My ire for bike helmets is well known, but only after being sent a fascinating article questioning the efficacy of helmet use in the NFL (American football for our foreign readers), have I realized that we have a broader reverence towards encasing our heads in foam and plastic. Rather than focusing on changing behavior and avoiding unsafe situations, we focus on mitigating the effects of an accident.
I’m inherently distrustful of the statistics provided by both pro and anti-helmet advocates, but there are some parallels that can be drawn between football and cycling. Some studies have claimed that head injuries have actually increased as helmet use has gained popularity with cyclists. Similarly, Australian football, which is hardly a girly man’s sport, has far lower incidents of brain damage than American football, even though the Yanks are decked out in protective gear head-to-toe. Why? The false perception of safety caused by wearing a football helmet has driven riskier behavior. Use of the football helmet in the 1940s changed the sport so radically that the bulk of “hits” are now led with the head. The argument for getting rid of helmets in the NFL is simple. If the players didn’t have all of that “safety equipment” they wouldn’t be tackling players with their faces. It also turns out that football helmets themselves are having no effect in curbing the number of players suffering from long term brain damage.
Likewise some feel that the pervasive use of bike helmets is driving riskier behavior with both cyclists and automobile drivers. Even though bike helmets are not designed to help a cyclist in a direct vehicular collision, many cyclists are wearing helmets to guard against that very scenario. The biker feels safer amongst the cars, and the automobile driver feels more comfortable passing a helmeted cyclist; everybody is delusional and clinging to emotional logic.
Of course, the NFL, just like hardcore-helmet zealots, have their proverbial heads in the dirt (or helmets I should say). Instead of changing the sport of football and getting rid of the helmets, they want to design a better helmet or start throwing more flags when players tackle head first (as if the sport doesn’t have enough penalties already). Einstein said that, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Don’t expect the NFL or American cyclists to ditch the helmet any time soon. It’s far easier to put our faith in a helmet than to tackle the complexities of proper infrastructure and accountability for reckless-human behavior. By that measure, we’re quite insane. In helmet we trust.