The great helmet debate

Necessary or fear based?

Necessary or fear based?

One of the most contentious debates amongst urban cyclists is whether or not to wear a helmet. No matter what side of the issue you’re on it seems like a “no brainer.” Helmet advocates point to drastically reduced death rates amongst cyclists involved in crashes, whereas anti-helmet (or dare I say “pro choice”) types believe that the overall risk of death or injury on a bicycle is vastly overstated and discourages bike use. The truth, like a lot of things, probably sits somewhere in between these two perspectives.

I’m pro-choice when it comes to helmet use (and most other things for that matter), but I have to admit that I’ve been reevaluating my no helmet decision since the birth of our son. It’s okay to be an irresponsible man sans children, but the thought of missing out on time with Marek or leaving him fatherless is too much to bear.

I usually fall back on empirical evidence to form opinions, but the research regarding helmet use is all over the board. Amongst the various studies I have concluded that mandatory helmet use for children is a good idea even though I miraculously survived my childhood without ever wearing one. Kids are not as experienced and will take part in riskier behavior, so it seems like a good idea to pad their noggins. Adults are another story.

Studies indicate that as helmet use has increased bike ridership has decreased in America. This is a huge problem in a nation that really needs to get out and lose a few pounds. The theory is that stressing the importance of helmet use overstates the dangers of cycling and dissuades new riders. Similarly, some studies have shown that head injuries have actually gone up as helmet use increased. The hypothesis here is that helmeted riders engage in risker behavior because of a false sense of security.

So who is right? I do know that virtually no one in northern Europe wears a helmet and somehow the Germans, Danes, and Dutch are not perishing in large numbers on bicycles. Still, these nations invest in infrastructure that separates cars from bikes, and I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel more at risk riding on American streets in comparison to a dedicated bike path in Europe.

I just can’t shake the idea that we English speakers are once again attempting to eradicate all risk in life at the expense of our sanity and standard of living.

10 responses to “The great helmet debate

  1. Helmets do overstate the dangers of cycling. In most cities in the US, it is easy to see why so, due to the lack of bicycling infrastructure in the form of segregated paths. I do not use a helmet. It feels easier and safer when I control the lane in difficult situations.

  2. I have fallen or gotten hit a few times over the years….and EACH time, I have been very thankful to have my helmet on. I knew a guy once, who was biking without his helmet, and a car knocked him to the ground, and he hit the front of his head – and had to go to the hospital for stitches. I don’t think this injury would have occurred if he had been wearing a helmet, as a helmet (if worn properly positioned) protects the head. So, I’m definitely for helmets. I wouldn’t ride without one.

  3. My problem is that my imagination is way too active and I can think of all sorts of ways a small bump from a car or door could make my head go crack. I need to try positive visualization, but that doesn’t come so naturally to me🙂

  4. Ooh, you’re going to get some comments with this one! You can find a study that backs up just about anything you want to believe, including increased risks taken by helmeted riders (personally that’s not applicable, but it makes sense that people who don’t wear helmets fall more on the risk-taker side of the spectrum), or the fact that drivers are more courteous to non-helmeted riders (also not my experience). I do not see cycling as dangerous, and never wore a helmet as a kid in the 80s, but if I am unlucky enough to be hit by a car, a helmet would reduce my risk of head injury. Reason enough for me to wear it on my commute, and on longer city rides, if not on bike paths and such. But to each their own…as long as they have medical insurance.🙂

  5. Richard Keatinge

    The trouble with bike helmets is that they don’t seem to work – laws have stopped a lot of people cycling and have done nothing for head injury rates, see Robinson DL. No clear evidence from countries that have enforced the wearing of helmets. BMJ 2006;332: 722-5. http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/332/7543/722-a. It appears that helmets break easily, but don’t absorb the impact, see the engineers quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_helmet. A broken helmet has simply failed. Helmets have also strangled some young children who were wearing helmets while playing off their bicycles. At my moderately advanced age it’s far too dangerous not to cycle – regular cycling, Danish style, not too far, not too fast, nearly halves the death rate, see http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/160/11/1621 All-Cause Mortality Associated With Physical Activity During Leisure Time, Work, Sports, and Cycling to Work. Andersen et al, Arch Intern Med. 2000;160:1621-1628. Happy cycling, and I hope we can all work towards the sort of solutions that the Dutch have produced, see for example http://www.fietsberaad.nl/index.cfm?lang=en&section=Kennisbank&mode=list&kennisbankPage=Integrale+verkeersplannen

  6. Thanks for the post, Richard, and links to some great research. I wish the public had access to the BMJ article posted. Do you have a copy of that article for distribution by chance?

  7. I am pro-choice (assuming that is not an oxymoron) However if the manufacturers want common cyclists (people not hell bent on pretending to be the next TDF contender) they need to offer more helmets that don’t look like rejects from the Star Wars prop room. The Bell Citi and Bell Metro are decent examples and very difficult to find.

    My biggest issue with helmet use/non-use is when some local jurisdiction decides that their use is mandatory. Until it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt (most of the research I have read is based on antedoctal evidence, incomplete statistics and information) that helmets are what they are cracked up to be ;>), they need to not be making them mandatory. Provide proper cycling infrastructure and substantially improve driver training and testing…THEN we can discuss making helmet use mandatory!

    Aaron (who does wear a helmet on occasion but has never used one when crashing…go figure)

  8. Richard Keatinge

    Tad, send me an email at dr.richard@keatinge.net and I’ll send you a copy.

  9. I never wore a helmet, then 2 months after I got one, I went end over and felt the helmet skidding on the ground. Not my head. And yet, now I am mostly not wearing a helmet. I do wear it when I’m headed into some conditions are higher risk, but on my slower bikes I don’t. I think the “must have a helmet” attitude keeps people off bikes. We need to change the question from “do you wear a helmet?”, to “do you have a safe route to get to your destination?”

  10. I think you’re dead on with this, Spider. Promoting helmets does reduce the number of riders, yet the type of bike one is riding and the route are big factors. I’d be wearing a helmet if I was on a road bike with my feet locked into the pedals, but the ride style of a utility bike just doesn’t warrant it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s