Bicycle Helmet Pros & Cons

I’m not attempting to start a helmet flame war here (though it will be a miracle if we avoid one), but I wanted to point out a pair of websites that may help you sort through the complexities of the bicycle helmet question and make an informed decision for yourself.

BHRF
The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation website provides information on helmets and helmet laws, crash and injury statistics, and extensive links to related studies. They make an effort to debunk what they call “the great number of myths and exaggerations, some of which feature prominently in the promotion of helmets.” The BHRF, though they “strive to be objective”, clearly take an anti-helmet editorial position.

The purpose of cyclehelmets.org is to provide a resource of best-available factual information to assist the understanding of a complex subject, and one where some of the reasoning may conflict with received opinion. In particular we seek to provide access to a wider range of information than is commonly made available by some governments and other bodies that take a strong helmet promotion stance. It is hoped that this will assist informed judgements about the pros and cons of cycle helmets.

Whilst cyclehelmets.org strives to be objective in its selection of information for presentation, there is more helmet-sceptic material on this web site than that supportive of helmets. This is in part a matter of copyright (we provide references to journals but cannot generally give direct access), but largely because there is a far wider range of arguments and sources that cast doubt upon one or more aspects of helmet efficacy. cyclehelmets.org is not helmet-sceptic on principle, but because pro-helmet predictions are so often contradicted by real-world experience.

BHSI
The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute provides information on helmets including crash and injury statistics, helmet standards, and how to choose a helmet. The BHSI is a program of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and is openly pro-helmet.

Welcome! We are the helmet advocacy program of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. We are a small, active, non-profit consumer-funded program providing bicycle helmet information. We try to explain the technology of helmets to consumers, and promote better helmets through improved standards. Our volunteers serve on the ASTM helmet standard committee and are active in commenting on actions of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. We provide a Toolkit of materials for helmet programs and a periodic email helmet newsletter, both free. We are all volunteers, funded entirely by consumer donations. We maintain our independence by never accepting funds from the industry. As much as we believe in helmets we still consider them a secondary safety measure and urge that primary measures such as safer roads and education programs for riders and drivers not be neglected.

I have to say, the data seems to make a strong argument against mandating helmet use for adults because such laws appear to discourage cycling in general. That said, I don’t see anything in the data that would keep me from continuing to wear one myself, or encouraging my friends and family to do so as well.

Wherever you stand on this controversial subject, the most important thing is to learn as much as you can to be sure you’re making an informed decision.

Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation
Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

58 Responses to “Bicycle Helmet Pros & Cons”

  • Perry says:

    I wear a helmet but I think that we often fail to look at the big picture. A more cycling-centric culture will improve cycling safety for all of us SUBSTANTIALLY! I don’t think this can be debated when you look at Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and other parts of Europe. As such, if cycling helmets discourage cycling (and I have seen excellent arguments that they do), they create a more dangerous environment for cyclists as a whole.

    Sure, a bike helmet MAY prevent a head injury to you or me if we fall (or it may not), but as a whole, helmets increase the danger to cyclists for reasons noted here and elsewhere. Helmet Nazis refuse to acknowledge this and spout off mind-twisting arguments which often make no sense. I don’t like ideologues. I support my helmet wearing as follows:

    1. I am selfish and only looking out for my own good.
    2. If I get run over, I want my lovely wife to sue and collect as much as possible from the driver. By wearing a helmet, I help offset the the defense’s FALSE case (surely to be made) that I was a “reckless cyclist flouting the laws because I did not wear a helmet.” (There is no law in my state for mandatory helmets for adults.)

    I hope this does not come off as too argumentative but I am rather sick of the demagoguery that passes for rational debate on this issue.

  • Perry says:

    PS. Clearly, I am not calling you demagogue, Alan. I speak of the posters on many threads on BROL and elsewhere–and I know you’ve read most of them. :-)

  • Tom says:

    The data is not very convincing on either side. It all depends how you are wired. If you want to minimize the regret of incurring a head injury that a helmet may have prevented then you should have the option to wear a helmet. If you don’t, you should have the option to go hatless.

    I fortunately was able to learn and enjoy biking long before the onslaught of the great helmet indoctrination. From the age of 10 through 12, I used a bicycle to deliver newspapers on a 5-mile route every day. I’ve been on several bike tours of the U. S. and east coast of distances of 3,000 to 200 miles. I ride my bike to work everyday 22 miles round trip. Through it all, I have never really perceived much danger. If I had, I would have stopped way before I hit my 50th birthday.

    I’ve sorta outgrew the desire to ride down a mountainside or through the woods, I don’t care if other bikes pass me, and I just keep a steady strain on the pedals at 10 to 15 mph. For some reason, cars are very respectful of me and I can’t recall any real menace from our partners in transportation.

    That said, I don’t wear a helmet. I can’t get my mind wrapped around all the 75% less of this, and 85% more of that, that fuels the debate. None of these statistics mean much to me because they don’t know me, my riding habits, or temperament. Plus I don’t know how many idiots are included in all the crash statistics. Are they riding at night without lights or reflective gear? Have they been drinking? are they 6-years old? Are they just oblivious to their surroundings?

    I can’t ignore the mountain of evidence gathered with my two eyes from thousands of miles ridden on roads from city streets to major highways over the past 40 years. I can’t replace my experience with averages, because I don’t feel average. So, the good intentioned research from the consumer funded BHSI (I hope that doesn’t mean revenue received from consumers from the sale of helmets) does not resonate.

    That said, I don’t wear a helmet. Yet.

  • Karl OnSea says:

    @ Tom – that’s a great, thoughtful explanation of personal experience.

    I’m been in, and then out the other side of the helmet thing – they have a time and a place (for me, that’s racing, or riding in the snow), but for most pootling-around-town I really don’t see the need.

  • Timothy S says:

    I notice you’re using the Bell mirror, what do you think of it?

  • Karen says:

    Two reasons I wear a helmet:

    1) I don’t think it hurts anything
    2) I mount my lights on it when riding in the dark.

  • Deb says:

    I found this to be a good article as well, and more objective than each of the websites mentioned already: http://www.howwedrive.com/2008/10/01/to-wear-or-not-to-wear-and-is-that-even-the-right-question-ian-walker-on-cycle-helmets/

    Might not surprise anyone that someone making the effort to be objective on this particular topic is also someone who can offer no conclusion. That’s why I strongly agree that helmets shouldn’t be mandated by law. Let people decide for themselves.

    I wear a helmet for much the same reasons as Karen. And if I’m perfectly honest, also so I don’t have to deal with the comments of people at work, who are already annoyingly vocal with their ideas on what I need to do (like not ride in the winter) to “be safe”.

  • Dann says:

    I am past 50, and have ridden a bike since age 3 (my dad pushed me down the hill on a solid-tire bike from the 20’s – much like he “taught” me to swim by throwing me in Salt Creek in Iowa at age 8, then walking back to the car, smoking a cigarette, and waiting to see if I would emerge)(I did). Done some long-distance touring, lots of commuting, and riding for fun. In the old days, we didn’t have helmets (just like we didn’t have seat belts, and we drank our beer from lead-laced steins, dammit!).

    These days, I do wear a helmet. Not because of peer pressure or law. Because I’ve been a “hood ornament” twice, and T-boned a car once turning directly in front of me (none of the mishaps were my fault). In one of those accidents, my head hit the pavement very, very hard. I had a helmet on – and it most likely saved my life, as the birdies and stars buzzed around for several hours after the accident. I’ve had my share of head trauma – baseball/softball catcher (hit in head with speeding baseball bats); construction worker (fell off a roof); bull rider (kicked in the head); dairy worker (kicked in the head); general idiocy of youth (kicked in the head). I don’t like hospitals, and I do like having my brains.

    That being said, I do not advocate for mandatory helmet laws. I make my kids wear helmets, and my wife wears a helmet because of my experiences. But, with the experiences I’ve had, I would recommend helmet use.

  • Alan says:

    @Deb

    Wow, great article Deb. I’m not sure how I missed that one – I’m a regular ready of Vanderbilt’s blog. The Walker study is fascinating…

  • Alan says:

    @Perry

    “PS. Clearly, I am not calling you demagogue, Alan. I speak of the posters on many threads on BROL and elsewhere–and I know you’ve read most of them. :-)”

    No worries Perry, I knew what you meant. And yes, I’ve read a few helmet-war threads… LOL.

  • Eddie says:

    Arguments for and against bicycle helmet usage often rely on statistics but as someone once said “Statistics are usually used like a drunk uses a lamp post, for support rather than illumination.” What might really be interesting to discover is the relative effect on cyclists’ blood pressure from prolonged exposure to bicycle helmet wars. Maybe there is a BHWSF – Bicycle Helmet War Syndrome Foundation ;-)

  • Ernie Greenwald says:

    I am definitely pro-helmet, but will try not to rant. In fact, this will be short, as I’m typing with one hand. Reason being a broken left arm.

    I recently tripped over a garden hose and fell down a couple of concrete steps between my front yard and the public sidewalk. Had my fall been bicycle-related, the broken arm would still have been probable, but I would not have needed six stitches to close a nasty gash in my forehead. My point is that riding without a helmet because you are near home seems illogical to me. You can encounter a careless driver–or suffer a personal moment of “cockpit error'”–no matter where you are.

    In fact, I’ll argue that being in familiar surroundings can increase the possibility of an accident. Had I been going down steps at the Public Library, I would have been paying more attention.

    My second point is about the reliability of statistics showing the relation between wearing a helmet and head injury. In California, juveniles are required by law to wear bicycle helmets. In my small town, I see a helmet on the head of essentially every single young person riding a bicycle. Sounds good, right?

    Unfortunately, almost without exception, the child’s helmet is NOT BUCKLED. Individual straps are just dangling beside the child’s ears. For any practical purpose, the helmet is useless. Do accident/injury statistics take this into account? What do you think?

    Ernie Greenwald
    ———————
    Bacchetta Corsa
    Trek 2200
    Dahon Helios
    Trek Multi-Track 720
    BikeE AT
    Bontrager BMX
    ———————–
    PS: I’ve had one broken collarbone and no head injuries in 60+ years of riding and racing. I read from BHRF above: “…pro-helmet predictions are so often contradicted by real-world experience.”

    Really?

    How much “real-world cycling experience” does the BHRF writer have?

    EG

  • Scott Wayland says:

    Interesting articles, Alan. Thanks for posting. I wear a helmet most of the time unless I’m on the tandem trike with my wife. The odds of a non-car related crash are virtually nill, and a crash with a car means a foam beanie probably isn’t going to do much good. Also, with 12 ft. of trike and, usually, a bright yellow trailer with doggie in tow, we get huge respect on the road, the kind of consideration I wish all cyclists got: folks almost always slow way down and swing way wide–fantastic. On my two-wheelers, the chances of a tumble are much greater–though still not extreme, so wearing a helmet should offer some protection from a tumble. However, and this is key, I don’t expect a lot from it. I figure it’s a least a little insurance but no magic landing pad in the event of a serious crash or impact with a vehicle. On long, hot climbs, I routinely take of the lid and put on a hat for cooling purposes. I re-lid for the drops. On my cross country ride last year, I regularly skipped the helmet on long, lonely roads.

    A brief story: I’ve only had one serious encounter with a car whilst riding a bike. I was about 12 years old and resolved to race down a steep hill from my friend’s house to mine at the bottom. The problem? Pouring rain, polished, chrome rims, whimpy brakes. I quickly realized that these brakes were useless. In panic mode, I searched for solutions and eventually decided to turn onto my street and drag a foot to slow down, which would have worked if not for the faux wood-paneled station wagon that had pulled up to the stop. Sans helmet, I slammed into the passenger door, executed a beautiful heels-over-head role up and over the car and landed on my feet on the other side–a 10! One lucky-ass kid was I. Only a few bruises and a lesson that I’ve never forgotten. As I’ve posted before, one’s brain and what it contains (or doesn’t) are the greatest safety devices you’ve got. Of course, I SHOULD have been wearing a helmet, but it would have made no difference although many, I’m sure, would claim otherwise. At the time, virtually no one wore helmets.

    Ride on, brothers and sisters.

    Scott

  • Dave Kee says:

    For better or for worse, like smoking, DUI, and having unprotected casual sex, riding without a helmet has become an indicator and predictor of one’s social class. There may, in fact, be no correlation between helmet use and safety, but I am certain there is a positive correlation between helmet use and level of education attained.

  • Opus the Poet says:

    I’m pro-helmet, but anti-mandated helmet wearing. Unless the standard for helmet protection is raised drastically Gov’t has no business forcing me to wear one. It would be like mandating condoms that break 50% of the time, except I don’t thing helmets rise to that level of effectiveness. I mean get real, the CPSC standard only calls for a 12.5 MPH impact, or what you would suffer if you were 6 foot tall and fell off your bike while stopped. The lowest speed limit outside of a school zone around here is 30 MPH, with most of the streets in my neighborhood at 35, and down at the end of the block it’s 45. Nobody does the speed limit, well maybe if it rains or snows, but most times it’s 10 MPH over, so 40 to 45 in the houses, 55 at the end of the block. Do you know what the survival rate is over 40 MPH in a crash? Less than 10% for cyclists and pedestrians, pretty much 100% for the occupants of a car that hits a cyclist or pedestrian. The car that hit me was doing 65 or so in a 45 zone at night in the rain. I was wearing a helmet so I survived, but I talk like I’m retarded, no slight to the retarded intended. I used to be a spoken-word poet, and an occasional voice actor when I wasn’t doing me day job as a help desk operator. Now I’m unemployed, and people laugh at me and throw my job applications in the trash in front of me, so yeah I’m a little less than satisfied at the current level of protection offered by bicycle helmets, but I still tell people to wear one. As bad as they are they’re still the best we’ve got, to protect what’s inside our skulls. And what is inside our skulls is pretty much all we have when it all comes down to brass tacks.

  • andy parmentier says:

    i think i’ve got writer’s block-like midas after he lost the golden touch, or george bailey after his lip started bleeding again..”i relid for the drops” (scott wayland)-that’s pretty much what i wanted to add to this disconcussion..

  • John P. says:

    Having cycled from being a small boy and still going strong in my mid fifties I have only worn a helmet on a few occasions. Maybe I’m just lucky but falling off my bike is not something which I tend to do. However, our roads are becoming increasingly busy and drivers ever more careless and downright hostile to cyclists therefore I now tend to wear a helmet if I know that I will be in traffic.

    I would wear a helmet more often but for one factor – I can’t find one that fits properly. I have been cursed with a head the shape of which excludes me from ever being able to balance a book upon it. It is a phrenologist’s dream. Unfortunately all the helmets I have ever tried are designed to fit those whose heads have a flat or rounded top. No allowance has been made for those of us whose heads do not conform. As a result a helmet perches on top of my ‘bump’ and causes a pressure point which becomes uncomfortable after a short period. But for this I would wear a helmet much more often but frankly a baseball or woolly hat is much more comfortable.

    That said I believe that the best way to make the cyclist safe is not to enforce the wearing of helmets but to provide them with a safe environment in which to cycle i.e. segregated from vehicles. Facts and figures should be treated with caution. I never forget the person who said that 84.7% of statistics are made up.

  • Bob Baxter says:

    Who was it that said “There’s liars, damn liars, and statistics”?

  • LHT Rider says:

    Each of us make choices based upon our own experiences and understanding of the world. For me, I have a close family member who has spent his entire adult life institutionalized due to a traumatic brain injury. Granted it was not a cycling accident, but rather he was thrown from a car into a field because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. The physical disabilities he has as a result of the accident would not stop him from living independently. It’s the brain injury that can’t be surmounted. I understand a helmet offers far from perfect protection for all scenarios. You can bet however that wearing a helmet is part of my cycling ritual as it is for those I love as well. Everyone else can make their own decisions.

  • Loren Hackerott says:

    I wear one, and like many posting here have had occasion to be glad I did.

    I think helmet requirements are like seat belts. If you don’t want to wear one, fine. BUT then you should sign off on your drivers license that if you are injured in an accident you will forgo any claim to the public trust. No write off of the hospital expenses for your care; no benefits paid to you while you are recovering; no food stamps etc. And no Social Security for the dependents you may leave behind.

    You don’t want to wear them, sign the release and hope for the best.
    Otherwise, use them and appreciate the fact that such safety measures are available.

  • Tamia says:

    I now wear a helmet on a bike, always. What it boils down to is this: I want to stack the odds in my favor against a brain injury. After working with severely brain injured patients in a hospital for three years, I made up my mind to do what I could to avoid ending up there myself.

    Having said this, I would not advocate making helmets mandatory for adults. It’s a personal decision.

  • Ernie Greenwald says:

    Bless you Loren Hackerott !

    You have had the courage to express an opinion that I have held for years.

    My experience is that a strong stand in favor of personal responsibility has become unpopular with the general public. But I also believe that “bicycle people” are above average in self-reliance. So I hope to see that your opinion is supported here.

    In any event, I want you to know that at least one other rider is strongly on your side.

    EHG

  • Perry says:

    Loren Hackerott,

    What you propose is antithetical to a free and civil society. First of all, you would punish dependents (children) who had no hand in the adult’s decision. There is probably no better way to set up a caste system going forward.

    Second, what exactly would you do to enforce it? I mean, people are going to check that box and go for a ride without a helmet. What happens when they show up at a hospital unconscious? Do you leave them on the curb to die?

    Lastly, if such a law were passed, you can bet your bottom dollar we’d all get our pencils and paper out and make lists of people who should be similarly treated. For example, I don’t sky dive or mountain climb. I don’t care what precautions one takes, those activities are much too dangerous, IMO (and let’s face it, that’s the only opinion that counts). So, I don’t want my tax dollars going to people injured in those activities.

    And while we’re at it, those search parties for people who get trapped in the mountains are damned expensive. I don’t want to pay for any of that either. I can come up with another hundred examples but I will spare you all. :-)

  • Alan says:

    @Timothy S

    “I notice you’re using the Bell mirror, what do you think of it?”

    Sorry I missed your question Timothy. The Bell mirror is only so-so. I’ve adapted to it, but it provides a relatively small range of vision compared to the Take-a-Look. I only use it because it’s designed to fit the Bell visor which makes it very convenient.

    Alan

  • Vik says:

    I don’t wear a helmet when utility cycling or touring. I do wear a helmet when MTBing or fast road riding [especially with others]. The discussion of helmets and safety without looking at the big picture is meaningless. Helmets don’t equal safety. I use a helmet like I do any other piece of bike equipment or protective gear based on a case by case basis evaluation of the situation.

    For example I wear safety glasses 100% of the time when I use my dremmel tool working on my bike. It could easily be argued that wearing it all the time when using any tools would be a good thing as there are opportunities to injure your eyes when working on your bikes. After all how could it hurt? However, I don’t do that. I just use the safety glasses when I feel the risk justifies it.

    I think it’s very telling that when the general population, and more specifically cyclists, are presented with reliable experimental data showing that wearing a helmet in a car is as much of a safety benefit [if not more] than wearing one on a bike they choose to ignore that data. Yet the same people will rabidly advocate helmet use on bikes. I mean if you really feel helmets are that useful for safety wear one on your bike ride and then keep it on in the car on your way home. Nobody will of course, regardless of the experimental data, because they just don’t want to. I find it funny that otherwise rationale people can’t see the irony in that behaviour.

    http://tinyurl.com/54v67p

    If my province passed a mandatory adult helmet law I would move immediately.

    safe riding,

    Vik

  • Alan says:

    “I mean get real, the CPSC standard only calls for a 12.5 MPH impact, or what you would suffer if you were 6 foot tall and fell off your bike while stopped.”

    This is one of the most sound arguments against the use of bicycle helmets. If we’re going to depend upon helmets, they must provide enough protection to actually do the job in real-world conditions.

  • Ernie Greenwald says:

    Voltaire said: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

    Thus he originated the main argument I hear against wearing a helmet while cycling.

    EHG

  • mike says:

    @ Dave Kee –

    So you can guess my education level and ‘social standing’ by what I put on my head when I ride a bike?

    I don’t (always) wear a helmet. What am I? What education do I have? How much $$ do I make? Care to take a stab @ my profession (or lack thereof), maybe my ethnicity? Do I ride the wrong way on the street? On an X-Mart bike? With grocery bags over the handlebars? Is this what you were getting at?

    I’d argue that arguing about helmets on a bicycle blog is probably a better indicator of ‘social standing’ (whatever that is), other socio economic indexes, and education level than helmet use.

  • mike says:

    @ EG –

    Wonder why riding helmetless is ‘good’ enough for Europeans.
    Wonder why in countries (or cities) with a very high mode share of cyclists helmet use is almost non-existent…

    The perfect is the enemy of the good. Getting more cyclists on the roads is good. In a perfect world many people seem to think that adding helmets and other safety devices will get more people feeling comfortable on bikes… and protect them from all the harm that is lurking around every turn, by every passing car, with each pedestrian passed on the MUP – but in a good world just getting folks out there makes every cyclists life better. The more bikes on the road, the more people notice. The more people notice, the more they may think that they can do it too. The more they think about it, the more likely they are to ride. And the more they realize that everyday people wearing everything from dresses, skirts, suits, casual clothes, and yes sometimes ‘sport gear’ ride bikes, the more they’ll feel they’ll fit in – regardless of the alien headed techno gear freaks who like to make the simple act of using a machine to move about under their own power a complicated, expensive, and messy affair.

    And yes, I wear a helmet when I feel the risk benefit ratio calls for it. But for everyday riding (often with my little one in the bakfiets) – no, I do not wear a helmet. Pedestrians don’t wear them. Car drivers don’t wear them. I’m just one of the thousands of other everyday folks out on the road…

  • leaf slayer says:

    I worked in the ER of a trauma center for 2.5 years and will not ride without a helmet. I saw enough a fair amount of bike accidents that resulted in head trauma. Compared to when I started cycling, which was only 15yrs ago, helmets have come a long way and there just doesn’t seem to be any reason not to wear one given that it’s easy to find one that’s light weight and fits well.

  • Donald Moore says:

    In 1973 I received a concussion in a motorcycle accident while wearing a certified motorcycle helmit. Without it I would be dead.

    In the early years cars had plate glass windshilds, brakes onlly on the rear wheels, hard dash boards with sharp protrusions, etc and safety was left up to the driver. I do not think these early drivers were any more careless than todays drivers but because of the lack of protection the death rate was horrible even at 20 mph.

    We do not have the protections afforded automobile pasengers and that is probable why we have several time the death rate per mile in spite of our much lower speeds. I believe we should take advantage of the admitedly limited protection of helmits and mirors since we do not have steel cocoons, seat belts and air bags.

  • John P. says:

    leaf slayer says:

    I worked in the ER of a trauma center for 2.5 years and will not ride without a helmet. I saw enough a fair amount of bike accidents that resulted in head trauma. Compared to when I started cycling, which was only 15yrs ago, helmets have come a long way and there just doesn’t seem to be any reason not to wear one given that it’s easy to find one that’s light weight and fits well.

    • This isn’t completely accurate. Read my previous post. I can’t find a helmet that fits properly and this puts me off wearing one.

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    Personally I wear a helmet, and have cracked several on hard landings. In virtually all these cases I was going fast — sometimes during races, once during a commute. I would never advocate forcing cyclists to wear helmets (my 89 year old Dutch oma just recently stopped cycling and never wore a helmet in all her years), but people should take into account both their riding style and their environment when deciding, and err on the side of caution.

  • jim says:

    I’m ambivalent. I wear one when I ride downtown in traffic but I don’t put much stock in them. Basically, bike helmets are very low quality. They’re hard, uncomfortable and fit poorly; if that strap isn’t digging in under your chin, the helmet is probably too loose to really protect you in a collision. They also look dumb – they have to be big round domes in order to “fit” every possible head with just a couple of sizes. Someday, someone will develop an affordable custom-fitted helmet that’s molded on the spot to the buyer’s head.

  • no says:

    Yes, read all the reports and data and make an informed decision if you have time and inclination.

    But if not just remember – it is *far* more important to cycle than to worry about whether to wear or not wear a helmet. So just do whatever makes you more likely to cycle. i.e. if helmets put you off, don’t wear one. If bareheadedness makes you uncomfortable, wear a helmet.

  • Tim says:

    @Ernie – surely your trip over the step shows that since helmets do protect against minor injury, they are just as useful (but limited) outside cycling. So if we think they are a good idea for cycling we should be wearing them for other low-risk daily activities.

    @Dave Kee
    Surely the more educated the less likely to wear a helmet ;)

    @Loren – no, no, no. Not unless you can prove 100% that wearing a cycle helmet does prevent serious injury in a significant proportion of cases. Remember that no population level study has shown helmets to be beneficial to the level of serious injuries.

    Unless there is a time when there is overwhelming evidence that helmets are effective (and there is none at present), there should never be mandatory helmet laws (certainly not for adults) nor, any compulsion via the back door (insurance, etc) .

  • Ernie Greenwald says:

    @Mike

    I do own at least the usual amount of “techno-gear” clothing. But I almost never wear it. I don’t need to spend half an hour pulling on spandex so I can get some milk and a loaf of bread.

    My usual dress these days is blue jeans, a red flannel shirt, and sandals that look ordinary–although they do have recessed SPD cleats. So if I’m going on daily errands, all I have to do is put on a helmet, get on a bike, and go.

    My reason for wearing a helmet is also the benefit-to-risk ratio. It seems to me that the additional risk of injury caused by wearing a helmet is vanishingly small, while the possible benefit is not getting killed. Quite large. This makes the benefit/risk ratio extremely high. So I do wear a helmet 100% of the time while cycling.

    If I lived in a different country, with more people using bicycles and fewer careless drivers, I might not always wear a helmet. But we are nowhere near that nirvana in the USA.

    I agree that the more people who ride, the better. Making cycling more socially acceptable is an important goal. My way of promoting this goal is to conduct daily business on a bicycle whenever possible, wearing ordinary clothing, and also wearing a helmet. My intent is to make riding common and acceptable, and ALSO to make wearing a helmet common and acceptable.

    @Tim

    I see the point you wish to make, but I again think the benefit-to-risk ratio is the answer. I did take a nasty fall, but I’m not dead. I believe my risk of getting killed by falling down is much lower than my risk of getting killed if hit by a car while cycling. So the benefit of wearing a helmet while walking in my yard is much less than the benefit of wearing a helmet while on a bike.

    And of course the car driver who might hit a cyclist isn’t wearing a helmet because his chance of getting killed in the collision is simewhere between zero and zip.

    EHG

  • simon says:

    Wow,

    This really is the most mature helmet debate i’ve ever seen.

    I notice no-ones mentioned risk compensation. I wore a helmet for a year and had 3 bad crashes ( i was 21). After the bad crashes i stopped wearing the helmet and cycled more safely. I’ve never had an accident since. However, recently (age 37) i’ve had a lot of very near misses with deer and i’m thinking i now have a high risk of a crash, so i’m thinking about a helmet. Thing is i’m really worried it will make me feel slightly ‘invulnerable’ next time i have to make a tough decision on a road.

    Does anyone have any thoughts or personal experiences to share re risk comp?

    PS srongly anti helmet mandation and feel wearing one is non desirable for public risk perception, but i;d recomend it to novice female riders.

  • Perry says:

    @simon: Regarding risk compensation, I agree with you. However, being older than you, I notice that I am getting more careful with age (even when wearing a helmet). I attribute this to worsening eyesight, slower reflexes, and the fact that injuries heal slower than they used to. My mind seems to be picking up on all this and forcing me to be more careful (not that I was ever a daredevil).

  • Helton says:

    I live in Brazil, where the traffic is the opposite most of you have commented: the drivers don’t care a lot for cyclists. That way, I can say the things are gonna keep you in one piece are bike skill and being alert.

    About BHSI, it’s interesting to note that they are VOLUNTEERS, nothing has been said about any of them having ever got on a bike to feel “the real thing”. Also they clearly say that they BELIEVE in helmet protection, and that doesn’t sound very scientific, at all.

    For myself, I use the helmet when I ride on roads, on trails, in traffic, group rides, plan to go fast, or plan to go far. If the riding conditions change am I am not wearing a helmet, I just go slower and pay more attention.

    It’s interesting to see that my friends who overemphasize strictly observing traffic rules, and using protection equipment, are the most involved in falls and small bike-car collisions (corners, garage exits). I believe it’s because they underestimate the importance of skill (and don’t try to actively enhance their skills over time, e.g. practicing some “aggressive off-road”, for example), and overestimate the protection the cited defensive habits might have.

    Thanks for this excellent blog!

    Helton

  • shuan says:

    I am looking for reasons why helmets would be a bad idea. email me and give me a list of pro’s and con’s

  • Andy in Germany says:

    For me the jury is still out… sort of. That said, I stopped wearing a helmet because the arguments against seem scientifically stronger than the arguments in favour: Many of the ‘in favour’ arguments seem emotive but anecdotal, which is fine, but can’t really be proven either way. I wonder if that’s a cultural thing?.
    My own worst prang was hitting a stone wall on a bike sans helmet at between 30-40 km/h. (Oddly on the one day I forgot it) It hurt, but looking at the evidence my bare head may have handled rotational forces better than a polystyrene lid. Either way, I walked away.
    My main reason now is that I’m in Germany, motorists are (reasonably) well behaved, and I want children to see and understand that cycling is not a dangerous activity. We have enough people driving because they ‘feel safeer’ and I want to counter that argument.

  • Mohjho says:

    I heard the voice of reason and it turned into a chorus, so I wear a helmet.
    -and the band played on….

  • ksteinhoff says:

    I hate helmets, except as a place to mount my mirror. I’ve got an expensive Atmos helmet that has more holes than helmet and it’s still hot. The first thing I do when I stop is take that thing off. You’d think something made of foam would keep you cooler, but it doesn’t.

    Having said that, here’s a compelling reason to wear a helmet.

    http://www.palmbeachbiketours.com/2008/07/09/do-bike-helmets-really-save-your-life/

    If my riding partner had been wearing one this day, she’d be back at work and we’d have enjoyed a great day riding in S. Florida yesterday. As I type this, I notice that we are one day short of the day that changed her life forever.

  • Swizz... says:

    [quote]I am looking for reasons why helmets would be a bad idea. email me and give me a list of pro’s and con’s[/quote]

    Pros – high vis (if brightly coloured), protection in a spill (any better than none at all),.

    Cons – errm

    Lids of today compared with those of a decade or two ago are good looking, cheap to buy, comfortable to wear, and easy to use. Its easier to stick a helmet on than a pair of gloves.

    Personally I can’t think of a reason not to wear one. My missus wears hers & so do the kids.

    That said I have no problem with people exercising their personal choice. Understanding the passion that goes into these debates though is sometimes difficult. (Soz – someone who has been injured, knows someone who has been injured, or god-forbid has lost someone in an accident I can understand being passionate – its the rest of us i’m referring to)

    Is the question in most cases whether riders should wear a lid, or whether they should be legislated into wearing one???

  • Bobbbb says:

    I always wear a helmet. Here’s why:
    Hitting a wet railroad track along side a friend-we both went down-he got a concussion.
    Riding alongside my son, one of us turned into the other-neither will admit to it!-and I looped straight onto my head. Crushed the helmet. I didn’t get a scratch.
    2 friends that I talked into wearing helmets years ago (1979) who each had a headfirst crash soon after with no injuries.
    Maybe I’m just a crappy rider, but I would feel silly if a low speed crash led to brain trauma!

  • Doohickie says:

    From the original post: I have to say, the data seems to make a strong argument against mandating helmet use for adults because such laws appear to discourage cycling in general.

    To that point I say, “So what?” If people don’t want to take the proper precautions, maybe they shouldn’t be riding. However…. should it be a law? Well, maybe not, but I very rarely ride without one.

    You can read my personal “helmet testimonial” in this post on my blog.

  • Andy in Germany says:

    “If people don’t want to take the proper precautions, maybe they shouldn’t be riding. ”

    I think that applies to many activities, from doing the ironing to hang gliding. No-one is suggesting that we shouldn’t take proper precautions: the question is if cycling is truly dangerous enough to require a helmet, and if a helmet brings the safety that it promises.

    Looking at the comments so far it sems hard to prove either way.

  • Karen says:

    Modern helmets are comfortable and well ventilated enough. Sun protection is a real issue here in Australia, plenty of helmets come with sun visors to keep the rays at bay. Best of all they protect your brain. On balance they’re good for a person.

  • Androo says:

    With respect to individuals, I can see absolutely no downside to wearing a helmet. Personally, I bought a new one last season – compared to my old one, it fits beautifully, is well ventilated, looks good, and was cheap. I barely even notice I’m wearing it.

    With respect to laws, however, I’m not sure mandatory helmet laws are necessarily helpful. I can’t fathom for the life of me why anyone wouldn’t want to wear one, but the world is full of stubborn people, and the potential impact it would have on overall ridership is probably more deleterious to the collective safety of cyclists than the individual benefit of helmets.

    I do think that there is something to be said for personal responsibility, however (re: Loren Hackerott’s comment). The reason we do have seatbelt laws is because people who don’t wear seatbelts impose unnecessary costs on our society when they get into accidents, due to their selfishness. Likewise, Pigovian taxes on alcohol and tobacco are used as a disincentive because they are bad for public health. (I’m not so sure a similar tax on fast food would be such a bad idea…) If helmets do prevent injury (and it’s difficult to imagine that they do not), then by refusing to wear one, you are imposing a risk to yourself, but translating the costs of that risk to others.

    Not all debates of this nature are slippery slopes. As rational people, its possible to arrive at a realistic consensus for what is and is not appropriate to legislate. Just because you can extend an argument an absurdum, doens’t mean you have to.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    There is a point of view among some medical professionals, that a helmet may actually contribute to a cyclist’s demise after a head injury. Wearing a helmet will prevent the skull from cracking, but it will not prevent internal bleeding. The person wearing the helmet will see that there is no blood, no visible injury, may conclude that they are fine and not go to the ER. By the time the internal bleeding and brain swelling become apparent (worsening headache, nausea, faintness — which may take hours to develop), it may be too late to save them. Think Natasha Richardson on the ski slopes.

    Not wearing a helmet will prevent this in two ways: First, a visible head injury will cause the cyclist to freak out and rush to the ER as soon as possible, increasing their chances of being saved. And second, a cracked skull may look scary, but it will actually prevent brain swelling by allowing the blood out, rather than forcing the blood to build up inside the skull — once again contributing to saving the person’s life.

    So it may sound counter-intuitive and controversial, but from a medical perspective, it is reasonable to question whether a helmet is in fact good for you.

  • simon marriott says:

    Wow thats pretty obscure but a great example of counter-intuitive issues. I guess its a feint argument against the people who believe that helmet legislation is bad as it increases fear and reduces cyclist numbers but still say why wear not wear a helmet anyway.

    To me though thats yet another interesting example of risk compensation. A pretty obscure one, but risk compensation fear is the thing that stops me wearing a helmet. ie in short i think i will be safer not wearing one because i will ride safer.

  • Ann says:

    I’m happy to wear a helmet. I ride in a very busy city, and I do believe it makes me safer. I wear the helmet even when I’m riding slowly on short trips around town for one reason: it helps keep my head from being cracked open. Case in point: I was riding home from the gym one night. It’s a three-block ride that I do all the time, and I wasn’t going particularly fast or being reckless. I wasn’t hit by a car, so no one around me was being reckless, either. However, I did hit a slick patch of pavement, and I flew over the handlebars. I hit my head and chin, cracking both the helmet and my chin (which required 10 stitches). I barely had a bruise on my head. Who knows what my forehead would have looked like if I hadn’t been wearing my helmet on this short trip around the neighborhood.

  • Robert Frith says:

    I’ve been watching some of the Tour de France coverage over the last few weeks. I’m so used to seeing riders wearing helmets that I didn’t give the helmets a second thought until some historic footage from 2000 or 2002 was shown – no helmets.
    Of course today they’re all wearing helmets, anyone know the history of this?

  • EcoVelo » Blog Archive » Another Year Gone By says:

    […] Commented My Stance on Bicycle Helmets (84)Bike Cameras (66)Quiet Killers? (56)Bicycle Helmet Pros & Cons (54)Bicycle Mirror Pros & Cons (54)The Decidedly Unfashionable Chartreuse Safety Vest […]

  • David Iriguchi says:

    I wear a helmet every time I ride.
    Helmets have probably saved my life three times: once in a crash on a MTB, once when a car took me out (they tried to ‘buzz’ me and got too close) and once when someone threw a full can of soda out of a car going 45 MPH and it hit me in the helmet with such force that the can exploded. In each of these cases my helmet was destroyed but my brain was OK.

    My helmet helps keep my head warm in winter. It helps keep my head cool in summer. I would wear my helmet if it made it even 1% less likely that I would suffer a head injury. I’ve seen someone with a head injury from a bike crash. I don’t want one. I couldn’t care less what people think when they see me wearing a helmet.
    It’s not a question of skill or attentiveness on your part. It’s a question of the 4 billion other variables that can cause you to hit your head on something while riding. I wear a helmet because I like my brain.

  • Warren says:

    I wear a helmet everytime I ride my bicycle. I ride to work on cycle paths to work (5km) and I came off going around a right hand bend, front wheel hit some slick mud and I went down at around 30km/h. Lucky for me I slid across the mud so no skin came off.
    My right right knee and shoulder hit the concrete and my helmet hit the concrete.
    I don’t know if my head would have hit the concrete but I’d rather the helmet hit the concrete than my head.
    Apart from being sore I was able to get up and keep cycling to work.
    Not sure I’d have been able to do that if I smacked my head on the concrete without a helmet.

  • Renato says:

    I don’t wear helmets in my dailly commute to university. When I started riding I used it, because I was insecure, and my skills were really lacking a bit. But now I would not wear it. Here are some of reasons for that, for people that can’t imagine any:

    – My commute is short: only 15 minutes going slow. Aditionally, I use frequently the bicicle to turn 10~20 min walks in 5~8 min bike rides from place to place in my campus. If I had to get the helmet somewhere/unlock it from my bike, put it on, and then making the inverse procedure every time I ride my bike (4~12 times a day), I would rather walk.

    – I have no place to put my helmet anywhere I go, but at home. I would have to
    1. Carry it in my hand: very inconveinet, ridicule and I risk losing it.
    2. Lock in my bike: Been there done that. When it rains, it get soaked and thus very unconfortable. Plus, it is hard to lock it with the bike, and I loose quite a bit of time doing it in order to not damage the helmet.
    3. Not ride the bike. Done it a lot too.

    – It is unconfortable. Not unberable, but the difference of riding with an helmet and w/o a helmet is like the difference between riding with and w/o clothes for me. Unfortunatelly, people look strange at you even when just w/o a shirt… that is an place where rationality has not yet reached.

    – I found that I ride more cautiously while not wearing an helmet. If there is some type of bicycle riding that you would only do wearing an helmet, then you should rethink if it is really safe to do that. I see three options:
    1. Slow down/ride more cautiously
    2. Don’t do it
    3. Wear an full-face helmet that gives an more significant level of protection

    Lastly, riding bicycles, at least over here, is not so dangerous. There are many people riding bycicles to and into the university (~98% of them w/o helmets), there is some basic infastructure, and so on. If helmets were mandatory, per law or social convention (people that don’t wear be looked down), there would probably be much less rides (thus comodity/enviromental friendless) and much less safety for all.

    I falled the bicycle just once, alone at an low speed doing something really stupid that I will never do again (don’t ask! XD), and I have not hit my head, but an helmet probably would have crashed, and my head feelt it.

    I do however had an story of serious head injury related to bikes close to me. My mom almost died, and still has minor sequels, from when she was walking crossing the street and an ciclist in high velocity came turned the street and hit and knocked her down. The ciclist ran away. If she was wearing an helmet, she would probably be fine… But that is not what I want to say. The thing is that, instead of all those helmet propaganda and money put into buying helmets, actual ciclist education would do much more good.

 
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