The Myth of the Bicycle Helmet

by Mark Stewart on June 14, 2012

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

H. L. Mencken

“Be careful!”  “Walk gently!”  “Try not to get hurt!”

Don’t worry; I am talking to myself, not to you.  I am warning myself before I take the leap into a realm of challenging a truism.  In a recent survey, 92% of respondents reported that they are in favor of mandatory bicycle helmet laws for children, and 83% are in favor of helmet laws for all cyclists.  Groups as disparate as the American Pediatric Association and various State Departments of Transportation recommend the usage of helmets for cyclists.  And, on and on.  Yet, they might all be wrong.  Bicycle helmets might not protect cyclists much at all.  And, in fact, in some cases, they might actually be more dangerous than going lidless.

 Horror of horrors!  How dare I suggest such things?  But, please dear reader, please keep reading.  I haven’t even been able to make my arguments or offer my evidence.

Credit: Ildar Sagdejev (used under cc license)

To begin, I would just like to point out some of the ridiculous nature of the whole concept.  I doubt that this avenue of argument will convince many, but I hope you will at least think about it before continuing on to the more statistically focused ones.  The idea that a 4000 pound steel box moving at 35 miles per hour would have limited effect against a plastic and Styrofoam bowl, that weighs less than a pound, is an ignorant one, at best.  (Or, one that delights in sci-fi physics.)  And yet, many people seem to have the idea that if you are a cyclist who wears a helmet, you are safe.  (At this point, please reread the H. L. Mencken quote at the beginning of this piece.)  Let’s look at the evidence, shall we.

In a 2001 New York Times article, Julian Barnes noted that while rates of cycling had decreased between 1991 and 2001, head injuries had increased even though the use of helmets had skyrocketed throughout the 1990s.  The risk of injury per cyclist had gone up by 51%.  Several causes were postulated: antilock brakes, the risk-taking behavior that people do when wearing safety gear, etc.  I hope that you will take a moment to read the article.  Some of the quotes are precious.  “We don’t know what’s going on,” said one political appointee who should know.  Well, I’ll offer my idea.  People accepted the idea that helmets work, and then created studies to “prove” that they do.  But, let’s keep going.

For my evidence on these matters, I could use many sources, but I will focus on the work of W. J. Curnow, who is a leading researcher in the field.  He states that the most common form of testing done on helmets is of the linear impact variety.  That is, imagine putting on a helmet, running at a wall, and measuring the decrease in impact.  Modern bicycle helmets generally perform well at these tests, as they are designed to pass them.  Curnow points out that these tests generally max out at 12.5 mph.  This means, that up to this speed, in a linear impact situation, the helmet should have some increase in protection for the wearer.  His own evidence backs this up.  However, many accidents involving cyclists do not fall into this highly specific category.

Most healthy cyclists, especially adults, regularly cycle faster than 12.5 mph.  And, of course, cars go a lot faster than this, even in school zones.  Also, Curnow points out that the most dangerous type of injury to the heads of cyclists are of the “rotational” or “torsional” variety.  This takes place when the head and neck twist rapidly.  These injuries can cause the brain to become detached from the connective tissue and the brain stem can be torn.  It is these injuries that bicycle helmets make worse, and make happen when they normally wouldn’t.  The thickness of the helmet causes the head to come into contact with surfaces that it would not in a person not wearing a helmet.  Because of this, and the movement and sliding of a crashing cyclist, the helmet will “grab” the ground and cause the head to twist, leading to these extremely dangerous injuries to the brain.

And yet, before studies like Curnow’s were done, there was a push to install helmet laws.  The idea was that helmets work and therefore people should be wearing them.  However, now that time has passed we can see the results.  In a 2012 article from Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs, Australia’s mandatory helmet law (MHL) was deemed a “disaster.”  Australia is one of only two countries to have a nationwide MHL (note: several US States have MHLs).  A few highlights from the article:

“When the laws were introduced in the early 1990s, cycling trips declined by 30-40 per cent overall, and up to 80 per cent in some demographic groups, such as secondary school-aged females.”

“Cycling is generally a safe activity, the health benefits outweighing the risks from traffic accidents by a large margin. British research suggests life years gained through cycling outweigh years lost in cycling fatalities by a factor of 20:1. A recent study of users of Barcelona’s public bike hire scheme puts this ratio at 77:1.”

“By any measure, health problems associated with a lack of exercise are a far greater problem than cycling head injuries in Australia. According to the Heart Foundation, lack of physical activity causes 16,000 premature deaths each year, swamping the 40 or so cycling fatalities.”

So, what we have done is create a society that is absolutely certain that helmets work.  However, the requirement to wear helmets has led people to stop cycling.  This has contributed to the obesity problem that industrialized countries are facing.  And, the people who are cycling with helmets are perhaps more at risk than they were before all of this started.  Well done, everyone!

I will suggest what many have before, that if we really want to focus on cycling as a solution to many problems (obesity, pollution, overcrowded road systems, etc.), we need to look to various countries in Europe that have been extremely successful in moving their societies to the bike.  There is much discussion about the cycling in Denmark and the Netherlands, in particular.  (I will link to one review article that covers much of the information.)  They have cycling rates (e.g. 40% of commuters do so by bike) that dwarf the rates even in our “best bicycling cities” (e.g. Portland, Oregon has about 7% of commuters on bikes).  In Copenhagen and Amsterdam, almost no one wears helmets (about 0.1% of cyclists).  And yet, they have cycling injury rates that are fractions of ours.  They have found solutions to the problems.  We should copy them unselfconsciously.  And thank them for the 50 years of trial and error.

At the end, it must be pointed out that cycling has a similar risk of death as being a pedestrian.  Should we all wear helmets when we walk around town?  Cycling is, in fact, more dangerous than being a driver (based on miles travelled and trips taken).  But, it is not as great a difference as you might imagine.  What would Ford, GM, and Toyota say if we started recommending that every car come with built-in helmets for driver and passengers?  What would they think?  How much time, effort, and money would they spend convincing all of us that it is a ridiculous idea?

Works Cited

Pucher J, Buehler R.  Making cycling irresistible: Lessons from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany.  Transport Reviews.  July 2008, 28(4), 495-528.

Transporation Accident Analysis and Prevention.  Anton De Smet.  Nova Science Publishers, Inc.  Chapter 6: Bicycle Helmets: A Scientific Evaluation.  WJ Curnow

{ 72 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Zikmund-Fisher June 15, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Hmm. Provocative post.

I do want to note that the same logic that may have led people to push for mandatory cycling helmet laws before research evidence clarified whether a benefit existed could lead people to take your post and generalize from adults to children. Yet, children are much less likely to cycle fast and much more likely to suffer casual crashes, ones in which mortality is very unlikely but where a helmet might limit morbidity. Now, I don’t know the evidence one way or the other but the critique that we overgeneralized to get where we are now must also come with a caution not to overgeneralize in the reverse direction either.

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:12 am

Brian,

I don’t want people to generalize from a four page essay, either. I was hoping that people would realize that cycling is a safe and healthy activity. The idea that people “should” be wearing a helmet has had the effect that people, even subconsciously, think it is a dangerous one. Cycling is no more dangerous than being a pedestrian.

Mark

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Andrew Maynard June 15, 2012 at 5:27 pm

One question that this post does raise is how the way the problem is formulated influences the analysis. I grew up in the UK where I was less concerned as a cyclist with cars hitting my head and more concerned with my head impacting the ground in a fall. In this case, the relevant contact velocity would have been the head-ground velocity – which I’m assuming in most cases would be less than the traveling velocity (allowing for deceleration).

So to me the question is – even though helmets may not be that effective in collisions with cars, is there evidence to suggest their lack of protection in all crash/fall cases?

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:14 am

Andrew,

I would argue that helmets have been used as a panacea for bike injuries and deaths. What about cycling skill, bike maintenance, infrastructure, drivers’ attitudes towards cyclists, etc.

I think they are much more important than the possible benefits of helmets.

Mark

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Karen November 29, 2012 at 7:06 pm

As someone who sustained a very serious head injury as a child, falling from a tree, head injuries have always been of concern to me. I was (much to the chagrin of my children) way ahead of the helmet curve for biking and snow skiing both. I blindly, in spite of professional health care training, accepted the dogma that helmets significantly reduce the risk of serious head injury and death.

But then I began questioning – I’ve always been a questioner. I knew, based on the laws of physics, that rapid deceleration of one’s head and body is going to cause internal trauma regardless of helmet use. Indeed, I have suffered a relatively mild concussion while skiing (green slope, no trees, WHILE WEARING A HELMET), and thus I know firsthand that it doesn’t take much of a fall to suffer a concussion. And that a helmet does not necessarily protect you.

In my case, I don’t know what happened since I lost consciousness, but I can only assume someone ran into me or, in spite of skiing well within my abilities slowly down an easy slope, I suffered a freak fall. Regardless, clearly at some point my head suffered rapid deceleration and my brain slammed into the inside of my skull, causing unconsciousness for a few minutes.

In the meantime, my wilderness first aid training has taught me that a concussion should be assumed if a person either clearly hits his head or falls from a distance more than his body height. Again, due to the laws of physics / inertia and the realities of human anatomy, a helmet cannot possibly protect against concussion if your head decelerates (or accelerates) rapidly. A helmet may prevent you from cracking your skull open, or from sustaining surface wounds to your head and face, but not from concussion.

I don’t know if this addresses your question. I do know that (in spite of my being a helmet wearer) I have been fighting the battle of people overstating the value of helmets in preventing head injury for many years.

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Gaythia Weis June 15, 2012 at 11:19 pm

I’ll nit pick a very small point. I am all in favor of adapting the bicycling ways of the Netherlands and other countries. I would assume though that much of their bicycle safety record comes from the flat terrain, bicycle friendly infrastructure and the large number of bicyclists who undoubtedly by now have the cars well trained to expect them, and other such points.
Also, while I have never bicycled in the Netherlands, I do own an Uptown Breezer. This is billed as a Dutch style bike. It is meant for very proper sorts of rides, upright and fairly sedate. No rocketing down narrow paths over rocky hillsides or darting through 4 lanes of heavy traffic. I do wear a helmet, although I do not intend to crash into anything.

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:17 am

Gaythia,

Excellent point about the cars being “well-trained.” When I read or watch interviews with Danish and Dutch bike advocates, they talk about “traffic calming.” They do things like narrowing lanes and roads, which subconsciously make drivers drive slower.

Mark

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Adrianna McIntyre June 16, 2012 at 11:07 am

I think there’s a compelling point to the torsion argument that you didn’t explicitly make, assuming I remember basic physics correctly: by wearing the helmet, you’re effectively increasing the radius of your head, which means greater torque with less force (holding the “grabbiness” of head and helmet constant). I’d never actually considered this before, and find the whole argument rather fascinating.

Perhaps we should be copying European examples. But in addition to the differences mentioned above, I would venture that these places have cars traveling slower than 45mph. I believe that we also commute, on average, significantly larger distances (anecdotally, my commute is about 25 miles each way).

And, of course, politics will always be a substantial barrier. It’s much easier to find political will to “improve” public health through one-off legislation like a MHL than to remodel infrastructure–which would take time and (likely taxpayer) money.

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:21 am

Adrianna,

It is funny you mention your point in the first paragraph. In my original draft, I actually had a sentence about wrenches and the length of the arm of the wrench and torque.

In regards to your other points:
Of course, we in the US will have some differences in requirements that European countries, but I doubt they will be overwhelming. In your particular example, imagine that the place where you work has facilities to allow you to lock your bike safely and to allow you to take a shower. Then, you commute would also be your daily exercise. If you add your commute time and your exercise time, it would come out to more than if you could do both at the same time (and do them without a car).

Mark

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Richard Burton June 18, 2012 at 3:31 am

An excellent article Mark, and there is absolutely no doubt that the unintended consequences of helmet promotion and laws completely swamp the intended ones, and there is very little real world evidence that the intended aims have been achieved.

No country with a helmet law or massive rise in wearing due to propaganda campaigns can show any reduction in risk to cyclists, but the public perception is that cycle helmets are incredibly effective. There is a phenomenon known as the “persistence of myths” which says that once an idea is embedded in the public consciousness, it is very difficult to shift, interesting article here http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/03/AR2007090300933.html If I could add to your H.L. Mencken quote with one from Stalin “A lie often repeated becomes the truth” (or was it Goebbels?). The case for helmets is based on bad science which has been endlessly repeated until, as you point out, it is a truism.

One of the problems is that so many people have publicly supported cycle helmets, including medical people and politicians, that they are self supporting and can point to so many others who support their position that their views become overwhelming. It’s also a problem that so many of them would be highly embarrassed when it was discovered that they had supported something without bothering to find out if it worked.

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:23 am

Richard,

(Cool name, by the way.)

Good points. It would be wonderful if complicated problems had easy answers. This is rarely the case.

Mark

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Dean Smith June 19, 2012 at 3:43 pm

Ian Walker has also provided an interesting point – motorists drive closer to persons wearing helmets, adding to the risk.

Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender. Accident Analysis & Prevention, Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 417–425

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:24 am

Dean,

I have heard this point before. However, I hadn’t seen evidence that could show that it was anything more than an urban myth.

Thanks,

Mark

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Megaton June 19, 2012 at 7:16 pm

I took a 40km impact straight to the side of my head while biking.

Got knocked out for a good while but did not end up with a fractured skull.

Thank you helmet!

I agree better testing that reflects the nature of most cycling falls could be used to improve helmet design.

I’m still going to wear mine.

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:27 am

Megaton,

(Interesting name. Brings up nuclear weapons in my mind, unfortunately.)

Keep wearing your helmet. I didn’t want to write a piece that made people stop wearing them. I wanted to write a piece that reminded people who had forgotten that cycling is a safe activity.

Mark

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Carl Cobon June 20, 2012 at 8:14 am

The first thing I must ask after reading your article is have any of you fallen or been in a bicycle accident, or simply crashed your bike and hit your head? I know I have. I ride as often as possible sometime 6 days a week. I mountain bike 3 days a week and ride that same bike at lunch or with my kids on sedate endurance rides.

The biggest problem with your numbers is that there are NO numbers. The only time statistics are collected are when the police or other authority are involved. Have you never slide your bike on a wet road or over a root, misjudge the curb you jumping up on to? Did you report that crash or time you fell off your bike to the police? Of course not, but I bet there is a scratch or mark on your helmet. I have a real crash maybe twice a year where I take a tumble, mostly due to how I ride (mountain bike on technical trails). However the minor little impatcs my helmet takes for me on a regular basis keep me safe an uninjured. That not some made up number or speculation, its based on simply examining the exterior of a helmet.

I have Never met a a real cyclist who hasn’t been glad to have been wearing a helmet at some point.

Now lets get back to the numbers or lack there of on which this article based, perhaps head injuries have increased, however the numbers also show fatalities are far lower for those wearing helmets than those who do not. So will I take a concussion over death… really is that the question?

http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1212972–cycling-review-calls-for-truck-side-guards-helmets-for-everyone

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:43 am

Carl,

I disagree that there are no numbers.

I consider myself a real cyclist; I wear helmets only when racing, not when commuting.

I have crashed numerous times. I feel that I learned how to fall as a child, so the worst injuries I have ever sustained to my head were a scratched chin and a bruised cheekbone (two separte incidents). I ran into the side of a van who pulled out in front of me. Hurt my hands more than my face.

Helmets do not protect 70% of the head (namely the face). Most head injuries to the head in ERs from cycling involve the face.

Keep riding. I don’t do mountain biking very often. You are much more hardcore than I am.

Mark

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Jason June 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm

“I have Never met a a real cyclist who hasn’t been glad to have been wearing a helmet at some point.”

By that, I assume you mean “I’ve never met an experienced cyclist who has never had an impact in which a helmet has played a useful role”.

Congratulations. You just did. I ride offroad most weekends, these days usually firetrail over 50km+ distances, but occasionally technical singletrack too. I used to race a fair bit, and have just started racing again after a break. My target for the year is a series of six MTB marathons – I intend to do at least four. I also commute 3-4 days per week, 12km each way in Sydney traffic, and try to do at least one weekly training ride of 70km or more on my local bike paths. I have four bikes. I’ve done the Polaris Challenge. I’m a “real cyclist”.

I have not, so far, had a crash in which a helmet has made impact with, well… anything. Helmet #1 has some shell damage, caused by my dog thinking it’s a toy. Helmet #2 is blemish-free. The only head injury I can ever remember getting was a badly bruised cheek and black eye gained when I put a pedal on the ground through a corner when not wearing a helmet as a teenager. I don’t believe it would have made a significant difference to the injury, though it’s possible that a helmet protruding out from my head would have wrenched my neck somewhat.

As some other posters have hypothesised, I think it’s because I learned how to crash as a kid. In the majority of crashes I’ve had – and I’ve had a quite a few – I’ve been able to turn and use my shoulders and upper arms to take impacts with ground/trees/other riders. Maybe I’ve been lucky. I know my own personal experience is not necessarily indicative of larger trends, but frankly neither is yours.

Of course, I now live in Australia, where helmets are mandatory. I wear one pretty much all the time, except for quick dashes down the road to the shops. I crash fairly often offroad, usually low-speed, but I did have a recent winger at over 50km/h. I’ve had maybe three crashes this year on the road. Again, shoulders and hips (and knees) have borne the brunt. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have a doozy, crack the shell of my helmet, and be forever more a cyclist with a story. Maybe I won’t.

I’m not anti-helmet, but I’m not pro-mandatory usage. I favour a more informed approach based on rigorous examination of the numbers.

But the overarching point is this: personal experience cannot be scaled up. You need population-level numbers, not personal “I don’t know anyone who’s not been glad to have a helmet” anecdote.

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Kimmo September 4, 2012 at 10:48 am

I think the saying you’re after is, ‘the plural of anecdote is not data.’

I too am a *real* cyclist. I didn’t have a car until I was 28. Ten years later, I still ride almost every day.

When MHL was introduced in Australia in 1990, I was livid. All the scaremongering rang completely false to my ears, and in the time since I’ve had to put up with harassment and persecution merely because I’m just fine with the minuscule risk of cycling, and wary of making my head a bigger target for the seriously risky rotational injuries that helmets make unquestionably more likely.

Since 1990, I’ve worn a helmet less than twenty times. One of those times, I smacked my head on the ground pretty hard. This has done zero to convince me they’re a good idea; in fact, precisely the opposite. I know how to come off a bike without a helmet. No idea how to do it with a cartoon head.

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Sally May 11, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Meet another. I grew up regularly riding crappy rummage sale bikes multiple miles on bumpy roads with cars going at at least 55 MPH and doing all sorts of (probably dangerous) tricks on those same bikes. All my siblings and most of my friends did a lot more than I did. Cars certainly weren’t watching for us so we learned to watch for them and if necessary, rode our bikes into the deep brushy ditches to avoid getting hurt. If bike helmets had been invented yet, we’d never seen such a thing. I don’t know anyone who ever got more than scrapes from any of the falls and/or crashes we took.
We also rode 3 and 4 wheeled ATV’s down roads and across fields in all kinds of weather and rode sleds pulled by the same without any sort of protective gear. We occasionally got an X-ray for a bad fall or stupid trick on those, but none of us were ever broken.
Because the city I live in now values fear over facts, my poor children have to wear bike helmets if they leave our yard. So far they’re little enough to be happy riding in the yard, but soon we’ll have one more reason to move somewhere more rural.

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Stuart Perry July 10, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Carl,

I have had 7 or 8 falls off my bikes since I starting riding again in 2006. My head has never been the body part that has been impacted. Again i have slipped of fell but never tumbled.

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Bob June 20, 2012 at 8:31 am

Another good article…

http://bicyclesafe.com/helmets.html

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JAy. June 20, 2012 at 8:44 am

So, full disclosure, I am a cyclist and I wear a helmet whenever I am travelling outside my neighborhood.

Your analysis is certainly one way to look at the data. However, you completely shoot your analysis in the foot when you bring in the statistics of the Netherlands and compare them to the US. If you have ever ridden a bicycle in Europe, there are very significant differences. There are many more cyclists in the cities in most of Europe. Therefore, vehicle drivers are far more likely to be aware of cyclists, so there are fewer vehicle/bicycle accidents per cyclists.

Secondly, and this is even more important, in most of Europe, cyclists ride on bicycle paths or sidewalks. In most of the US, it is illegal to operate a bicycle on a sidewalk, and there are no bicycle paths. Hence, the cyclists are much closer to the vehicles in the US than in Europe. Closer proximity yields a higher potential for collision.

Finally, in Europe almost all of the bicycles you see around the cities are single speed cruiser style bikes. In the US, even WalMart sells mostly multi-speed bikes designed to travel faster than what a cruiser can comfortably do. So this is another issue that skews the country comparison.

As an overall counter-point to your argument, helmets for children have made a positive difference in cycling injuries. Ask for data from any emergency room, and they will tell you nearly all youth and adolescent head injuries sustained during cycling are from children without helmets.

And to truly investigate the effectiveness of bicycle helmets, you have to remove all data involving vehicles. A helmet is not designed to provide significant protection in a high-speed accident with a vehicle. However, when the accident involves a single cyclist or multiple cyclists, the helmets are very helpful.

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:36 am

JAy,

Copenhagen cyclists are definitely safer that we are because more people are cyclists – safety in numbers. This is part of my point. Cycling is safe. Helmets might make it slightly safer, but helmets make people think that cycling is dangerous so they stop doing it and stop their children from doing it. Thus, the remaining diehard cyclists are in more danger because they are reduced in numbers.

I disagree with some of your description of European cycling. They ride in the streets. They ride all sorts of bikes. Watch the following: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyrTx9SXkVI

Mark

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Stuart Perry July 10, 2014 at 4:21 pm

What part of the US are you from? People in the cities i have lived ride on the streets, bike path, bike lanes, and sidewalks depending on the city and circumstances.

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craig June 20, 2012 at 9:14 am

When I see the participants in major bycycle races no longer wearing helmets then I’ll have more faith in believing that wearing helmets is more dangerous than not wearing them. Until then I’ll look for helmets that have the hardest shell material (less friction against the ground) and a reasonably thin design (to try to lessen the increase in effective dimention of my head by having a helmet on and therefore the chance of contacting the ground in the first place).

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:38 am

Craig,

Get a good quality helmet that fits properly. Most cycle races now demand that cyclists wear helmets. In the past, most professional cyclists did not wear them. Now, almost all of them do.

Mark

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Richard Burton July 11, 2012 at 10:41 am

But professional cyclists have to wear helmets, it’s in the rules: no helmet=no job.

An interesting point is whether the death rate to those professionals has gone up or down since they brought the helmet rule in? It would appear that it has gone up not down, with one estimate saying that it’s trebled. If it doesn’t work for the professionals, why should it work for anyone else.

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Rhonda Rubin June 20, 2012 at 10:07 am

As someone noted, helmet were never made to be protection against cars. They are made primarily to protect against traumatic head injuries when your head hits the ground. If you’re struck by a car, I doubt seriously that someone will look at your mangled bike and body crumpled on the road and say, “If only he’d worn a helmet.” In addition, I think the most serious flaw in the conclusion here is that helmets were made to prevent death. While they CAN prevent death, they are mostly to prevent permanent traumatic brain injury. The snarky conclusion statement comparing bicycle travel to driving is laughable. “What would Ford, GM, and Toyota say if we started recommending that every car come with built-in helmets for driver and passengers? What would they think? How much time, effort, and money would they spend convincing all of us that it is a ridiculous idea?” Of course it’s a ridiculous idea. Automobile manufacturers are already mandated to provide seatbelts and airbags, and front seat drivers and passengers are already required by law to wear the seatbelts.

A few things stand out to me in this article, and the linked WSJ article. How many people who were injured despite wearing a helmet actually wore it correctly? How many of the people who were injured would have sustained a greater or permanent injury, or died had they not been wearing the helmet?

This passage from the WSJ article, in particular, is a vain attempt to show why helmets are bad, because people feel invincible and take more risks, which is not a flaw in the helmet.

“In August 1999, Philip Dunham, then 15, was riding his mountain bike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and went over a jump on a trail. As he did, his back tire kicked up, the bike flipped over and he landed on his head. The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck; he was paralyzed from the neck down.”

The fact that Dunham felt safe enough in a helmet to attempt a challenging trail does not erase the fact that 1) of course the helmet didn’t protect his neck. That’s not what helmets do, 2) Dunham, as a rider, was ignorant of the risks in this sport to other body parts than his head, and 3) the helmet did what it was supposed to do — he does not have a permanent brain injury, nor is he dead, despite landing on his head. If anything, this passage shows helmets work. Other stories contained in the article illustrate either an exception to the rule, a freak accident, or just highlight someone’s poor judgement. The only thing I find spot on with the article is the fact that bicycle safety must be taught. Education can cut down accidents occurring as a result of poor judgement on the part of the rider.

Finally, I think comparing statistics in the United States to those in other countries is hugely flawed, as there is no 1:1 comparison between the US and the Netherlands. Bikes are part of the culture all over Europe, drivers are used to pedestrian and cycling traffic, and they drive accordingly. Cyclists are prevalent enough that, in some cases, entire train cars are reserved for bicycles to accommodate traveling riders. My experience here is that drivers are actively aggressive toward cyclists in town and on back roads, public transportation isn’t cyclist friendly, and neither is travel other than your own car. In short, a few key variables are missed when comparing the US to other countries.

What I’d really like to see is a study of cycling head injuries that looks at the following when analyzing head injuries associated with bicycle crashes of riders wearing helmets: whether the helmet was sized, fitted and worn correctly, the extent of the head injury, analysis of the accident and possible outcome if the rider hadn’t worn the helmet.

Do I believe in mandatory helmet laws? Only for children. None of the studies cited seemed to concentrate on children, how they ride and whether injuries have risen or fallen according to their helmet use. I’d love to see more bike shops offer bicycle safety classes, and more bicycle manufacturers include bicycle safety literature with their new bikes. Education is key here, but dismissing helmet use as a myth is kind of silly.

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:53 am

Rhonda,

You bring up a lot of points.

First, unfortunately helmets were designed and promoted with the idea that they will save people from death during a traffic accident. Also unfortunately, if a cyclist was seriously injured in a crash with a car, it will often be introduced as evidence that the cyclist was not wearing a helmet, thus the driver was not responsible.

Second, if helmets will make a safe activity like cycling safer, then I do not think it snarky to suggest that helmets would make a safe activity like driving safer (“Race drivers wear them, afterall.”).

Third, you are absolutely right that helmets work best when they fit properly. Children are often given helmets that “they will grow into.” This is very dangerous. There have even been hangings of children at playgrounds because of this (the child did not remove the helmet before starting to climb the jungle-gym.).

Fourth, cycling is safe. There is much to be learned from European countries that have moved their cultures to the bike. Yes, lots of infrastructure. Yes, lots of changing of attitudes of drivers. All of that would be great here. And, I think, easily doable.

Mark

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Richard Burton July 11, 2012 at 10:46 am

I’m very sceptical of the “helmets have to fit properly” theory.

This was produced by the grandaddies of helmet promotion (Thompson, Rivara and Thompson = bad scientists) who were looking for an explanation of why their original bad science was proved wrong, so they blamed the failure of helmets to improve safety on the fact that people weren’t wearing them right. As far as I know, their research into helmet fit has never been repeated, rather like their original claims.

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Stuart Perry July 10, 2014 at 4:37 pm

If you are riding down the street on your bike, what besides getting hit by car or another bike would make you topple over and hit your head. I ride daily I very seldomly ever see anybody fall off their bike. The biggest danger is to get hit by a car. Unless you are racing you can control your speed and the dangerous situations you encounter.

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craig d June 22, 2012 at 7:42 am

Australian here, so I don’t have a choice, and have grown up on 20 years of helmet laws. Put it down to conditioning or getting older, but given the choice these days, I would always wear a helmet regardless. Shit, I don’t even notice that I’m wearing the one I have now – they’ve gotten small, light and ventilated enough now that there’s really no excuse.

And no, I still don’t feel “safe” just because I’m wearing a helmet, I feel “safer”. I know that “little bowl of foam” probably won’t do much if a car or truck slams into me at 60km/h (a common speed limit on our suburban streets), but I sure as heck know that it at least provide some protection if I happen to fall and hit my head on the road, or I’m hit at a low speed and my head hits a car bonnet.

It happened to me recently actually. I came off my bike 3 months ago and my head was the first thing to hit the concrete bike path. I fractured a vertebrae and my helmet smashed into tiny bits, but I was alive, conscious and able to walk away (even ride) away from the accident. The helmet did it’s job.

Yeah, cycling uptake is much lower here and in the USA than a lot of places accross the world, but helmet laws are not the sole reason for that. Trying to compare a country like Australia or USA to “Copenhagen” is a ridculous notion, and there are a lot of other factors to also consider. Look at the geography of the cities, the attitude towards cycling and cyclists, the infrastructure, laws, driver responsibilities and economies before condemning helmets as “worthless”.

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:47 am

Craig D,

I don’t want people to stop wearing helmets. I want people to realize that cycling is safe, as safe as being a pedestrian.

There are many things to be learned from what other countries have done in promoting cycling and moving their commuters to the bike. Australia and Denmark are different, but it is not like one is on Mars and the other is in the Alpha Centari galaxy.

Mark

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Mark Stewart June 22, 2012 at 11:55 am

Craig D,

One more thing I forgot.

It is common for people to look at the shattered remains of their helmets and say, “Oh great! It worked!” Unfortunately, this is a sign your helmet failed. At most, the styrofoam inside the helmet should be dented. If it crumbled, it did not do its job. Very common misunderstanding.

Mark

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Edward June 22, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Yes, helmet has to be replace more often if it has hit the ground often… so obviously “shattered to pieces” means it was banged up inside with no noticeable cracks on outside. If the helmet has been involved in prior accident, REPLACE IT!

Anyway, I don’t wear helmet at all… Bicycle is my main mode of transportation for all things I do around the city as well as recreation and exercise. I would wear one if I am involved in a professional racing because of their policy that they refuse to admit cyclist into a race because of liability… not because I want to, just comply with their rule.

And also, It is my experience in this bike friendly town, Tucson, Arizona, that drivers give me more space (i.e. 3ft law) when they see me helmet-less… I can tell you that I have seen them driving so close to those cyclists with helmet on… And also when policemen on bike conduct undercover stings in popular street like 4th Ave, they wear helmets, they stop those who doesn’t observe 3ft law… Makes me wonder if they conducts another stings helmet-less hmm? probably no tickets written eh…

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ryan August 12, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Completely wrong on that count Mark.

The helmet’s job is to absorb and distribute the force from an impact. Yes, helmets will fail under huge load. They are designed to be sacrificial, and as a result that one impact is often enough to crack the helmet. Of course this is a sign that the helmet has worked successfully. It should never be an acceptable thought to allow the reuse of a helmet that has sustained an impact. Before you make your wild claims, and trot out your straw man arguments, consider that if an impact has occurred to the head that was sufficient to crack the helmet, it would likely be enough to cause severe brain injury. Plenty of noise here in australia about people dying because they have been punched once, and then their heads hit the ground. It is that impact that helmets are designed to protect against, not being hit by a car in the head.
Just like the bumper bar on a car, a helmet is designed to structurally fail past a certain amount of force, and in the deformation and destruction of the sacrificial unit the same force is prevented from being delivered to the skull…..

Your article is rubbish.

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Richard Burton August 13, 2012 at 3:06 am

“The helmet’s job is to absorb and distribute the force from an impact. Yes, helmets will fail under huge load. They are designed to be sacrificial, and as a result that one impact is often enough to crack the helmet. Of course this is a sign that the helmet has worked successfully.”

You’re right, helmets are designed to absorb and distribute the force from an impact, but you are mistaken when you say that a cracked helmet has worked successfully, it hasn’t. The energy absorbtion of helmets is almost entirely due to the foam being crushed, which takes considerable energy. The amount of energy required to crack the foam is very much less, and a helmet which has cracked without significant crushing has catastrophically failed, and has absorbed very little energy. I’ve lost count of the number of pictures I’ve seen of helmets which have failed this way, but are being held by someone who claims that it saved their life – it didn’t, it failed to do it’s job.

If cycle helmets did indeed save lives, why is there no effect at a population level? If even ten percent of the “helmet saved my life” stories were true, there would be a noticeable effect at a population level, but there isn’t, so either the stories aren’t true, or helmets kill an equivalent number of people. Either way, I can’t see any reason to wear a helmet.

If anyone wants to wear one, I wouldn’t discourage them, but I would point out that they’re doing it because of propaganda and misinformation rather than hard facts. The current obsession with the risks of cycling and the promotion of helmets is completely due to a propaganda campaign in the media convincing the gullible that cycling is incredibly dangerous but that a helmet will make you safe, neither of which is true.

Check out cyclehelmets.org for a few facts rather than the propaganda of people selling helmets.

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Ryan August 13, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Richard,

The fundamental purpose of a helmet is NOT to save lives. Its purpose is to reduce the prevalence of catastrophic brain injuries as a result of concussive blows, and to reduce the number of skull fractures which can often lead to associated brain injuries.
And yes, a helmet which has cracked HAS performed its task, and has dissipated much of that force which would otherwise be transferred to the skull and brain. This is NOT a failure of the helmet to do its job, but a shining success of the helmet doing EXACTLY what it was designed to do. Cracking or squashing is simply relevant to the manner in which the force was transmitted to the shell of the helmet, and through whatever surface area the head has come into contact with.
There is a reason that professional racers wear helmets. Motorcycle racers wear helmets, skiiers wear helmets, skydivers wear helmets.
You are 100% correct that a helmet won’t make you safe. That is fundamentally the role of the rider/user and their skill and judgement. However, if things do go pear shaped, then a piece of kit that significantly reduces the effect of what may otherwise be a seemingly insignificant head hit can only be a good thing.

Talking about propaganda without evidence to back it up, cyclehelmets.org appears to have that under control.

Richard Burton August 20, 2012 at 8:38 am

Ryan,

“The fundamental purpose of a helmet is NOT to save lives. Its purpose is to reduce the prevalence of catastrophic brain injuries as a result of concussive blows, and to reduce the number of skull fractures which can often lead to associated brain injuries.
And yes, a helmet which has cracked HAS performed its task, and has dissipated much of that force which would otherwise be transferred to the skull and brain. This is NOT a failure of the helmet to do its job, but a shining success of the helmet doing EXACTLY what it was designed to do. Cracking or squashing is simply relevant to the manner in which the force was transmitted to the shell of the helmet, and through whatever surface area the head has come into contact with.

Talking about propaganda without evidence to back it up, cyclehelmets.org appears to have that under control.”

If the purpose of cycle helmets isn’t to save lives, why do all the people promoting them tell us that is what they do?

I’ll repeat myself about the failure of a cracked helmet to have absorbed a significant amount of energy: a cracked helmet has not absorbed a significant amount of energy. Cycle helmets are designed to work by absorbing energy by being crushed, which takes significant amounts of energy. If they crack before crushing has occurred, they haven’t absorbed a significant amount of energy. Try crushing a helmet between your fingers and then try snapping it. The effort required to snap it is quite small, while the effort required to crush it is relatively large.

You must be looking at the wrong cyclehelmets.org which is the most scientific, unbiased source of helmet information I have been able to find, and, compared to all pro-helmet sites, is anything but propaganda.

Bobroberto June 22, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Interesting parallel to a current debate in the running world, heavily padded running shoes or barefoot running. Having used finger shoes for jogging, I’ll never go back to heel strike shoes. As one who raced in the days before helmet use (track guys wore a leather “hair net”) we had plenty of head plants. I bounced a few times on my nut and got back on and kept riding, unless stitches were needed. Now, I wear helmets for skiing as well as biking, recently noticed cross over helmets for both sports. I have destroyed a couple of bike helmets on mountain bike crashes very grateful for the cracked helmets, not my skull. And yes impact with big rocks can often crack the shell. However, when I ride local errands in the hood on my clunker 3 speed I usually don’t helmet up, nice to have the breeze blowing once in awhile. Interesting how few states require helmets for motorcycles, guess we need the organ donors. Cheers.

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Richard Burton July 11, 2012 at 10:51 am

An interesting point about the lack of motorcycle helmet laws in some states, and one that would reward investigation, but you might be surprised at the lack of evidence that motorcycle helmets are effective.

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David Wohl June 22, 2012 at 6:38 pm

This just makes me incredibly angry. I suffered a severe concussion but escaped traumatic brain injury (or death) after a no-car-implicated bicycle accident when my head hit the asphalt hard enough to knock me out. Oh, you can say all you like that “I don’t want people to stop wearing helmets”, but the ferocity with which you argue that they don’t really matter will convince people not to wear them.

And I think you are just plain wrong when you say that “helmets were designed and promoted with the idea that they will save people from death during a traffic accident.” In my experience, helmets are promoted with the idea that if you hit the street, it should mitigate the damage. I have never seen a claim that a helmet will protect you against the impact of a car.

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Avid Rider June 28, 2012 at 7:13 pm

I would have drowned once if I had not been wearing a lifejacket. So, do I have the right to make you wear one every time you go swimming on a beach or a pool? It’s funny how basic freedoms, like freedom of choice, can be conveniently ignored when advocating ‘safety’. Freedom of choice should be the default position of any country if there is reasonable doubt on how effective a mandatory law would work. I live in a country that has criminalised cycling through these laws because they decided to listed to the hype instead of the facts. You can die doing just about anything. You can be saved by just about anything. But creating laws to save us from ourselves has devastated cycling in Australia. No, everyone’s too scared to do it, so we just drive our cars instead. Wear a motorbike helmet if you want to be truly safe, and take a life jacket to the pool next time as well.

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Mark Stewart June 29, 2012 at 8:03 am

Avid Rider,

(I assume that you are an avid cyclist and not someone who is a film editor. N.B. If anyone gets this joke, I am impressed.)

It is interesting how much this post has gained comments from our cousins from Oz. A country that is famous for its surfing, its rugby, etc. seems to have done serious damage to its cycling. And, Cadel Evans (an aussie) is the reigning champion of the Tour de France. I have never been, so I will accept your opinions until shown different evidence.

One other thing: I would not recommend cyclists using motorcycle helmets. Yes, cyclists would have safer heads, but unfortunately, most would die from heat stroke. That is the reason that cycling helmets have so many gaps and holes.

Mark

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Richard Burton July 11, 2012 at 10:57 am

As has already been pointed out, a single personal incident is not a good basis for passing a law, or to put it another way “the plural of anecdote is not data.” You may very well believe that a helmet saved your life, but this is a common misconception when people look at a broken helmet.

If even ten percent of the “helmet saved my life” stories were true, there would be a definite effect at a population level, but there isn’t, so either the stories aren’t true or helmets kill just as many as they save. Nowhere with a helmet law or massive rise in helmet wearing after propaganda campaigns can show any reduction in risk to cyclists, just a reduction in the number of cyclists.

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ryan August 12, 2012 at 11:42 pm

Fallacious post above. Straw man arguments are strong with this one.

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Richard Burton August 13, 2012 at 3:12 am

Hi Ryan,

why don’t you point out where my arguments are fallacious? Take a look in the mirror straw man.

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Ryan August 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm

“If even ten percent of the “helmet saved my life” stories were true, there would be a definite effect at a population level, but there isn’t, so either the stories aren’t true or helmets kill just as many as they save.”

Nate June 23, 2012 at 6:41 pm

We should all just stop crashing. Then people will stop hurting themselves. We should also all stop getting in car crashes… all they do is hurt people.

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Opus the Poet June 23, 2012 at 10:49 pm

One slight correction, bicycle helmets are not designed to prevent traumatic brain injury, the CPSC testing standard is only intended to prevent skull fracture.

Second point of information, most of the studies used to promote helmets are based on an entirely different animal than the helmets being sold today. The helmets back then were a thick hard shell around a separately molded EPS liner, today is a thin vacuformed ABS shell over a liner that is molded to the inside of the liner. The major difference in use is the old helmets would slide on contact with pavement where the newer helmets grab on pavement. Another difference is the older helmets spread the impact over a larger area of the liner than today’s helmets.

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Richard Burton July 11, 2012 at 11:02 am

Since modern helmets are less likely to slide, they increase the risk of the most dangerous injury, which is caused by rapid head rotation, which is much more dangerous than a direct blow. It has been proposed that one of the purposes of our scalp is as a sacrificial layer to spin and rip off when there is the potential for rotational injury, and although such injuries are significant, they are much less serious than brain rotation. There has been talk of a helmet manufacturer producing one with a slipping layer on top to duplicate the scalp effect.

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ryan August 12, 2012 at 11:47 pm

You can’t use the design argument when looking at humans, because we have not been designed. Therefore, one of the “purposes” is not only an incorrect view, but also an inappropriate way to look at the problem.

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Harvey June 28, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Interesting article. So many people ASSUME that a “helmet” can only be a good thing, and want to impose them on others based on this BELIEF. They really need to read up more on the topic.

The helmet law in Australia has been a disaster: fewer cyclists, and cycling made more dangerous. Not an intuitive result, but something worth considering before repeating this mistake.

More info here: http://crag.asn.au/?p=391

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Tom Ormond (AUS) June 29, 2012 at 3:54 am

Why is it those that adovcate helmet use conflate those against a helmet law as being anti-helmet? It’s nonsense. Law or not, still wear your helmet if desired. The argument that it saved your life can easily be used for pedestrians, motorists and even beach goers. Make life-jackets mandatory for swimmers and you end drownings. You also slash the road toll for motorists if they had to wear helmets. It’s about personal choice. I’ll wear mine when I deem it dangerous, not by some pompous nanny-stater picking on a minority and do-gooders thinking they can make a decision better than I could myself.

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Mark Stewart June 29, 2012 at 8:06 am

Tom Ormond,

I agree with your points. One thing to watch out for is the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem. If you are right, there is no reason to get angry. If you are right, there is no reason to attack the person making the claims you oppose. If you are right, there should be no need to call anyone a “nanny-stater.”

Public health professionals are often accused of this when trying to share the information that they have gained. It is something we worry about. “How safe is safe?” “Is being safe actually healthy?” “What are the effects if we don’t shut this activity/location down?”

Mark

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Roland Sapsford June 30, 2012 at 5:39 am

Hi

A useful discussion and a very interesting comment stream!

I’m writing from New Zealand, where helmets are compulsory, and many years ago I also had concussion from a front wheel caught in tram tracks, and flying over the handle bars when I wasn’t wearing a helmet. On a personal level, I’d prefer I’d been wearing a helmet then but who knew :-)

Cycling is a safe activity. I tend to agree that risk compensation effects mean that many “engineering” safety measures, whether for cars, pedestrians or cyclists, can be counter-productive.

Witness the rise in pedestrian fatalities from compulsory seat belt laws in cars. The easiest way I find of convincing people risk compensation is real is to ask parents if they would drive more carefully if their child wasn’t in a child restraint. And then ask them to reflect on why they don’t drive that carefully all the time :-).

My rather idiosyncratic view on helmets is that compulsion is probably a good idea in a car-dominated environment, but is un-necessary and counter-productive once road culture, road space and road rules (speed, liability etc) is reorientated towards active modes. This argument can be made in terms of other measures for pedestrian safety as well.

From experience and observation cycle crashes are often caused by cars even if they don’t involve them, and in these situations helmets can be useful.

I doubt very much that helmet wearing leads drivers to treat cyclists worse, and am not aware of any research that validates this view. I’m also unaware of evidence of a causal link between helmet compulsion and cycling rates, although a number of claims have been made about this. The decline in cycling amongst young women has been reversed in a number of cities here through movements to make cycling hip and fashionable (eg Frocks on Bikes) as opposed to the more masculine-dominated lycra and pace approach.

The safety benefits of helmets are pretty limited compared with the those derived by reducing traffic speeds and volumes, reallocating road space and introducing stricter liability for motorised vehicles involved in crashes with active modes. So I would personally see this as a priority for activism.

The proper comparison with cars in my view is not helmets but compulsory seat belt laws. People in cars aren’t required to wear helmets because of the whole range of other mandatory safety measures in place. As noted these can have unintended side effects, just as cycle helmets can.

The individual freedom argument is in my view militated against by the fact that one can’t contract out of emergency medical treatment or have a real sense of what a head injury is like before one experiences it. Human rationality is conditional and limited in situations like this and dislike of helmets is more a dislike of being told what to do, and very similar to motorist’s attitude to speed limits :-)

In summary, my reading of the evidence is that compulsory cycle helmet laws do limited good and are no substitute for attention to the real safety issues. However I think the arguments that they do harm are over-stated based on the evidence I have seen.

Happy cycling everyone!

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Mark Stewart June 30, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Roland Sapsford,

Happy cycling to you as well, our NZ friend.

You make a lot of good points. And, I have really enjoyed this comment stream as well. It is great when comments can further a discussion rather than evolving into angry BS.

Mark

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Vincenzo Vittorio July 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm

Interesting article, and I agree with most of it.
i ride in Darwin (Australia) where laws about bike helmets are confused and consequently ignored. I do not wear a helmet.
More importantly, if I had to wear a helmet I would ride much less, if at all.

I’ve survived 64 years of pedal bikes and motorbikes, and am firmly convinced the best thing the authorities can do, if they really give a damn about bike safety, is to separate bikes from cars. I haven’t experienced Amsterdam’s bike culture, but it sounds terrific. Sadly I can’t see Australian drivers adopting such a civilised approach to road sharing.

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Magic Hat October 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm

FWIW: I’ve read that the helmets worn by racing cyclists are primarily designed to streamline the head and improve racing performance rather than to protect the skull.

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Mark Stewart October 3, 2012 at 10:38 am

Magic Hat,

Your comment is true for time-trial races/stages. In the past few years, aerodynamicists have created alien-looking helmets in a teardrop shape. They are designed to cut through the air and minimize wind resistance. However, for most other races, a bike helmet adds weight and drag over the human head. In the past, racers wore these superfly cycling caps (they are still made: google “cycling cap”). Also, you can find old pictures of Eddy Merckx or Greg Lemond climbing Alp d’Huez or Mont Ventoux wearing these stylish examples of male fashion.

Mark

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Chelucy Iddon November 27, 2012 at 2:35 am

Apparently there is a popular myth that city cyclists have been bandying about for years – that they are more likely to be hit by a car if they wear a helmet than if they don’t. This myth so intrigued Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath, that he decided to put it to the test. Walker fitted his bike with a special ultrasonic sensor that would measure how close cars came to him as he cycled to and from work. To complete the experiment he wore a helmet every second day and rode bare-headed every other day for two months.

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Mark Stewart November 29, 2012 at 11:22 am

Chelucy Iddon,

You are absolutely right that being hit more often while wearing helmets is a myth. I could find no studies supporting it and a couple that had evidence against it. But, a corollary would be, “Do people wearing helmets ride more dangerously than when they don’t?” And, “could that make them perceive that cars are coming closer when in fact they are riding closer?”

Best,

Mark

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Mark Stewart February 16, 2013 at 5:36 am

It is fascinating to me that a guy with my name wrote this incredibly misleading and irresponsible essay. I am on this earth today ONLY because I was wearing a bicycle helmet when I was SLAMMED by a car while riding my bike and contacted the pavement with such force that it DEMOLISHED the helmet and broke my neck. Even with the use of the helmet, I sustained a brain injury that I have yet to recover from some nine months later. Save your trash for someone that won’t die as a result of reading it.

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snailmartyr July 26, 2013 at 7:07 am

My first long distance bike ride was in the spring of 1984, when a friend of mine let me accompany him up to Virginia City (Nevada… Washoe County… Greg Lemond country). I was wearing tennis shorts and shoes, toe clips and straps and a tanktop. Anywho… on the way back down Geiger Grade, I miscalculated a tight s-shaped turn and flew off the side of the road at a speed I would estimate at ~45 mph. I came up with this estimate based on speeds in later years clocked at +65 mph over the same stretch of road, and allowing for my not-ready-for-primetime Bianchi Special with 27″ tires from Sears… non-tucked in position on the bike… frantic braking, etc.

My head was covered by a sweatband. When the bike went off the side of the road, it hit a corrugated aluminum road marker/reflector and I was propelled ~12 feet over the bars, did a somersault and landed on my back, just short of a large outcropping of boulders.

Want I want to say is this… the awful physics of that crash could never have been mitigated by a helmet – any helmet – beyond minor scratches, bruises, etc. which was the least of my problems in the weeks that followed. Unless you have lived through something like that, you just can’t know what I’m talking about.

Some road worker eventually bent the road marker back upright. I had a red Specialized waterbottle in a cage that I hade mounted on my handlebars that day (like I was Jacques Anquetil or something…) and for years, I could see this bright red crayon-like mark running up the reflective part of that marker as I barreled down Geiger Grade on my way back to Reno. It was always a reminder… like Zeus whispering in your ear, “Remember, thou art a mortal.”

Like you, I have worn helmets when racing over the years… when I started out, leather hairnets were the required equipment. No one pretends that a leather hairnet ‘helmet’ is going to make the difference in a serious collision today.

Someday the hard styrofoam ‘helmet’ shaped like a duck’s butt will go the way of the leather hairnet… and future generations will wonder how anyone could have thought wearing such a ridiculous contraption could have prevented injury/death in a serious collision.

Of course, they’ll probably be wearing carbon fiber/saline foil bubblewrap with niobium magnets in the headband or something…

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henry windsor June 25, 2014 at 9:47 pm

I’m in my 70s, still cycle, have never used a helmet. Biked since 4th grade. Had 2 encounters with cars. No injuries – learned to fall correctly as a kid playing touch football on the street. I automatically assume all American drivers are idiots whether driving or cycling (I agree from COMZ experience European drivers are tops) . IMHO MHLs serve to discourage biking and promote auto/fuel use. Politicians are poor scientists but good at serving moneyed special interests. I’m thinking I should mount cameras on my bike just like they do on cars in Russia, where politics and the legal system are unjust.

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