an all-ages helmet law) in New Zealand produced zero evidence of reduced hospital admissions for head injury. (Scuffham et. al. “Trends in Cycling Injuries in New Zealand Under Voluntary Helmet Use”, 1997, Accident Analysis and Prevention, Vol 29, No 1. They may be aware that helmets are soon to be banned in amateur boxing, because they have been shown to strongly _increase_ the chances of concussion. (Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2013.)

      My guess is that the German neurosurgeons receive much less “Bicycling is dangerous!” propaganda, and thus judge TBI risk not by “what if?” stories, but by the patients that actually come in the door. And it’s likely that in Germany, as in the U.S., bicyclists make up less than 1% of the serious TBI problem.

      When _will_ people demand helmets for the other 99%?

      - Frank Krygowski

      • Robert Rivard

        Frank

        I’ve held many an inexpensive helmet and many a higher end helmet in my hands at the same time and looked at the layers of protection with educated sales staff I know and trust and discussed the differences. Frankly, a chimpanzee could have selected the better helmet. It’s a no-brainer. You get what you pay for. –RR

        • Frank Krygowski

          That illustrates an interesting fact about the helmet debate. One side seems to very frequently refer to test data, national data on true sources of TBI, research articles on the effects of rising helmet use in the general population, etc. That side is skeptical of the need for, and the effectiveness of helmets.

          The other side uses statements like “Just wear a helmet, period” or “I know I’d be dead without my helmet” or “It’s just good common sense.”

          You’ve just given a “common sense” argument – in effect “I held them and talked to a salesman on commission, so I know which is more protective. No data required.”

          BTW, Consumer Reports is hardly skeptical of helmets. Over the years, they’ve begun most of their articles with a “My helmet saved my life” story, so their bias is probably in your direction, yet they’ve found that cheaper helmets are more protective. Other pro-helmet agencies have done tests and found that cheap and expensive helmets have the same level of protection. AFAIK, there has _never_ been a test showing what you’ve claimed, i.e. that expensive helmets are more protective.

          If the available data indicates the opposite of what you claim, isn’t there a chance that both you and your trained salesmen were wrong?

          - Frank Krygowski

          • Robert Rivard

            There is ample data proving that more cycling fatalities involve riders without helmets than helmets. I’ve cited that data in my articles, so to assert otherwise is misleading.

          • Frank Krygowski

            Robert, you said “There is ample data proving that more cycling fatalities involve riders without helmets than helmets. I’ve cited that data in my articles, so to assert otherwise is misleading.” But I was talking about the general trends in the discussions, plus your specific statement about cheap helmets.

            Understand, I was once a helmet promoter. What changed my mind (and the minds of other scientists and engineers I know) was the quality of the data and the quality of the arguments pro and con. If the data indicated that bicycling really does carry unusually high risk of TBI, and that helmets really were highly successful in preventing that TBI, I’d still promote them. But (largely through excellent access to a university library system) I’ve got drawers full of papers and data on helmets. It’s clear to me that both the danger and the protection are being tremendously exaggerated.

            Even your statement quoted above indicates the weakness of the pro-helmet position. Yes, there are studies that show more fatalities among riders without helmets. But is it really the helmet making the difference? Or is it that most riders are still not using helmets (only 31% in my area, by a year-long survey). If each group had the same per-participant fatality rate, more would die without helmets.

            Is it also because (as in Crocker’s study in Austin) the riders with high blood alcohol are also the ones not wearing helmets? His attempt to promote an all-ages MHL failed when his study showed alcohol use was very significantly correlated with serious TBI, but helmet use was not; and NHTSA data shows over 35% of fatally injured cyclists are on alcohol.

            Could it also be that cyclists riding facing traffic don’t wear helmets? That cyclists riding at night with no lights don’t wear helmets? Of course! And putting a helmet on a drunk, wrong-way, no-lights cyclist will not make him safe.

            Like it or not, your particular statement about inexpensive helmets was done without reference to any data. I challenge you to visit your library and dig up the issues of Consumer Reports that tested helmets. (The librarian will help, I’m sure.) Keep in mind that pro-helmet CR may not call out the “cheaper work better” results; but they are there in the “dot” ratings.

            Also search online for other test results. If you can find real data showing what you claimed – that expensive helmets are more protective – I’d be very interested in seeing it!

            Finally, I’d ask you to keep an open mind. While your original article made an attempt to maintain neutrality, your personal views are becoming quite clear. An unbiased scientist or reporter goes with the best data. If it’s not clear to a reporter which side’s data is better, that reporter should, I believe, try to persist in neutrality, rather than bringing in personal impressions.

  12. Marci Owens Bent via Facebook

    My dad IS a brain surgeon and he always says, ‘Is your head worth $25??? Worth spending $125? I always opt for the high end helmets! How much is your head worth??

    • Robert Rivard

      Marci
      I’ve always wondered why anyone would buy a helmet other than the very best. How does one determine a lower priced helmet is good enough? There is, indeed, an enormous difference in the calibre of helmets. The lowest price ones are, basically, junk using technology a decade old. The highest end ones get better, literally, every product release. –RR

      • Frank Krygowski

        I’m sorry, Robert, but you’re mistaken about your judgment regarding lowest price bike helmets. In fact, it’s likely that you’re 180 degrees off, at least regarding impact protection, which is purportedly the main purpose of helmets.

        All helmets sold in the U.S. are required to meet the CPSC standard for impact protection. The test is astonishingly (some might say ludicrously) simple. In essence, a solid magnesium model of a human head (no body attached, no internal mimicking of brain structure) is dropped so it hits a smooth anvil at about 14 mph. The solid headform must not experience deceleration more than 300 times the acceleration of gravity (usually expressed as “300 gees”). Since the standard predates much of the research on brain injury, there is no test for the far more important rotational acceleration, although there are other test details (an even gentler impact on a corner, a strap strength test, temperature extremes, etc.).

        All helmets sold meet the “300 g” test. But how do the expensive ones compare with the cheap ones? Actually, Consumer Reports’ many tests over the years have consistently shown that cheaper helmets impart _less_ acceleration (or force) to the headform. Cheaper helmets are actually more protective!

        How can this be? In essence, the test is pass-fail, and manufacturers are understandably loathe to give actual test numbers. (Consumers might be horrified to learn how little capacity bike helmets actually have!) So manufacturers of pricey helmets tout other benefits. Lighter weight and better ventilation are high on the list. Some have even advertised the number of holes!

        To achieve the lightest weight and the best ventilation, manufacturers simply use less material. But this is actually expensive! For a gossamer-thin helmet to pass the 300 g test, designers must work hard to shape the styrofoam and put it in precisely the right places. Even with modern computer simulation techniques, it’s likely that many prototypes must be custom built and destroyed in tests. The design time, fabrication time and lab time is expensive. (Of course, there’s also the fact that the price is set by what the market will bear – and they know people who are willing to spend big to lose 50 grams from a crankset will also spend big for a lighter helmet!)

        By contrast, designers of a cheap helmet don’t bother to trim weight much, nor to provide much ventilation. The philosophy is, “Put in lots of plastic, pass the test the first time, and advertise the low price.”

        Back to Consumer Reports: They don’t give numbers for protection either. But they do code the helmets “impact protection” with their scale of five colored dots, indicating the range from best to worst. In every helmet rating article they’ve done, the cheap helmets have beaten the expensive ones.

        So are you serious about impact protection for a possible bike crash in which you seriously hit your head = even though such impacts are much less common than for pedestrians? Then _don’t_ get the “best” – or rather, most expensive bike helmet. Get something that looks like a 1970s football helmet. And get it at the dollar store.

        - Frank Krygowski

  13. Colin Clarke

    For the helmet believers, good luck. For helmet sceptics, if you read ‘The Case against bicycle helmets and legislation’, VeloCity cycling conference, Munich 2007 or the more recent ‘Evaluation of New Zealand’s bicycle helmet law’
    Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, they provide quite a bit of detail.

  14. John Engates

    I have two great bike accidents where a helmet saved me big time. One I smacked my head hard into a low branch on a mountain bike….no harm done. The other, I face planted on slick streets. HUGE scratches on helmet and sun glasses and only minor surface scrapes on cheek. I think helmets are awesome and I think you should always wear one…but I don’t think it should be a law….maybe for kids…but not for adults.

  15. Jim Titus

    Greetings from Washington. I just wanted to let you know that the federal government is backing off the previous claim that helmets prevent 85% of head injuries. The actual effectiveness is probably less than 50 percent. See

    http://www.waba.org/blog/2013/06/feds-withdraw-claim-that-bike-helmets-are-85-percent-effective/

    So helmets probably do more good than hard–usually. It’s possible that an incorrectly worn helmet does more harm than good.

    If you are one of those people who always ride more carefully on days when, for some reason, you don’t have your helmet with you, please consider riding that carefully all the time. And get yourself a set of very bright front and read lights, and run them day and night.

  16. Roger Ronald

    I’m a believer in helmets. And since I’m for seatbelt laws and motorcycle helmet laws, I guess I need to be pro bike-helmet laws.

    However….I have a critique about the article. The offering of empirical evidence is very weak. Here’s the only study statement: “a New York City city study that showed 97% of all fatally injured cyclists over a multi-year period were not wearing helmets”

    This might be impressive evidence if there was a bit more information around it. What percentage of all riders in the study area and time don’t wear helmets. If it’s 50%, helmets must be saving people. If it’s 99% who ride w/o helmets, then helmets must be killing people at a 3 to 1 ratio over the unprotected. If it’s 97% w/o helmets, then helmets don’t have any effect on fatalities.

    It would be also nice to know how many fatalities were in the study? Is it enough to draw a conclusion? Or not?

    If the amount of data about this topic is so small that people honestly think helmets don’t add to safety, I would argue that we (and especially the author) should try to make a compelling case based on compelling evidence…rather than something that looks unconvincing even to those who believe in helmets.

    RR

    • Jim W

      @Roger. I think you are on the right track with citing the need to know the percentage of the overall cycling population who wear helmets when using non-helment fatality statistics. This is too often overlooked.

      However, there are other layers of correlation that have to be considered. For example, inexperienced riders crash with far greater frequency than experienced cyclists and helmet use is positively correlated to experience (i.e., more experienced cyclists tend to wear helmets). Frank touched on some other examples in his comments.

      As a scientist who is familiar with statistical analyses, I have read a lot of the articles that have been cited for and against helmet safety. My takeaway from all of it is this: If I am doing more aggressive cycling, such as off-road mountain biking, or doing stunts like curb jumping and such, or road riding at speeds above 15 mph, then a properly fitted helmet that does not obstruct vision makes good sense. For riding a single-speed cruiser bike around town at low speeds, the safety benefit of a helmet is insignificant, and not worth the discomfort. In all cases, a helmet is no substitute for experience. There is far more protection to be offered by honing bike handling skills and traffic awareness.

      For those who are stong helmet advocates, let me ask you this. Have you taken the time to improve your bike handling? Do you know how to bunny hop a bike? hop a curb at speed to get out of the way? Do you practice locking up your brakes to skid to a stop without crashing? Have you practices bumping wheels and shoulders with other cyclists (preferably on a soft grassy area) so you will know how to recover from these without falling? Knowing these things will also save your skull. The best protection is not to fall in the first place.

  17. Seamus Gardiner

    This is an interesting debate. I am from Australia which is one of the few countries with mandatory helmet laws (MHLs). Australia is similar in many respects to America – urban planning is similar wiht a high level of suburban population distant from work and shops, the car culture is similarly important and rates of cycling participation are similarly low.
    The is not a lot of debate in Australia about MHLs, except from a vocal minority antipathetic to the laws. Nevertheless, some of the points in the article are quite valid and pertinent to both Australia and the US.
    I will adress the reasons that Ithink the anti-MHL argument is flawed. The arguments usually run along the line of 1. Helmet promotion deters cycling rate (either mandated or not) 2. Helmets don’t work or make injuries worse 3. Helmets should not be mandated on libertarian grounds.
    1. In the case of Australia MHLs were introduced in 1991. At that time the cycling participation rate had been decreasing from a high in the mid 80s (around 2.3% or so) and the cycling participation rate further accelerated after the laws were introduced. Anti-MHL advocates will atribute all the decline to MHLs. personally I htink that they have a point, some of the decline can be attributed to the introduction of MHLs and a combination of the law and the cost of the helmet is likely to be a factor. It should be noted that all forms or transport, except the car, decreased after MHL introduction (ie the car became king and drops in pedestrianism, public transport and cycle use followed). Subsequently, cycling rates have risen to above that of the 70s but not as high as in the mid 80s.
    The cycling participation rates in Australia since the rise of the motor vehicle have historically been poor… the biggest blip on the radar in Australia occured independantly from helmet mandation. Studies in Australia have shown that the biggets determinent of cycling participation is infrastructural (fear of traffic, not fear of helmets) and demographic (distance from work, urban design etc). A variation of this argument is that helmets deter cycling and lead to adverse health effects greater than the protective effect (ie a net negative public health effect). There is some plausability in htis except the drop in cycling attributable to MHLs has never been causally established, and certainly not quantified, and the formula used to derive this is conjectural. Nevertheless,this is a strong argument IF MHLs have led to a substantial decrease in riding – it’s important to note that it also has to be established that the non-cycling is not then replaced by other forms of activity. In order to support htis argument anti-MHL activists often attempt to draw a direct linear relationshuip between cycling participation and deaths from heart disease, despite no relationship (above that of inference) never being quantified. The best we can do is look at countries with very high cycling and draw an inference that they have less rates of death from cardiovascular disease. It should be noted that there are a number of confounders here (such as diet for example). there is more to this argument but I’ve already used up a lot of space.
    2. Helmets work to mitigate the effects of bicycle collision. This is not easily disputed as the body of evidence definitely swings in the favour of helmets. Not surprisingly, this follows general princiuples of physics.
    Ther was an argument from some years back from an armchair researcher, Bill Curnow, that postulated a theoretical increase in DAI injury from head rotation about the cervical axis. (ie helmets make some brain injuries more likely). This has never been seen in practice in any study (DAI injuries have been found to be very low – as distinct from motorcycle injuries) and the physical foundation conjectured by Mr Curnow was recently found to be very unlikely in a study this year.
    3. Libertarian argument – this goes something along the lines of: the state should not restrict the librty of individuals of sound mind without a strong case. I believe that this is a very good argument. I think that the rates of cycling head injury are so low that helmet wearing should be voluntary. Mind you, my opinion is that this should be tempered with cycling helmet promotion for those activities that are particularly risky (such as riding on a high speed limit road, riding in heavy traffic, mountain bike riding etc) but not mandated. I believe there is a strong case for mandating helmets for children.
    My personal bias is that the anti-MHL position is often very unsound. There is nothing wrong with helmets, they are a sound risk mitigation strategy; but the main game is infrastructure, cuclture and urban design – they are the biggest determinents of cycling safety and cycling participation – all the evidence points towards that. MHLs are a red herring. Should helmets be mandated? No. Do they work? yes. Does it matter? not as much as you might be led to believe.


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