The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety

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Dorky or brain dead? The owner of this smashed bike helmet probably doesn't feel dorky. Photo courtesy of Tom Remington/Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

Dorky or brain dead? The owner of this smashed bike helmet probably doesn't feel dorky. Photo courtesy of Tom Remington/Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

Robert RivardRide along any of San Antonio's roadways popular with cycling teams and you'll see groups of riders dressed in brightly colored kits pedaling expensive roads bikes in close formation. Every rider will be wearing a bike helmet.

Ride through a busy inner city neighborhood like Southtown and you'll see casually dressed young people pedaling everything from colorful townies and hip commuters to vintage fixies. Hardly anyone will be wearing a helmet.

Older riders are taking no chances. Many have families and other responsibilities, and most know riders who have been in serious accidents. An experienced cyclist thinks nothing of spending $150 on a helmet with the latest safety technology.

Young riders don't like helmets. Helmets are dorky and uncool. Young riders feel less mortal. They want to experience the wind in their hair. Riding a bike is basic transportation, and for many, a lifestyle statement – about not owning a car, about living and working in a bike-friendly city. Anyway, they're just cruising the neighborhood, not training for a century ride on the open road. Take, for example, the High Heel Bicycle Club.

Two young women cruising on South Alamo Street. Photo by Robert Rivard

Two young women cruising on South Alamo Street. Photo by Robert Rivard

Jian DeLeon, a staff writer for Complex.com, a website that caters to lifestyle and design-obsessed Millennials, expresses the dilemma well while offering readers The Top 10 Bicycle Helmets for Urban Commuters

"Helmets suck. They mess up your totally cool hairdo, add a little bit of extra weight to your ride, and totally take away the fun of just barreling down the street on your bicycle like you're a kid racing around the cul-de-sac again. But they do have that whole life-saving function, so that's kind of rad."

As DeLeon's Top Ten list shows, helmet makers today are producing headwear for young people who don't want the Tour de France look. Check out some more samples here of alternative helmet styles and you'll get the idea.

A sleek, modern helmet with optional denim cover from Denmark-based company Yakkay. "Brainwear for smart people."

A sleek, modern helmet with optional denim cover from Denmark-based company Yakkay. "Brainwear for smart people."

In San Antonio, as in most cities, to wear or not to wear a helmet is a choice left up to the individual.

"Dallas is the one city in Texas that requires adults to wear helmets, and they've talked about rescinding that ordinance so they can get a bike share program," said Robin Stallings, the executive director of Bike Texas, the statewide advocacy group for bicycle access, safety and education. "San Antonio was the first city in Texas to launch a bike share program, B-cycle, and then Fort Worth and Houston have followed. Austin is about to get one.

"I think there is a compelling argument on both sides that mandatory helmet laws, especially for adults, don't seem to be more effective to get people to use helmets without depressing cycling," Stallings said. "Obesity is a far worse problem than bike accidents. It's a lot more dangerous to sit in front of a TV all day eating potato chips than it is to cycle without a helmet. We (Bike Texas) don't have a problem with under-16 helmet ordinances at the city level, but with the bike share programs growing out there, you have to choose which way you are going as a city. If you mandate helmets, bike share won't work."

San Antonio's early entry into the bike share movement has paid off with national and international recognition for the city and the program, including this recent article

Two B-cyclist riders wearing their own helmets consult a Park Ranger along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. Photo by Julia Murphy/Office of Sustainability

Two B-cyclist riders wearing their own helmets consult a Park Ranger along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. Photo by Julia Murphy/Office of Sustainability

Julia Murphy, who oversees bicycling programs and policy for the City of San Antonio's Office of Sustainability, is familiar with the divergent views about helmet use.

She – like Stallings – wears a helmet when cycling, but she also knows that mandatory helmet laws suppress urban commuter cycling, a practice currently enjoying a renaissance. That creates a whole different set of negative outcomes, including increased vehicle traffic, reduced public health and fitness, and worse air quality.

Julia Diana at SA Bikes

Julia Murphy at SA Bikes with their new safety campaign posters. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Still,” she says, “we want people to take responsibility for their own safety, and we try to help them out by providing equipment like helmets and bike lights at community events. Our official stance is that a helmet is the single most important piece of equipment for a cyclist. We want protected heads out there.”

"I understand the reason why so many young people don't wear helmets," said Cindi Snell, executive director of San Antonio B-cycle and owner of Bike World cycling stores. "But if that young person were my son or daughter, I'd want them to wear a bike helmet."

The paradox of helmet laws is best explored in a recently published story in Atlantic Cities, "Do Bicycle Helmet Laws Really Make Riders Safer?"

Some anti-helmet riders/bloggers argue that safety concerns are greatly overblown and that cycling without a helmet poses little risk. One of the most widely read anti-helmet advocates is Mikael Colville-Anderson. Check out his Tedx talk, "Why We Shouldn't Bike with a Helmet" and his argument that pro-helmet advocates create a "climate of fear." He and others argue that American society, in particular, has become risk-averse and safety-obsessed.

While the chances of suffering a serious cycling accident are statistically small for any urban rider, the safety data is pretty clear: In the event of a vehicle-bicycle accident, riders wearing helmets are less likely to die or suffer major brain or skull injuries than cyclists who don't use a helmet.

Nearly nine out of 10 people who died in bike accidents in 2009 were not wearing a helmet, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. Interestingly, the majority of those who died were middle-aged men, which shows that young riders aren't the only ones pedaling without protection.

A New York City study that looked at cycling deaths from 1996-2005 showed that 97% of all fatally injured cyclists were not wearing a helmet. While the institute advocates for helmet use, it does appreciate the complexity of the issue and offers undecided riders an interesting range of data under the heading, "Should I Wear a Bike Helmet?"

Dorky or brain dead? The owner of this smashed bike helmet probably doesn't feel dorky. Photo courtesy of Tom Remington/Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

Dorky or brain dead? The owner of this smashed bike helmet probably doesn't feel dorky. Photo courtesy of Tom Remington/Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

The institute also aggregates statistical data relating to bicycle safety and accidents from a variety of credible sources that you can read here. Here's one stat that caught my eye: 677 cyclists were killed on U.S. roads in 2011. Nearly one-fourth of them (23%) were drunk.

A recent story in the New York Times , citing a study by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, noted that cyclists, including minors, suffer more head injuries than athletes in any other sport, including football.

Last week, New York launched Citi Bike, its ambitious bike share program with 6,000 bikes available at 300 station. Helmet use is optional. The city has added 350 miles of new bike lanes, an important element in any safe cycling program.

One new product on the market, the Hövding Airbag for cyclists, might catch on as an alternative. More than two million curious cyclists have watched the company's video of urban cyclists wearing the around-the-neck device rather than a traditional helmet. I've yet to hear of anyone in San Antonio who has bought one.

Stallings and other cycling advocates argue that cities have other options, including public education campaigns and infrastructure improvements, that can be far more effective than a helmet law in reducing cycling fatalities. We'll take a look at those options in a separate posting later this week.

Meanwhile, I'll see you on the road. I'll be wearing a helmet, but I understand why you're not wearing one.

Does your helmet fit? If not, it might be of little use in an accident. Check out this helmet fitting guide.

 

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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40 thoughts on “The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety

  1. Great article. Although I am a helmet advocate, obesity is a bigger problem that encompasses more people. The way I look at it, if you want to ride 15+mph and choose to not wear a helmet, that is simply natural selection when you wreck and kill yourself. To keep bike share programs away because of helmet laws is absurd.

  2. I like this because it presents an interesting dilemma for the “we know what’s best for you crowd. Just trust us, give us power and we will take care of you group think.” Good work Bob!

  3. Awesome! I like the idea of “public education campaigns and infrastructure improvements” instead of divisive laws.

  4. I’m a daily cycle commuter from school to home (seven miles). Last December, as I was riding north on Babcock going under loop 410, I had an accident that I don’t remember–probably because the fall to the ground that caused a slight concussion also wiped out the memory. I regained consciousness when as an ambulance was putting me on a stretcher: happily my bike was okay, but my helmet–which probably broke the fall to the road–was cracked. It undoubtedly saved my head from worse damage.

  5. Bob, thanks for the link to the helmet fitting guide. I’ve now properly adjusted my helmet which I always wear, even while riding around Southtown.

  6. I wear a seat belt even though I am short and it is uncomfortable. I do many things because I do not want to injure myself and become a burden on society or on my family. People who don’t wear bike helmets and especially motorcycle helmets are very, very dumb. I love what Terry Alan Jones said except they probably think of themselves as invincible and don’t have donor cards.

  7. The helmet debate is a funny one. Don’t tell me for a second law makers are actually concerned with safety on the roads, much less cyclists’ safety. No sane person trulu believes the 3 foot law makes a cyclist safe (r). This is another example of why the cycling community will never get what they need. We are so public about what should be an internal battle, if not a completely personal decision. With all the deaths on the roadways from people driving cars with ABS, side curtain airbags, etc…shouldn’t motorists be wearing helmets? But no, the weekenders wanna push their “safety” agenda on the casual riders and we all just want a big distraction from the real issue. Our roads are places of near lawlessness and constant danger. It doesn’t matter if you are a motorist, pedestrian, cyclist or a dog, the roads are deadly. And whether the toll is measured in roadkill or actual DPS stats on how many road user deaths there are, we’ll still be in fighting about whether someone is wearing a piece of syrofoam and plastic on their head naively thinking they’re “safe”. This [expletive] is tired.

    • A driver is protected by seat belts, a steel safety cage, crumple zones, a padded dash, safety glass, a collapsible steering column, an increasing number of air bags, traction control, ABS, and stability control. The death rate, per mile, for motorists is much lower than that of cyclists.

      Whether you believe the protection of a helmet is worth it in the unlikely event of a head impact crash is the question.

      But too many cyclists, and too many parents, believe that a helmet alone is sufficient and never learn to ride properly. If there’s a negative about all the helmet promotion is that it usually isn’t part of a more complete safety program that includes instruction on proper riding, funding for cycling facilities, and traffic calming.

  8. Aren’t people who ride fashionable, slick, skinny wheels on craterous South Side streets dumber? That’s really what’s missing from this column: the skinny tire dilemma. Helmet propaganda recklessly ignores the importance of avoiding a crash or fall in the first place. The neck airbags seem promising, but ultimately “the single most important piece of equipment” is, in fact, the appropriate wheel/tire based on the given terrain.

    • Ed, I’ve cycled a few thousands miles on this city’s Southside on a road bike, often in the company of many other road bike users. Flat tires are incidental there, as they are elsewhere in the city. There’s no worse roadway for broken glass caused by drivers tossing out beer bottles than the Loop 1604 access road on the city’s northside. Broken glass often litters bike lanes or road edges on the way to the Missions, too, but experienced riders expect it and usually succeed in skirting it. –RR

  9. If hipster cyclists would start wearing helmets and following the rules of the road rather than worrying so much about looking cool, then we cyclists as a whole might get some more respect and consideration from motorists.

  10. I see helmets and following the rules of the road as two different issues. The issue is risk aversion. The Mayo Clinic also list falling as a major source of head injuries, “”Falling out of bed, slipping in the bath, falling down steps, falling from ladders and related falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury overall, particularly in older adults and young children.” So with this logic, shouldn’t we wear helmets at all times? The bottom line is, Bike Texas has a really good point. If we legislate helmets, bike sharing and casual riding around town will suffer. We already legislate obeying traffic laws. Cyclists will likely not get respect from motorists any time soon as our cities are designed for cars, and not for bikes. Additionally, people have much less tolerance for anything that interrupts the flow, so cyclists are just one of many irritations.

  11. “Rules of the road” deserves its own story, and we will get to it soon. Two camps disagree: One camp believes cyclists should obey the same traffic laws as motorists. State law, which also guarantees a cyclist’s rights to the road, supports the first camp. Second camp followers say cyclists should be free to roll through red lights and stop signs when there is no traffic.On the subject of hipsters and cycling fatalities, I’m afraid far more of us middle aged men are the victims in such accidents rather than younger riders.

    • I’ve never seen a camp that thinks that red light running should be legal. Some states allow bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs (something many motorists already seem to do, albeit illegally).

      The vehicular cycling movement which advocates that bicyclists behave exactly like motor vehicles with strict adherence to all laws has a serious flaw as Robert Hurst, the author of The Art of Cycling, explains: “…the vehicular-cycling principle has a big hole in it: The strict vehicular cyclist who has eliminated many of his or her own mistakes by riding lawfully will still remain quite vulnerable to the mistakes of others.”

      Of course there are also times when a bicyclist simply has to run a red light because they have no way of triggering the sensor for the traffic light. A vehicular cyclist would have to turn around and take another route.

  12. I think we are leaving out a demographic. What about the immigrant that uses a bicycle as a main source of transportation getting from job to job. Maybe this portion of the cycling landscape is more prone to accidents due to not knowing proper bicycle safety and/or traffic laws. I might be speculating but the cyclist who died near Basse and the Methadome comes to mind and fits this description. Again, I could be completely wrong.

  13. I too once thought I was invincible. All I can say is after getting hit by a car in NYC in a bike lane many years ago, when helmets were not really heard of, I can still hear the sound of the side of my head hitting the pavement again and again. Closed head injuries are the worst because the brain bounces around within the cranium and swells without the relief of a split skull.

    I also think it is safer for riders and drivers if we all know what to expect when we come to a red light, or when we know someone is planning to make a turn. While loving the wind in my face I want to live longer with my memory as in tact as I can keep it, but that is my life.

  14. To wear a helmet or not to wear a helmet… that is the question. I ride everything from a stationary bike (no helmet required), to a cruiser bike for leisurely south town & downtown riding, a mountain bike for off road riding, and a super fast road bike for road racing. To me it’s about choice and common sense. When I’m on my cruiser bike I usually don’t wear a helmet because of the riding conditions, very casual and mainly slow and taking everything in. When I’m on my mountain bike or road bike I most definitely wear a helmet, again because of the situation, speed and dangers involved. We all take certain risks in our lives… every single one of us. This is just another form of risk taking in my opinion. As cyclists we should know our skill and limitations when riding a bike on the streets, know and obey the laws and be courteous and patient. Safe riding to all!

  15. I have logged in several thousands of miles as well since I was a wee boy trying to find my way in the world. My first hours in the cycling world were spent in the Woodlawn Lake area, the next few years were committed to the Missions Trails and not just as a bicyclist but as a skater as well. Recently, I have spent most of my time in the wilderness that is the Medina River Natural Area. The trails are awesome and I have it all to myself, most of the time.

    At no point have I used a helmet, knee-pads or other related safety gear. I consider myself a professional rider with enough experience to slow down at the right places and know exactly where the obstacles are. If there is a new trail, I will go slow and watch out for new obstacles so the next time I visit I’ll know what to watch out for. Heuristics aren’t just for computers. You can create and use them for anything.

  16. Sorry, to the point. I believe training and education are important so we need data to empower users.

    Local bicycle rider organizations should be tasked with developing maps with “danger zones” (yeah, I said that) with asterisks, symbols or cartoon characters indicating the areas of higher risk for an accident.

    Swebapps might want to help developing apps for riders to download that has maps with warning symbols or noises when riders are approaching the “danger zones”. Location based data can really help with this. The apps can also be crowdsourced from the community.

    • Please BE KIND to Cyclists a non-profit organization based in Austin, Texas has developed the app you are describing here and we are making the launch of it on September of 2013, together with video that will help to bring awareness to drivers and cyclists about each other and the personal responsibility when sharing the road.
      Thank you for reading,
      Please BE KIND to Cyclists

  17. From its basic premise expressed in the headline, this article starts impressively badly and doesn’t get any better: “The Bike Helmet Dilemma: Freedom and Choice vs. Safety”. There is no dilemma as helmets don’t make you safer. 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.

    There are a number of places with helmet laws, which have been in place for well over two decades, but despite the promises of gigantic reductions in deaths to cyclists, there have been only two effects: a reduction in the number of cyclists and obscene profits for the makers and sellers of helmets. Nowhere with a helmet law has been able to show safety improvement which can be attributed to helmets. In Australia, the first country to introduce a cycle helmet law, a cyclist, Sue Abbot, has effectively proved the law wrong and it is now impossible to enforce.

    The biggest ever research project into cycle helmets found a small but significant increase in risk with helmet wearing. The London bicycle hire scheme was widely predicted to lead to carnage, with dead cyclists littering the streets, especially since those hiring them would be unlikely to be skillful cyclists and not used to riding on the left. In fact, it has proved astonishingly safe despite the lack of helmets.

    The whole myth of cycle helmet effectiveness is due to bad science being presented as valid, and its results being endlessly repeated until they are unquestioningly accepted as fact, the “persistence of myths” effect. The most glaring example is the 85% figure for helmet effectiveness which has been completely disproved, but is still quoted by those promoting helmets and the uninformed. As attributed to both Goebbels and Stalin “A lie often repeated becomes the truth.”

    In countries where cycling is a common method of transportation, no-one wears a helmet, but the mortuaries and hospitals are not full of dead and injured cyclists. It’s much more dangerous to ride a bike wearing a helmet in countries where there isn’t much cycling than to ride a bike not wearing a helmet in countries where cycling is common.

    Regular cyclists, those most exposed to the risks, live on average two years longer and suffer less from all forms of illness, so it is more dangerous not to ride a bike than to ride one. As one researcher has said “If the benefits of cycling could be bottled, it would be the most popular medicine in the world.” Since regular cyclists are slimmer, fitter and healthier than the general population, and the only proven effect of helmet promotion and laws is to reduce the number of cyclists, the effect at a population level is very large and completely negative. In the middle of an obesity epidemic largely caused by failure to exercise, which is costing billions and shortening millions of lives, promoting helmets is literally insane.

    Since cycle helmets have demonstrably failed as a public health intervention, why are they still being promoted?

    Check out cyclehelmets.org for the facts rather than the bad science and myths, and this recent article in the BMJ http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.f3817?ijkey=I5vHBog6FhaaLzX&keytype=ref#ref-9

  18. Richard

    I cite and link to a number of credible third party entities and studies that demonstrably show wearing a helmet does make riders safer than those who ride without a helmet. Do you have any credible data or studies to back up your assertions to the contrary? –RR

    • Robert,

      Yes, there are many and various studies that show that helmets are not effective, all listed on the cyclhelmets.org website, which is easily the most comprehensive helmet website, including research which shows massive benefits from helmet wearing and that which shows none. It also has critiques of both, but essentially, the studies showing massive benefits have methodological shortcomings that make their conclusions untenable, whereas those showing no benefit are much more robust. There are international scales for the reliablity of evidence, and the research showing massive benefits from helmet wearing is rated lowest on those scales, whereas that showing no benefit is rated as more reliable.

      For instance, take a look at this page http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1251.html

      To make cycle helmets seem logical, the pro-helmet lobby have deliberately made cycling seem much more dangerous than it really is. The risks of cycling are comparable with walking, but due to helmet propaganda, most people believe that the risks are many times higher, and most people believe that cycle helmets are much more effective than they really are. You might notice that helmet manufacturers make no claims for the effectiveness of their product in safety terms, because advertisments have to be truthful, but since the helmet proponents are under no such stricture, they can and do make outrageous unsubstantiated claims. Most helmet manufacturers include a disclaimer to the effect that a helmet won’t protect in foreseeable circumstances, but most people don’t read it.

      I’ve read everything I can find on cycle helmet effectiveness, and I am much more convinced by the research showing no benefit than I am by that showing huge benefits. The research showing huge benefits tends to be short term, small scale and done by researchers already convinced that helmets are beneficial, and merely seek to prove it. That showing no benefit is large scale, long term and done by disinterested researchers. The reductions in risk predicted by the former have never been demonstrated in real life.

      Can I suggest that you, and any other readers who might wish to be informed on the matter, read some of the research papers and critiques on cyclehelmets.org, and the BMJ article that I posted a link to?

      As I pointed out in my first post, the myth of helmet effectiveness is probably the most pervasive urban myth foisted on the public, and has only two effects: a serious reduction in the public health and obscene profits for manufacturers and retailers, there is no demonstrable reduction in risk. Like all urban myths, once it has been accepted by the general public, it doesn’t matter how many times it is disproved, most people will disregard the facts and go with the myth, the “persistence of myths” phenomenenon.

      By the way, those opposing helmet compulsion and misleading propaganda aren’t “anti-helmet” as your article asserts, they are anti-compulsion, anti-bad science and anti-lies.

      • Thanks for the response, but I have received no invitation to make my own case in an article rather than a comment, so that is why you haven’t had a response. I’m slightly surprised that you view this as a challenge, when I had thought that it was a matter of science and proof, rather than some kind of medieaval contest.

        Perhaps we could short-circuit the system and you could answer the questions about whether you still consider cycling to be dangerous compared to other every day activities and whether helmets are proved to provide any level of protection? After all, that would be the substance of any article: that cycling is safe and helmets don’t reduce the risk, as shown by all the reliable evidence.

      • One other thing: you can ask me any questions you like, in public. I don’t have anything to hide, so why do you want to ask me questions offline?

      • Please do not ever use “credible” and “http://www.cyclehelmets.org” in the same sentence. That web site is a collection of the worst junk science, half-truths, and statistics available, intentionally taking studies out of context in an attempt to prove something that is not provable.

        For instance, read which states: “Critics of helmet legislation cite 2 ecologic studies from Australia and New Zealand in which the observed proportion of cyclists with head injuries was no different from the downward trend predicted from helmet use rates before legislation.The following popper user interface control may not be accessible. However, the first study was a presentation of a work in progress. In the final published analysis the authors concluded that mandatory helmet use had a positive and persistent effect on the number and severity of head injuries. The second ecologic study was restricted to 1 year of post legislation data; subsequent analysis of 3 years of postlegislation data by the same principal author showed that the helmet law led to a 19% reduction in the rate of head injury.”

        I don’t know if cyclehelmets.org quickly corrected their site once they became aware of these facts, but given their history of half-truths, it’s doubtful.

        Sites like cyclehelmets.org do the cause of preventing helmet laws no benefit because the information on the site is so easily disproven. It’s a site that caters to those that lack critical thinking skills. There’s no need for the junk science on cyclehelmets.org and it does more harm than good. Just imagine a public hearing on helmet laws where you have doctors, nurses, paramedics, police, etc. testifying on how helmets reduce injuries and fatalities in crashes, and then having someone opposed to helmets talking about pedestrian helmets or showering helmets, or potato chips and TV, and presenting the junk science from cyclehelmets.org!

        Mandatory helmet laws are unnecessary because head-impact crashes are relatively rare and adults can choose the level of risk they wish to take in their lives. That’s the key argument against helmet laws. Education is better than compulsion. We don’t have to pass more laws to make everything safer for everyone.

    • Robert,

      you haven’t posted anything in response to Frank’s or my latest post, so how about it? Do you now accept that cycling is no more dangerous than many other activities for which no-one wears a helmet, and that helmets have not been shown to be effective?

  19. This article does very little to address what should be the fundamental question: Does ordinary bicycling impose an unusual risk of serious brain injury? This should be _the_ first question, since the most protective helmet in the world would make no sense if the risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI) were low enough.

    And indeed, cycling’s risk of TBI is extremely low. To verify this, examine data on the top causes of brain injury. Unbiased references (that is, those not concentrating on bicycling) generally do not even list cycling when ranking causes of TBI. It is simply too far down the list, well below walking around the home, descending stairs, riding in cars, walking for transportation, etc. Indeed, most people are shocked to find that bicycling causes far fewer than 1% of the nation’s brain injury fatalities!

    Yes, there is propaganda claiming or hinting otherwise, by (probably deliberate) use of misleading terms. For example, many helmet promoters use counts of “head injuries” rather than brain injuries – yet the term “head injury” has been applied to injuries as benign as scratches on ears (as in the infamous 1989 BMJ paper by Thompson & Rivara, the source of the ludicrous “85% protection” claim). Despite the paranoia generated by years of helmet promotion, a scrape on the forehead is no more deadly than a scrape on the knee – and the latter is still the most common injury from bicycling.

    Another deceptive tactic is to treat bicycling only as a “sport” and compare its injury counts with basketball, football, etc. But the bicycling done by most riders is not a competitive sport, and the number of participants using bikes as simple recreation and transportation completely eclipses the participant counts of ball sports. When injuries are compared on a per-participant basis, cycling is shown to be far safer than basketball, football, soccer, swimming and most other sports.

    Perhaps the clearest picture comes from comparison of fatality counts. In the US, there are roughly 35,000 motorist deaths per year. There are roughly 4000 pedestrian deaths. Yet there are only about 750 bicyclist deaths – a number barely greater than the number of deaths from accidental inhalation of poison gases or deaths from falling out of bed. (In Canada, it’s common for falling-out-of-bed deaths to exceed bike deaths!)

    Furthermore, claims like “97% of deaths were not wearing a helmet” are specious. In the absence of compulsion, those choosing helmets are likely, on average, to be far different in attitude and behavior than those riding without. Drunks, those riding facing traffic and those riding at night without lights are unlikely to wear helmets. But it is those sorts of behaviors that lead to fatalities and serious injuries; and putting a helmet on a drunk will not turn him into a safe cyclist.

    Finally, the gratuitous photo of the damaged helmet proves nothing. A broken helmet is NOT proof that a significant injury was prevented. The annual number of “my helmet saved my life” stories certainly seems to exceed the all-time records for bike fatalities. Obviously, strapping an oversized hat on one’s head increase the odds that the hat will strike the ground if one does fall; and if the hat is made of fragile plastic, it will show damage. The same effect might be shown if people could be convinced to wear styrofoam clown shoes while walking. Foot protection fanatics might soon claim every scuff saved a broken toe!

    In summary: Bicycling is NOT unusually dangerous. It does us no good to pretend it is. And it does us no good to promote flimsy hats as the primary safety strategy for bicycling. There are far more effective and benign strategies.

    For references on my remarks, please see
    http://www.bicyclinglife.com/SafetySkills/SafetyQuiz.htm
    and
    http://www.ohiobike.org/misc/CyclingIsSafeTLK.pdf

  20. I’m 19 and have a lot of friends who ignore safety precautions in a variety of things: not wanting to wear seatbelts, saying airbags do more harm than good, not wearing safety glasses when people are using power tools in a shop, using a power tool in a “wrong” manner.

    All I can saw is that the old-timers I have worked with (my dad, the shop manager, a variety of people with mechanic skills) prioritize safety above everything, and do a very good job of describing to me all the accidents they have seen. I don’t know ANY common safety measure that exists because someone was un-rightly cautionous.

    You know that smell natural gas has? Natural gas is odorless. They added a smell to it after a gas leak caused it to accumulate in the basement of a school and literally blew hundreds of children to pieces.

    I always use a cutting wheel with a face shield because I once had a piece of steel bounce under my safety glasses, hit my eye, and I had to dig it out with my nail.

    For an engineering project in college, we had to define safety and come to a conclusion (through extensive research) about whether an airbag did indeed make a car safer. I didn’t find anyone who said airbags make a car less safe.

    I don’t think I support a law mandating a helmet, but a hell of an education campaign would be nice to see.

    • Matthew,

      you are 19, and still have a creditable respect for your elders, but as you get older, you may find that not everything they tell you is accurate, and that they have interests which conflict with the truth. Have you looked at cyclehelmets.org or done any research into cycle helmets and their effectiveness? Nice anecdote about the natural gas by the way. Rather like the myth of helmet effectiveness, it’s just anecdote, or perhaps you could post links to some authoritative report?

      As for safety equipment making things more dangerous, try reading “Risk” by John Adams. You will be very, very surprised.

      What would be the point of spending a single dime on a propaganda campaign (not “education”) when there is no instance of an increase in helmet wearing resulting in a reduction in risk to cyclists?

    • Education is the key. Adults are free to evaluate the facts and make an informed decision as to the level of risk they are willing to take in their lives. This is especially the case when the choice to take more risks affects only the risk-taker, not others. Laws against drunk driving and texting while driving are intended more to protect others. Laws mandating seat belts and bicycle helmets protect only those that use them.

      Government tends to get involved when education fails. Sadly, when it comes to bicycle helmets, there is a tremendous amount of misinformation being promulgated by anti-helmet organizations. They don’t realize that by presenting so much junk science and statistics that they are playing right into the hands of politicians that see it as their duty to protect citizens from those that would mislead them.

      Though I have an engineering education as well, one of the most valuable classes I took in college was a critical thinking class (I forget the exact name, but the textbook was “The Language of Argument.” It’s rather amazing how many people are unable to dissect bad arguments and that don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation.

  21. I like the arguments. This reminds me of the whole National Security debate and the choices of Privacy and Security. I hate making choices like that because I know that both are possible. People are just so darn inflexible about their beliefs!

  22. So let me get this straight. According to this article, every place where bicycle helmet laws have been implemented, there have been millions of people that have decided to give up cycling in favor of watching television and eating potato chips! Wow. I thought the potato chip argument against helmets had long been retired, but it just popped up again.

    I think mandatory helmet laws are a bad idea. But contrary to the claims of those opposed to helmets, countries and provinces that have implemented these laws have not seen any reduction in cycling levels–to the contrary, cycling levels have continued to go up. Of course it would be wrong to claim that the helmet laws were the cause of the increase in cycling rates because cycling rates change for many reasons including economic cycles, changes in cycling infrastructure, changes in demographics, etc. Correlation is not the same as causation.

    In the event of a head impact crash, a helmeted cyclists will almost always fare better than a non-helmeted cyclist. But this fact doesn’t mean that the government has to step in and force people to act in their own best interest. People knowingly take all sorts of risks.

  23. Two more recent studies, from Australia, that prove the effectiveness of helmets:

    “http://www.sbs.com.au/cyclingcentral/news/43560/sydney-university-research-shows-value-of-helmets”

    “http://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/science/helmet-crash-tests-dont-hit-road-without-one”

  24. As a scientist who is familiar with statistical analyses and risk assessment, 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 single-track mountain biking, doing stunts like curb jumping and such, or road riding at speeds above 15 mph, or any instance where I will be pushing my skills to the limit, 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 than by wearing a helmet. The best protection is not to fall in the first place.

    For those who are strong 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? Jump a curb or other obstacle at speed to get out of the way? Do you practice locking up your brakes to skid to a stop without crashing? Can you skid to a sideways stop (prevents going over the handlebars)? Have you practiced 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. It can also be a lot of fun to practice. I recommend wearing a helmet when practicing, though, because you are likely to fall until you get it right!

  25. I am a TBI survivor. My injury occurred back in 1984 when no one had heard of helmets for the casual rider. Because the car that hit me was moving at about 30 mph, a helmet probably would not have saved me a trip to the hospital, but it might have prevented all the nerve damage I live with now, as it has for a couple of my friends. Just a few months ago, I wrecked in town, and even though I wasn’t going very fast I still got a concussion. I don’t buy these arguments that cruising through town does not warrant a helmet. Things happen.

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