Sunday, April 27, 2008

Why I wear a helmet (and don't support helmet laws)

I generally stay clear of bicycle helmet discussions. I explained a bit about my views on helmets and helmet discussions in the first few paragraphs of this talk on cycling safety, and I mostly left things at that. However an unusually civil discussion of the helmet wars over on the iBOB list led one the fellows there to email me asking for a bit more info as to why I choose to wear a helmet. This blog post is in response to his query. And I did find it odd, wonderful and somehow typical of the iBOB list that the helmet war thread there morphed into a battle of dueling haiku.

I wear a bicycle helmet when I'm riding my bicycle not because I've been swayed by statistics or compelled by law. I recently was looking at a nearly 20 year old photograph of my son and I. Peter's helmet is too far back on his head and my helmet wouldn't pass today's impact tests but we both wore helmets then and wear them now when we ride.

Most of the people I know who choose to ride without a helmet have some complaint about the comfort or fashion of the helmet and then say they are not swayed by the statistics regarding their efficacy. I guess I don't have the comfort or fashion issues and in fact I find helmets useful. I'm not swayed by reasons not to wear a helmet.

One argument against wearing a helmet that I've heard is "you don't wear a helmet while walking or driving a car, why wear one when you ride?" Here's what I see as the difference. I walk at 3 miles per hour and I'm a pretty stable biped. I usually walk in environments where I'm not surrounded by large objects moving at high speed. There are not a large number of potential interchanges of energy when I'm walking. If I do trip and fall, I'm wired by years of evolution (or if you prefer, some sort of intelligent design) to react accordingly (at least I hope so). And the ground I walk on is usually softer than the street.

When I'm on a bike, I've already opted for one mechanised enhancement, the bicycle itself. This changes my average speed from 3 miles per hour to 12. I've upped the potential energy I myself bring to any potential collisions. My the contact patch of bike tires are smaller than my footprints. And I'm often in an environment I share automobiles that are bigger, faster and bringing more of that potential energy to any sudden interactions we might have.

So why not wear a helmet in a car? Because a car pretty much is a helmet. It has crumple zones and airbags, things designed to absorb impact. Like a bike helmet is designed to do in a crash.

But we never wore helmets as kids and we survived our youth, some folks say. Yep, lots of people live doing all kinds of things. As a youth I had a classmate who lost control of his bike, crashed and died. I have no idea if he would have lived if he'd been wearing a helmet, but I do know he's not now a person who can say that he survived his youth.

I do know that I've found my helmets to be handy on a couple of occasions. I documented one of those crashes here. The other incident was a bicycle crash involving no cars or drivers. I was young and in too much of a hurry, racing home on a bike path with poor sight lines. Another fellow was doing the same thing coming the other way and we both tried to course correct to the same side of the path and went down. My helmet cracked on the pavement, my skull did not. I found that worthwhile.

Will a helmet save you in every crash? Of course not. Can it be handy in some situations? I've found it so. Should you wear a helmet? I think that's your choice. Just because I wear a helmet doesn't give me the right to tell you what to do. If you're endangering others by doing something like driving 200 miles per hour down the public streets, then I'll probably vote for a law saying that you shouldn't do that. But if you are taking a bit more risk than I would, by paragliding off Tiger Mountain or eating week-old sushi for example, I think you are the best person to decide that. I like being able to choose my risks and make my choices. I'd hate for someone else to decide it's too dangerous for me to bicycle to work.

As parents Christine and I learned that kids don't always pay much attention to what you say, but they sure as heck notice what you do. If you're a parent and you want your kids to wear a helmet, wear one yourself. But don't ask me to vote for a law telling you how to raise your kid.

I still think there are many more things you can do to make cycling safer than just wearing a helmet. But I don't favor laws stating that you have to read "How Not To Get Hit By Cars" or take a LAB course or use a rear-view mirror. And I don't favor mandatory helmet laws.

Keep 'em rolling,



Ron George said...

What happens if you don't follow mandatory helmet rules? What are they like?

Kent Peterson said...

I think the fine for riding a bike without a helmet in King County Washington is $86. In general, the police have better things to do than chase down helmetless riders. I'm not sure how things are in other areas.

Anonymous said...

I wear a helmet becuase it has my rear view mirror & flip-floppy rear light attached to it.

I have a too wide a selection to make sure all the batteries are up to date. I'm sure a lot of people reading this blog might have that problem, too.

Creating helmet laws seems like a waste of time -- having a similar efficacy as drinking age laws. Of course, in my state, CO, we don't mandate motorcycle helmets, so...

Anonymous said...

Laws, statistics and studies aside, I wear a helmet because donning one is second nature - I feel naked riding without one. (I'm also one of those people who keeps my helmet on while grocery shopping, getting coffee etc.)

Richard Keatinge said...

Which statistics did you have in mind? The ones that say helmets don't work are fairly convincing, see the Wikipedia article.

Anonymous said...

One problem with helmets is when people think they are a technological fix for bicycling safety. You don’t have to learn yourself or teach your children to cycle safely, just wear a helmet.

gazer said...

One of the main reasons I wear a helmet (most of the time) is to avoid the situation where, in case of a dire event, the excuse can't be, "Well, he wasn't wearing a helmet."

I'm not quite sure why journalists are so infatuated with whether or not a cyclist was wearing a helmet when he or she was creamed by a car, or whether or not they really think that a helmet would have helped in that situation, but they are, and they apparently do.

inconvenient_truth said...

Good explanation of why you personally wear a helmet but won't support mandatory laws. I fully respect that position - many of my friends take the same position. I'm not a helmet wearer, and this may be something to do with the fact that I ride bicycles in cycle-friendly countries, as well as the UK.
I would say that any "solution" to a danger that discourages the user from clearly analysing where the danger comes from is a problem. In this case, poor cycling infrastructure, or laws that favour the motorist, are often overlooked. Instead, encourage the victims to wear protective gear. This is certainly the case in the UK, and I suspect more so in the US.

Anonymous said...

Once you've had your head come in contact with something hard without a helmet on I can tell you from personal experience you will get one and wear it.If your not convinced after getting the brain rattled a bit just get the words "dumb as a post" tattooed on your forehead instead. cjg of eroticalee

Anonymous said...

I use this reasoning. If I'm ever lying in the hospital with brain damage after a crash, will I think it was worth it? Being a cyclist is worth it; going bare-headed isn't.

To me, the discomfort of wearing a helmet is about equal to that of wearing a seatbelt.

Anonymous said...

I had a fall in January on a bike path - probably moss - and cracked my helmet as well as bruising my hip (last time I fell like that I fractured the frame and my hip). I was dazed but am sure, from the impact, that I would have felt worse without the protection.

Helmet good!

Anonymous said...

Greetings all, I am a psychologist and see the often- devastating effects of brain injury (mild and severe) on people's lives. I hope a helmet will reduce my chances of brain injury, or the severity of an injury, if I ever get in an accident.

While I am a live-and-let-live guy, my question to people who don't wear helmets is do you have adequate health and disability and long-term care insurance so that your decision to take extra risks is not a risk that I (and my fellow tax payers) have to pay for in the long run?

Jon Muellner said...

I see it a few ways. One, as a former EMT/ambulance driver I always thought it was rude to leave your brains all over for me to clean up and a helmet might make that less likely (or at least less messy).

I also like to have lights and mirrors and the helmet makes a nice perch for these items.

Finally, I just look fashionable in one. And my daughter thinks so too.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a mistake to assume it's okay to NOT wear a helmet in a motor vehicle. You can look up whatever statistics you want, but motor vehicle crashes are either the number one reason for traumatic brain injuries, or one of the major causes. Bicycle head injuries are minuscule in comparison (granted there are much less bike trips). As a paramedic for 16 years, I pulled a lot of brain injured people out of cars.
Some of the newer cars offer much more protection to the belted occupants than ever before. Some rollover victims just walk away from their wrecks. But you are still rolling very fast in a tin can, and the head can smash against anything inside that can. And if you get T-boned by a 67 cadillac going fast enough, you will be drooling in a wheelchair just like the unhelmeted bike rider.
Forcing bicycle helmet laws upon people just makes less people ride bikes. That makes all bike riders less safe. It makes just as much sense as forcing motorists to wear helmets. Because motorists wearing helmets is a good idea! But it will never happen. The double standard here is obvious. Legislators just want to put a helmet on the bicycle problem.
I say put a helmet on the legislator, and everyone else, on all car trips- if you think covering the head will solve all the problems.

inconvenient_truth said...

Well put, Drew. Of course legislators just want to "put a helmet" on the bicycle problem. From their non-cycling perspective (at least in bike-unfriendly societies like the US and UK) the bicycle is the problem. They fail to see the obvious - the killer vehicle is invariably the car. To address the source of the danger by restricting cars and motorists simply does not occur.

We have people in our town calling for a ban on bikes in the town centre, where we mix with pedestrians, because they see bikes as a "potential danger". But they fail to see the same logic regarding cars - an actual (killing) danger on our town's roads. Logically cars should be banned from urban areas. This is when car-minded societies start waffling on about restrictions on "freedom" etc etc.

Talk about blinkered thinking....

Ghengis Jung said...


Jim said...

"the ones that say helmets don't work are pretty convincincing."

Really? I've split and crushed three helmets in three years, one in a 35 MPH+ race crash, one in a low speed crash caused by an unseen utility pipe, and another a 20 MPH+ headfirst spearing of a tree. Two out of the three of those would have likely caused me skull fractures or death. Further, a teammate went down on a mountain descent a few months ago, hitting head first at around 40 MPH. His helmet was split and crushed but his head was fine.

The studies alleging that helmets are worthless are probably real convincing, as long as you've never whipped your head into a tree or into the pavement hard enough to blow a helmet apart. Walk away from a crash like that, you become a believer, not to mention you feel pretty grateful to just be walking away from it. It would have to be a pretty darned convincing study to make me feel that helmets are useless. Simply put, I wear a helmet because I ride hard and if you ride hard crashes are inevitable; and while I love riding, I love my wife and kid more and want to live to see them tomorrow.

All that said, do what you want to do, whether it's going helmet-free, smoking, or anything else. Just don't ask me to pay for the consequences of your bad choices.

inconvenient_truth said...

Jim, you said "I ride hard". That sums it up. You are a particular type of cyclist, and some of us are another type. I think if you study the WAY people cycle in cycling-friendly countries, you'll find that the only people who "ride hard" are couriers - with helmets. The rest prefer to see cycling as a rather laid-back, but healthy way, of getting from A to B. As long as we are not thrown in between cars all the time by our dear urban planners, then helmets are as needed as on a pedestrian.

I'd suggest you wear a helmet because you ride fast - and because of your car-addicted urban planners. I choose to "ride soft" and get political on urban planning policy. Put these two positions, and you get the OP - don't support helmet laws.

Anonymous said...

I usually wear helmet on long rides but not short rides to work. I would oppose compulsory helmet laws. Interestingly Amsterdam has highest rates of cycling in world but you won't see anyone wearing a helment

KM said...

My wife just fell on a ride and split the helmet in 2 places. I was riding ahead of her and heard the thud when her head hit the ground.

She would have had a concussion at best but probably worse.

I am skeptical of any study that says they do more damage than not. Ask your local ER docs who ride if they wear a helmet. Guaranteed they all do.

Anonymous said...

I wear a helmet because I knew someone who died riding on a bike without a helmet. But,my son says his friends tease him because they think a helmet is siily and gay. They also think "I am too good to fall". But wait till they do, they will wish they did have one.

Mariah Martin said...

For those who say that they just "ride soft" and therefore don't need a helmet I would just like to say that I am a sixteen year old girl who survived a bike accident where a Ford dulie hit me when I was biking across an intersection. I started across the cross walk but didn't make it across in time before the light turned green (the timing for me to cross the street was only 15 seconds before the light changed). I was literally a block away from my house and one lane of traffic before I would have crossed the street safely. The truck’s fender hit my front wheel and then my head collided with the truck’s side mirror. I was thrown into the air and landed on the street feet away from my bike. Thank God I was wearing my helmet. It saved my life. I impacted the ground so hard that my helmet is now in an egg shape and cracked in many places. I suffered from a crack in my hip (and my hip actually got bent in a little) and from multiple pelvic fractures. I also suffered from some road rash on my hand and hip which I have the scars to prove it. I was only returning from babysitting five minutes from my house. If that's not called "soft riding" I don't know what is. I was not participating in any risky behavior of any sort, I was crossing a cross walk on my bike. I am now 100% percent healed from the injuries and apart from scars have no other physical affects. MY HELMET SAVED MY LIFE. There is no other way to say it.

inconvenient_truth said...

Maria's story is moving, and is indeed the reason why many people choose to wear helmets. Fair enough.

But I apply this logic to all walks of life, not just cycling. My only recent head injury occurred when I was badly ill with food poisoning, rushing back and forth between bed and toilet. On one such journey I collapsed, smashing my head against the frame of the toilet door. I sustained some pretty bloody injuries. Should I wear a helmet when I am that ill?

It is also well known that both pedestrians and car drivers are killed by head injuries sustained in accidents. Should they wear helmets?

It really should be up to the individual. I am active in a cycling campaign, and I choose not to wear a helmet because I see it a cheapskate way for governments to avoid doing what has to be done - build safe cycling infrastructure. I refuse to accept such a "solution" to mixing cyclists with fast-moving cars, and instead campaign for safe routes.

That's my choice, and others in our campaign continue to wear helmets whilst joining me in such campaigns.

We should all be focusing on making life safer/better/more convenient for cyclists by campaigning for more cycling space, whether we wear helmets or not. The argument about helmets just sidetracks us all.

Craig Miller said...

"If you're a parent and you want your kids to wear a helmet, wear one yourself. But don't ask me to vote for a law telling you how to raise your kid."

I totally agree, and I am in the "I don't wear helmets" camp. As a parent, we have to set examples for our kids.

[Ottawa, Canada]

Unknown said...

I have recently been doing most of my cycling without a helmet.

I ride a nondescript road bike with fenders, townie-style handlebars and flat pedals and wear regular street clothes almost all the time.

I believe that not wearing a helmet, along with my upright position and "normal" appearance (compared to how I used to look on most commutes -- decked out in my team kit on a race bike) results in people, including motorists, treating me with more kindness and respect.

I look like a human being, not a caricature of an aggro extreme athlete with an agenda.

Cars give me a little more space. No one calls me a fag or flips me off.

Just my two cents'.

Dave D.

Dave said...

Bike helmets are a pretty emotive issue and it seems people on both sides often reach too far and leave logic behind.

For those in favour, the argument is normally "well they can save your life / I was in an accident...". Perfectly valid reason as to why you should wear a helmet IF you applied this logic to other activities as well (and I'm yet to see a motorist don a helmet to drive to the shops).

Those against seem to attack helmet efficacy when in reality, the harm of helmets is in their forced legislation, over promotion relative to risk and failure to address the real problem - getting hit by cars in the first place.

Think about it, if you knew you were going to come off your bike at 20mph, would you rather have one on or not?

But just as important, if you knew you were going to crash your car and hit your head against the windscreen at 50mph, wouldn't you want to be wearing helmet as well?

Do helmets work? I'm pretty sure they do and I'll choose to wear one if I'm racing or jumping stumps.

Are helmet laws or fear promotion the best way to make cycling safer? Definitely not - lower urban speed limits, separate infrastructure in busy areas, and legal protection for non-motorised commuters is what makes our streets safer. With these in place, helmets become unnecessary.

inconvenient_truth said...

10/10 for that comment Dave! Totally agree.

Eric Shalit said...

I know this is an old article, but it's new to me and the topic is relevant. My nearly 20-year old teenage son rides as much as anyone I know (except maybe Kent) and does not wear a helmet.

I've asked him to please wear a helmet so that when he's 30 I'm not changing his diapers. I bought him a really nice helmet that he really liked but it got left in someone's pickup truck.

Ever know someone with a serious head injury? I have. A changed person forever. Personally, I once fell just a few feet while climbing and was knocked unconscious. Had headaches for months plus shorter than my normally short attention span.

You're only allowed to injure your head a few times in your life, and a helmet is cheap insurance.