Friday, March 11

Myth 4 - Bike Helmets

There is an ongoing battle of mythology about helmets. One side is dominated by a “more safety is always better ethos” whereby people are castigated or even criminalized (in places like Dallas and Seattle) for not wearing helmets to ride their bikes, and a less well defined faction ridicules helmets as worse than worthless. Both extremes stoop to inaccurate and misleading claims. In the real world, helmets are unlikely to help a cyclist avoid injury in the event of a high-speed crash. I have seen no evidence to indicate that professional cyclists are injured or killed less now that helmets are universally worn than they were back in the day of hair nets. On the other hand, helmets ARE likely to help in the much more common event of a low speed impact. I wear a helmet when I ride to work. Occasionally I forget, but when I forget, I don’t make a special trip back to get it.

Contrary to Cycle Chic's Claims, Helmets for Motor Vehicles Have Been Available for Many Years. THIS ONE is Mine.
Helmet Deniers
Yup, I Wear Cycling Gloves Even More Than Helmets
In my life, riding my bicycle has led me to hospitals on two occasions. Both of those occasions occurred last year, documented here and here. In neither case did wearing a helmet help in any meaningful way. ON THE OTHER HAND, during the DFW ice and snow episode last February, I hit my helmet hard at least a half dozen times on one commute. In none of those episodes was I traveling above about 5mph at the time and, in at least a couple of them, I was attempting to stand back up after falling on my bike. Looking back, EVERY fall in which a helmet might play a role I’ve had - EVER - has been a low speed fall. In most of those falls, the helmet did not hit anything. Personally, I’d rather keep it that way, because the denigrators of helmets rightly point out that bicycle helmets are of limited benefit in a high speed crash. If you wish to crash at higher speed, you should select a SNELL certified motorcycle or automobile helmet, and get one with good facial protection. The naysayers conveniently fail to mention that low speed crashes are FAR more common than the high speed crashes the helmets were not designed to withstand. In context, helmets are useful, just as gloves are useful. I usually wear gloves too. Helmets are also helpful to pedestrians in slippery conditions, and I wore mine last February when walking on icy pavement, EVEN THOUGH PEOPLE SNICKERED AT ME. Less clear is the extent to which helmets might mitigate or exacerbate injuries in the event of a higher speed collision. IMO, not wearing a helmet because you are afraid that it may make things worse if you crash with a car is like not wearing a seatbelt in a car because you are afraid of burning up in a car wreck because you can’t get the seatbelt off. Helmets DO help in the common sorts of bike crashes. Those are the common sorts here in the US and in Europe. Of course, these common crashes are not the ones the “cycling is dangerous crowd” try to scare us about.

My Automotive Helmet Complies With the Jaguar Club's Requirement for a Snell 2000 Rating
Scared to Death
Mount Avila in Quebec Advocates Helmets
The scare merchants, on the other hand, cite old studies claiming 80%+ injury reductions (see mythical pro helmet references). In the case where I wound up in ICU, the hospital staff eventually, and incorrectly, concluded my injuries were due to no helmet (I DID have a helmet on; properly worn, and there’s still blood on the strap to prove it). Liberal city councils and Canadian Provinces have gone so far as to criminalize the simple act of riding a bicycle on public property without a helmet. The United States CPSC, in one attempt to extend regulation to other activities, looked at ski helmets and concluded that 11 lives a year could be saved by mandating ski helmets. Woopee Doo! No, I don’t wear a ski helmet, and turned down one recently in Montreal when I skied at Mount Avila. All of this has been done in the name of making us “safer.” IMO, if helmets were the wonder devices their proponents claim, nobody would have to distort the evidence to support those claims, and more research would be getting conducted on how to improve the effectiveness of helmets. Some of the research that HAS been done suggests that helmets fail to provide adequate facial protection and that the protection may not be well matched to real-world impact locations.

This Was the Extent of Helmet Damage When I Went into ICU for Two Days
It Was Another Low Speed Crash. IMO, the Helmet Damage Was Irrelevant to My Injuries
The Hospital Staff Concluded I Hadn't Been Wearing a Helmet - How Else to Explain Getting Hurt?
Local Rules
Unlike some other things the “culture of fear” attempts to scare us to DO (select neon clothing) or AVOID (wearing earphones), helmets have largely become institutionalized in North America. To participate in most bicycle rallies, or in Bike League education, a helmet is mandatory. No doubt, insurance considerations and potential liability in a litigious society play a role. Just as when I drive my Jaguar at a track (helmet and current tetanus shots required – and sometimes a roll bar as well), I either follow the rules or do something else. At my house, I do not attempt to force my kids to wear a helmet to ride a bike. I DO set an example that they are free to follow or not, or even to exceed. In truth, riding a bike is safer than most ways they can get healthy exercise. There’s another whole body of exaggeration when it comes to how safe riding a bicycle really is. But the danger or safety of cycling is another whole myth.

Wrap Up
Now, if this was a typical “helmet wars” post, comments would fall into one of two categories. The first would be along the lines of “you’re a fool if you don’t wear a helmet and I don’t want to pay to feed you through a straw,” or else they’d accuse me of child abuse for not forcing my kids to wear helmets in order to ride a bike. The second comment category would be along the lines of “helmets are worthless and discourage cycling.” I hope my dear reader can rise above such oversimplified nonsense.

I wear a helmet as a personal choice, based on my first-hand observations and as part of setting an example for others, along with the gloves. Since it IS my choice, it clearly doesn’t discourage me from cycling, and, on occasion, I DO ride without a helmet. Seriously, I can’t see how others, seeing me ride, would conclude that I consider riding my bike a dangerous pursuit requiring “nerves of steel,” regardless of the 2008 claims of BUYCYCLING Magazine. I oppose mandatory helmet laws, whether those apply to bicyclists, motorcyclists, skiers, or even snowboarders. I am less likely to ride in or through a jurisdiction with such laws, even though I’m wearing a helmet. Our big government has intruded on our liberties and restricted personal choices entirely more than is appropriate, on evidence that is all too often flimsy or even nonexistent.

Ham flagged an interesting recent video that mostly ridicules helmets. It makes many good points, but others get lost in the anti-helmet tirade. Particularly amusing is the notion that helmets for cars need to be developed. Apparently, the lecturer is not an auto racing fan. Tazio Nuvolari wore a helmet when he drove for Alfa Romeo back before WW II. The video is below. I think some will find it interesting regardless of whether or which helmet mythology they subscribe to.

Well, you pick one. My own choice is the one from Bicycle Coffee Systems, though it edges perilously close to getting mythically pro-helmet, which becomes a problem when the author then opposes mandatory helmet legislation.

Mythically Anti-Helmet

One Might Wonder Whether THIS Video is Mythically Anti-Helmet or Merely an Overreaction to "The Culture of Fear"
The "Motoring Helmet" Nonsense Starts at About 8 Minutes. I Can Loan Him Mine
Mythically Pro-Helmet


John Romeo Alpha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Iyen said...

I agree with almost everything you said.

I actually slipped and fell this winter because of the ice, and a helmet saved my life (okay, maybe not, but still) and that's why I always wear it. I'm a fast walker (maybe not 5mph, but perhaps 4) and pretty tall so I feel I get a larger benefit from helmets than some others, but I still recommend them to all.

I can understand when some people don't want to wear one when they're walking in a park, or a place without cars, but on city sidewalks and on crosswalks or when jogging, where head injuries are quite frequent, I really don't see any excuses, especially when it's icy. You can never be tooo safe. At least, that's the way I see it.

Velouria said...

I mostly agree with you and the 2 comments above me, to the extent that (1) both the for and against evidence is distorted, and (2) using the logic of bicycle helmets, activities such as walking on slippery surfaces should require helmets as well. I would add showering as well actually - it's very easy to crack your scull open as a result of a fall in the shower : (

MamaVee said...

I agree! As someone who now wears a helmet but mostly bc of being a role model for the kids sometimes I don't. When I don't I always have to justify it and it burns me up. ESP last year when I rode on my trike to the farmers market in 85 degree humid heat without the kids. A few people commented it and I basically said, it's hotter then he'll and I did not want anything on my head and since I was riding a trike partially on the sidewalk, I did t feel at risk. But really I wear one out of peer pressure. And I don't think that's cool. Or when I allow my kids to ride without on ( on and off the bikes frequently) I get looks and yet I watch others struggle to have the kids put the helmet back on as soon as the kid touches the bike. What they need are knee pads... Or the time I went to tell my neighbor my kids had had lice which was why they were helmet free. The likely hood of reinfestation was much greater than them bumping. Their heads. Al riding was on our block. So yeah, I take a reasonable approach. They wear them, so they are used to wearing. Them. Yet I have to say they need to make a helmet that works with high ponytails and buns. Having to redo ones hair just to ride sucks.

Ramble. I'm tired and foggy.

Khal said...

Oh, God...helmet wars are for people who don't have enough real work to do. Or, for rainy days when no one wants to ride but needs an outlet for mental energy.

I think Steve pretty much covers it. Leave out the extremes of mythology (both pro and anti) and treat the helmet for what it is, a piece of personal protection equipment, plain and simple. No magic properties attached. Dan and Brian treat the helmet well in terms of safety--the helmet, as PPE, is one's last line of defense, not first, in a crash. The 5 layers of safety say it well.

I crashed on my head once w/o a helmet and twice with one, once during a race and once hitting black ice. In my case, the helmets did their job (and I had a concussion from the crash when I was thrown over a car helmetless back in 1979). Just FWIW.

Steve A said...

SPEAKING of helmet wars, can you explain WHY the bicycle helmet I got for Christmas cost MORE from my LBS than the motoring helmet that offers far more substantial construction and a Snell 2000 rating to boot, purchased at a motorcycle store? Never mind, we both know why...

Anonymous said...

Great post Steve.
I didn't even know there was a helmet "debate" until last year. On an informal summer ride, a participant in period dress felt that those wearing helmets were ruining his experience. As if I'd take safety advice from someone who worries about appearances!
However, most of the people I respect wear helmets when they cycle and take other safety precautions in other activities such as wearing helmets for snowboarding and downhill skiing, using their seatbelts, and driving cars with multiple airbags and vehicular stability control, etc.
But we also know that these are precautions against some events. When a non-cyclist learns that I actually commute in traffic they will always ask if I wear a helmet. I then explain that yes I do but that it won't likely help in an accident with a car.
I don't really get the requiring helmets for adults though. I mean, I also make sure I have proper reflectors and lights on the bike and try not to ride like a ninja. Somehow, the mandatory helmet law is up there with require bike licenses.

KD5NRH said...

I'll have to agree with wearing gloves too; I had a minor fall a couple months ago and caught myself on my hands. I still managed to injure my wrist, but at least the asphalt's worst effects were limited to the $10 gloves rather than my palms.

Serendipity Fotografía said...

Thanx for the info!
I recommend purchasing the foldable helmet Fuga by

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