Helmets.

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.

IMG_3161And this is the only injury she suffered. IMG_3156

Afterwards, she was rewarded with a new helmet.

IMG_3165

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.

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7 thoughts on “Helmets.

  1. I grew up riding with no helmet and never had a head injury. When I saw the first guy in the late 70s or early 80s with a helmet, I thought he was out of his friggin mind and laughed real hard. Does he think he is an astronaut?

    In some places in Canada, we have taken the word ”play” out of many of the parks and the breaks at school. All is in the name of safety. This is truly sad. To remove danger and risk from life robs us of a bit of what life is all about.

    Having said this, I have put in a lot of hours biking in my life and if I can’t remember what year I put on a helmet, I have biked in the city, on the highway and on mountain bike trails (as well as on roller blades) for decades and I can thank the helmet for saving my life ( or at least from serious injury) on 4 occasions. Without going into details, 3 accidents were not my fault and the fourth was my inability to ride on a single trail that I had never been on before. I have a great passion for bikes and when I want to show others the passion of biking, I refuse to take them unless they put on a helmet. Helmets are not just for astronauts, geeks and chickens. Helmets are a reason why some of us can enjoy life to the leeds another day.

    I am even a little suprised that you are talking about this until I realize that it is true that 50% of the people in my area still don’t wear helmets. This is of course quite different from our mountain bike club where this is NOT A DISCUSSION in any way.

    Ride forever,
    Peter (54 and hoping to ride to 90)

  2. I also hear some of these same arguments against motorcycle laws….even more stupid in that context. There’s no question one of those saved my life a few years ago.

  3. I have a counter point to #2 that I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on. I think you’re maybe being shortsighted in writing off those who might choose not to cycle because of helmet laws. First of all, it’s not just their loss if they choose not to ride, it’s ours. Tying into your point #3, I think the single largest reason that car/bike accidents are so low in Amsterdam and similar cities is because using bikes for transportation is a normal part of everyday life. The single largest reason that I’ve heard drivers give for hitting cyclists is that “I didn’t see them”. I’m guessing in most cases that’s because they were not looking for cyclists. It’s also funny to be writing this as I’m visiting Amsterdam right now. Anyways my point is that getting more people riding will make all of us safer.

    I’ll also freely admit that I don’t have much evidence to back this up. It’s just a theory. I suppose I should also add that I am in favor of helmet use, especially now that models with MIPS are available, and that I wear one whether commuting, or road, cross, mtb, etc riding.

    • Point #2 was the theory that requiring helmet use reduces ridership, which decreases overall societal health (i.e. if fewer people ride, more people get cardiovascular disease and/or obesity). I’m not relating that to helmet laws (which I haven’t written in support of). I’ve just seen some authors argue that the concept of helmets is a barrier to cycling, which reduces health (because heart disease kills far more people than do head injuries).

      Honestly, I’m fine writing those people off. If the underlying facts are true (that cycling is healthy and improves health, and extends one’s life by reducing obesity and risk of cardiovascular disease), then any rational person who encounters that fact should easily be able to determine that the “inconvenience” or aesthetic distaste of wearing a helmet is vastly outweighed by the health benefits of the activity. If someone is so concerned about mussing their hair that they cannot wear a helmet while riding, my view is that their priorities are so warped, it’s not worth trying to convince them otherwise. It’s unfortunate, but they’ll die an early death with perfect hair. I’d rather be buried at a ripe old age, with helmet hair.

      On point 3, I agree. I don’t think Amsterdam is safer for cyclists because they don’t wear helmets. I think cyclists don’t wear helmets there (as much) because Amsterdam is safer for cyclists. Chicken/Egg. Because they are more common and more socially accepted, and because so many people ride or know people that ride, the drivers are more courteous to cyclists. That said, the cyclists would still be safer if they wore helmets, and less likely to suffer a head injury in the event that they did have a crash. It’s fortunate that they have courteous drivers and far superior cycling infrastructure such that crashes are far less likely to occur there.

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