From time to time, I see people writing that it’s dumb to wear bike helmets, and that groups which require helmets to be worn when riding bikes are engaged in counter-productive behavior. The logic espoused behind such statements tends to focus on one of a few arguments. I’ll outline, and briefly respond below.
1) Bike helmets cause and exacerbate injuries.
I have yet to see a single, creditable, peer-reviewed article suggesting that modern bike helmets pose greater risk than reward, overall. Certainly, old foam bike helmets without a hard shell could catch on rough surfaces and cause neck injuries; that problem has been eliminated with modern helmet design. I’m sure that in some weird context, you could design a circumstance where a helmet would case more harm than good. On the whole, those weird circumstances simply don’t support an argument that helmets are bad. Even a quick google search will yield a multitude of creditable studies showing the benefits of helmet use.
2) Bike helmets reduce bike ridership, and thus overall hurt individual health.
If you’re so lazy or egomaniacal that wearing a helmet keeps you from riding a bike, then I really don’t believe that it’s wearing a helmet that keeps you from riding a bike. A helmet may be a convenient excuse, but honestly, if you’re out of shape, being out of shape probably has a greater impact on your appearance to others than does the presence or absence of a helmet on your head. I tend to believe that this is anecdotal and largely made up. And if it’s not, then you deserve the consequences of not exercising.
3) Countries with ingrained cycling culture do not engage in extensive use of bike helmets, and hence, bike helmets are unnecessary.
This is true–many cycling cultures do not espouse serious helmet use for transportation cycling (e.g. commuting). Note that even cycling cultures use helmets for race and sport. The fact that some cultures do not use helmets does not make helmets any less effective. If they used helmets, they’d have even fewer injuries–which is a hard benefit to argue against. Also note that cultures which espouse cycling in far greater numbers also have far more drivers that are also cyclists. And drivers who are not cyclists were raised in a culture of cycling. Perhaps it is the case that their roads are safer for cyclists not because they don’t wear helmets, but because they accept cyclists and treat them with respect.
4) The Man shouldn’t tell me I have to do anything.
I don’t think I’ve seen mandatory bike helmet laws, and I’m not speaking in support of them.
5) Wearing a bike helmet makes drivers more aggressive towards you.
This seems to be an emerging argument. “I want drivers to see me as a frail human, so I’m not wearing a helmet.” I would be curious if there is any real science behind this. If there isn’t then, it’s BS. If there is, then it’s terrifying what that says about our culture. Regardless, how is it logical to decline to use safety equipment because you think it may cause others to treat you with more caution? Should we ride at night without lights, because drivers may think we’re crazy and cut us a wider pass? Do we leave our bikes unlocked, because thieves will think our bikes aren’t worth stealing? I just fundamentally don’t get the logic behind this argument… I wear a helmet not because I think it makes drivers more hostile to me, but because I’m protecting against the consequences of a true accident. I see far more cyclists injured from bike accidents than from intentional, homicidal car drivers swerving towards people wearing helmets.
6) We don’t wear helmets when walking or driving a car, so why should we wear a helmet while biking?
There are different levels of risk in driving a car, walking and riding a bike. And some, like my friend Chad G, do wear helmets while driving.
But in all seriousness, there’s a quantifiable difference between driving a 4,000 pound steel box with seatbelts, ABS and airbags, and riding a bike surrounded by others driving cars… There’s a quantifiable difference between walking down the sidewalk and riding a bike at 20mph on 2 contact patches the size of a dime. Risk versus reward.
In the past 12 months, I’ve personally seen the following accidents:
1) Friend who is a lifelong, avid cyclist wipes out on gravel, and lands on his head. Ends up with a wasted helmet and a headache. In the absence of a helmet, this fall would have resulted in serious injury.
2) I endo’d off of a mountain bike and landed on a rock, headfirst. I dented my helmet and left an imprint of the inside of my helmet on my forehead. I can say with every confidence, having fallen on rocks without a helmet before, that in the absence of a helmet, I would have had stitches at the best case scenario, and a skull fracture at the worst.
3) Friend hits a rock on the street, riding a road bike, and slides down the pavement, partially on his head. Helmet is scraped down by pavement. Friend endures road rash. Friend’s face comes out unscathed, protected by helmet.
4) Friend hits another cyclist on the street, riding a road bike. He endo’s, front-rolls across the ground across his helmeted head, and lands on his feet. In the absence of a helmet, serious injury would have resulted.
Those don’t include the countless fatbike wipeouts on snow and ice, where people hit their heads and walk away unscathed. They don’t include my own fatbike wipeout last year, where I fractured three vertebrae but my head was protected by a helmet.
And the one that’s closest to home:
My daughter, learning to ride a bike. She’s been riding without training wheels for about a year. We’re riding in a nature preserve, on a paved surface, down a small hill. Something freaks her out and she bobbles the handlebars–and wipes out. I watch her launch off the bike, hard, landing in a superman pose with her helmet down on the ground. The visor on her helmet snaps off (as it is designed to), and she slides on the ground a bit. She skins her hand, her knee, and the very tip of her nose.
In the absence of a helmet, she would have landed with her face flat on the pavement, sliding forward. She would have lost skin, and likely broken her nose (and possibly some teeth). She would have peeled her forehead right off. Her helmet saved her from serious injury. This wasn’t a race. We weren’t riding fast. The surface was dry, hard and clear from debris. There was no outside force or car or anything else that threatened her. It was pure accident.
The helmet saved her. She landed hard enough that the helmet was permanently deformed.
Afterwards, she was rewarded with a new helmet.
Scars heal. Lu’s scar is gone already. Brain injuries are forever. Thanks to Bontrager for keeping my daughter safe. Thanks to Kask for keeping my friends safe. Thanks to helmet manufacturers everywhere, for constantly improving the quality and efficacy of helmet design.