The New York Times has stirred some bike-related news with their recent article on bike helmets. In short, the article suggests that countries with larger public buy-in to cycling (predominantly European countries) have that public participation because they don’t wear helmets. To wit:
I rode all day at a modest clip, on both sides of the Seine, in the Latin Quarter, past the Louvre and along the Champs-Élysées, feeling exhilarated, not fearful. And I had tons of bareheaded bicycling company amid the Parisian traffic. One common denominator of successful bike programs around the world — from Paris to Barcelona to Guangzhou — is that almost no one wears a helmet, and there is no pressure to do so.
In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke. Cities are aggressive in helmet promotion.
But many European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.
The article goes on to make arguments such as:
- The risk of obesity and heart disease that the public faces by not biking is far more dangerous than the risk of riding a bike without a helmet (and thus combatting obesity).
- More people are injured taking baths than riding bikes, so perhaps we should wear helmets while bathing.
- The actual risk of a head injury while biking is incredibly low, so why wear a helmet?
- Other countries with different cultures are accepting of riding bikes without helmets, so we should be too.
Ok–perhaps I’m being unfair to the author. Read his piece and form your own conclusions. (Some of his strawmen arguments are pretty silly. More people are injured bathing than cycling? Really? Is that surprising? Hopefully, just about everyone is bathing on a regular basis. (PSA: If you’re not bathing, start doing so). But is the vast majority of the population cycling on a regular basis? Sadly, not. So in terms of the total, raw number of injuries created…of course bathing should create more injuries.)
I can see the appeal of his argument. Helmets can be hot. They muss your hair. They can look unfashionable. Blah, blah blah. With a truly well-developed inner-city bike infrastructure, with relatively low-speed bike riding, are helmets necessary? Probably not. It is probably possible to devise a safe, urban environment for low speed bike riding without helmets…particularly in cultures that are more accepting of bike riding. So I can totally see the discussion about riding along the Seine at a modest pace without a helmet. Sounds nice.
What I find odd, though, is how the story has been picked up by other forms of media (and by Facebook posters) who are now espousing that perhaps helmets are overrated. Let’s have some anti-helmet bike rides, like motorcyclists do. Hopefully, no one will die from a head injury in a fit of cosmic irony. (If you don’t follow the link, it’s about a motorcyclist who was riding to a no-helmet protest, crashed, and died after cracking his head into the pavement).
I’m not going to go into “the helmet saved my life” stories–though the web is replete with them. I’ve had a couple bad wipeouts, including several where a helmet has taken a shot for me, and I’ve lived to tell the tale. For me, riding without a helmet is such an unnatural, foreign act that it’s actually hard to do. When I’m in the saddle, riding without a helmet feels like riding without pants. I suppose you could do it…but why?
Moreover, for the helmet haters out there, please remember that the force of a crash that is imparted upon your head significantly increases with speed. Here’s an explanation of the calculations at work…but let’s say you’re riding your bike and crash, going over the bars and crashing into a brick wall. (Improbable, yes. But an unyielding brick wall is a lot easier to use for calculations than a smack and slide on pavement. So I’m running with it). We’ll use a hypothetical 70kg (about 155#) rider. The amount of ENERGY to be dissipated in a bike crash increases dramatically with speed. A 70kg rider going at 10mph has about 700 Joules of energy. If you increase the speed to 20mph, you increase the energy to about 2,800 Joules. That’s energy that has to be dissipated if/when you crash. (Note: I don’t do math. I make absolutely no representations that those figures are accurate. They may be wholly pulled out of thin air. But faster does mean more force.)
I was just about to go into a long, complicated calculation of the kilonewtons of force generated by the crash, assuming either head impact on brick, or assuming helmet impact (with resulting partial crash absorption). Suffice it to say that: 1) the discussion would be boring; 2) unless you’re doing a perfect dart into a wall, it would be misleading; and, 3) all it would really show is that the small amount of crash absorption (perhaps 2cm of give) that you get out of wearing a helmet has an amazing, dramatic, drastic impact on reducing the crash forces that your body feels. I think I can get to the point here without having to run through those calculations.
- Perfect cycling culture, where cyclists are respected by motorists,
- And where cyclists only ride at modest speeds,
- And where the infrastructure/roads/paths are designed to permit safe use by cyclists…
Helmets may not be as urgently necessary. They likely would still have a result in reducing injuries and such, but the force at work is not as great, so the resulting injuries are not as great.
If you take away any of those assumptions, the math changes. Go to a fit cyclist riding for exercise at 20mph, or ride in an imperfect environment, or an environment with hostile motorists, and the merit of helmets becomes much harder to dispute. You, as a cyclist, can do everything right. If you get whacked by a car, you need every possible advantage just to have a shot at surviving. Not wearing a helmet…it just doesn’t make sense.
I would love to live in a perfect cycling environment, where casual cycling didn’t require helmets. In the US, we’re a long ways from that happening. And in my opinion (hey, it is my blog), suggesting that the problem with cycling in the US is too much insistence on helmet use…well, that’s irresponsible. And frankly, if wearing a helmet is the only obstacle standing between you and riding a bike–well then, enjoy your Big Mac, and subsequent heart attack. But please don’t go riding in public, on busy roads, without a helmet. When you get hit by a car, the resulting publicity makes it harder for other cyclists everywhere. It makes it harder for us to explain to our families why we ride (every time a local cyclist is killed, I receive half a dozen concerned emails questioning my riding), and it makes it harder for us to convince local governmental entities of the merits of building cycle-friendly infrastructure. No one questions building another McDonalds–so pick your poison.