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Four Myths About Helmets and Safety

by Josh King


Josh King in his commuter armor
Josh King lives in Seattle, where he commutes by bike every day, rain or shine. Earlier this year he switched to full-time single speed commuting; you can read his thoughts on going gearless at www.singlespeedseattle.com


If I was surprised about one reaction to my “10 Rules” post, it was the number of comments taking issue with my advice to wear a helmet when commuting in the city. Although all of the rules seemed commonsensical (to me), I thought that one in particular was non-controversial. Turns out I was wrong. But instead of paeans to free choice, much of the anti-helmet clamoring seems to try to justify not wearing a helmet as a safer (or safety-neutral) choice. Let’s look at the primary anti-helmet rationalizations:

  1. “There’s No Scientific Data Indicating Helmets Reduce Risk of Injury.”This is your brain on myths (via TreeHugger) Actually, there is. But the data is fairly thin, and anti-helmet forces have seized on this, arguing that the paucity of scientific evidence indicates that helmets must not really do any good. But this argument suffers from the negative proof fallacy–the implication that because the efficacy of helmets has not been conclusively proven via scientific studies, helmets must be valueless. But consider how many propositions we accept as true in the absence of any scientific studies proving them so. For example, I don’t know of any studies proving that ritualistically slamming my head into the door jamb on the way out every morning leads to a greater incidence of brain injury. But I needn’t make such demands on empiricism. I know it’s bad a idea, and I don’t need a study to tell me that. It’s hardly less intuitive that wrapping one’s melon in a layer of foam padding will help reduce the severity of cycling head injuries. Why–particularly given the obvious difficulties of getting enough scientifically and statistically credible data to prove or disprove the real world benefit of helmets–should we demand absolute scientific proof before admitting that wearing a helmet is a risk-minimizing choice?
    Still not convinced? Try a simple thought experiment: You’ve just been doored. As you fly over the handlebars, would you rather be wearing a helmet or not?
  2. “A Helmet May Make Injuries Worse.” Some have pointed out the possibility that helmets have the potential to increase the severity of certain “rotational” injuries–those where the head is jiggled about rather than suffering a direct impact. One glaring problem with this argument is that fact that the anti-helmet lobby runs with it–despite it being based on nothing more than conjecture–while demanding scientific levels of proof of helmet efficacy. But as pointed out above, we know that putting a layer of foam between our heads and an impact will mitigate the harm in most impacts. In effect, the “rotational ijury” argument is the logical twin of the anti-seatbelt argument that one could be stuck seatbelted in a submerged car. Yes, there is an edge case where the helmet could hurt. But are you going to plan for the edge case or the likely case?
  3. “Data Shows That Requiring Helmets Is a Net Negative for Society.” Well, not a lot of data–certainly not a lot more than the helmet safety findings anti-helmet folks scoff at. But there are some fairly compelling findings, particularly from Australia and New Zealand. And it’s at least somewhat intuitive that mandatory helmet laws would act as an impediment to bike use (particularly for newcomers to cycling) and a distraction from infrastructure investments aimed at making cycling safer. But we’re not talking about society. We’re not talking about whether helmet use should be mandatory. We’re talking about YOU– you who have already decided to commute to work, and are trying to figure out if wearing a helmet is going to make you safer. At that point, all of the “net effects” data is completely meaningless.
  4. “Helmet Use Leads to an Increase in Risk Taking.” Phrenology HelmetLike everything else in the world of scientific study of helmet use, the data is very thin. But there is some evidence that indicates a potential correlation between wearing protective gear and riskier behavior (and there is some evidence to the contrary). Would wearing a helmet cause a rider to pass closer, ride faster, etc., thus negating the safety benefits of the helmet? This doesn’t feel intuitively right to me; I’ve had enough road rash and bruises that it would take full body protective gear to materially change the risk profile of my riding. However, this may not be the case for everyone. Ask yourself–would wearing a helmet change how you ride? Would it change it enough to overcome the safety benefits?

Ultimately, it comes down to being an adult and exercising adult judgment. Mandatory helmet laws (such as we have in Seattle) are a bad idea, for reasons too numerous to mention here, but we can’t let animosity toward the law impact our judgment. If you’re not wearing a helmet, you’re missing something that helps reduce your risk of injury. Now, you may well decide that this risk is vanishingly small, because you’re riding on a lakeside bike path, or suburban trail, or in Copenhagen. Or you may decide that you’re the type of person who needs to not wear a helmet in order to keep your riskier riding habits in check. But whatever you do, your decision whether or not to wear a helmet should be driven by objectively weighing the issues, not by rationalization or blindly following one of these myths.

 
The Chariot Summer Sale - 2013

41 Responses to “Four Myths About Helmets and Safety”

  1. JRF says:

    If you have private insurance to cover the potentially multi-million dollar cost rehabilitation from a head injury, by all means knock yourself out.

    If you will be relying on public funds for your medical care, put on the brain bucket, please. Your injury will be far more expensive if you don’t, and I’d rather spend my money on bike accessories than your head injury.

  2. Will Roberts says:

    Josh, that was very well said. I read your original 10 Tips and disagreed with many of them (no offense). However, the helmet thing, as you say, was a no brainer. I’ve worn a helmet most of my adult life and don’t think anything of it. I haven’t been in any accidents, but so what? When I drive, I wear my seat belt too. It is fascinating how much buzz your article has stirred up, from all sides. I feel for you man!

    signed:
    helmet wearer (oh, i believe in global warming too! lol)

  3. Evan says:

    I agree that you can’t really argue that wearing a helmet doesn’t reduce the risk of certain kinds of head injuries, but the real issue I think is that people in cars and on public transportation are not required to wear helmets. I think this leads to the erroneous assumption that you are safer in a car than you are on a bike, which is clearly not accurate. Cars are much heavier and travel at much greater speeds, so regardless of whether you are inside or outside, cars are inherently more dangerous than bicycles. So the question is do we really care about being safe, or do we the victim of negative perception that the auto industry has been promoting covertly for the past 80 odd years in this country. If it is really a safety concern, we would be wearing helmets during a lot of other activities, especially when we travel at high speed. However mandatory helmets would obviously be very inconvenient for motorists and so it is not in the best interest of people capitalizing on the use of automobiles. I think it is reasonable to say that a bicyclist, with or without a helmet, traveling in a car free zone would be far safer.

  4. Ted Johnson says:

    I chose the images for this article. I want especially to give credit for the “cracked egg” image at the top, which comes from a German public service announcement. I found the image on TreeHugger, along with this quote from one of their readers:

    I didn’t start wearing a helmet regularly until AFTER I WOKE UP FROM THE COMA. Before I fractured my skull and bled an epidural hematoma the size of a navel orange
    [...]
    I used to joke that helmets messed up my hair. That was before the brain surgeons shaved my head and then closed up the suture with stainless steel staples.

  5. Sorry, I had to stop reading after point #1. Ritualistically smacking my head into doorjamb is *not* the same as riding my bike on a daily basis. If smacking my head was a regular part of bike riding, sure, helmets are indicated, but then I probably wouldn’t be riding my bike.

    You’re also asking the wrong question about getting doored — given the typical dooring fatality, the correct question is:

    “You’ve just been doored and knocked sideways into traffic. As your head is crushed under the wheels of a passing bus, would you rather be wearing a helmet or not?”

    The answer is, “It really doesn’t matter.” The action to take as a result of your thought experiment — don’t ride in the door zone. It’s simple and easy.

  6. The equation is quite simple, you cannot promote helmets AND bikes at the same time. Specially for new bikers.

  7. darren says:

    To flip the question a bit — to all those for whom helmet use is an absolute, would you choose not to ride your bicycle if you couldn’t find your helmet on a given day?

    • Ted Johnson says:

      Nobody who considers helmet use an absolute, would ever ride without one. It wouldn’t be an absolute if they did.

      I have ridden without a helmet when mine has gone missing–usually a strange combination of circumstances compounded by absentmindedness. And I am much more cautious when that happens. I become hyper-aware of the fragility of my skull in these situations, and I minimize their duration.

  8. Jim says:

    My helmet saved my life. For me, that’s the end of the debate.

    It’s not about regularly falling off your bike and hitting your head. It only ever happened to me once. That was enough to convince me.

  9. hippiebrian says:

    There is one thing every helmet advocate entirely misses. Helmets were not made for those with larger than normal ears like yours truly. Try riding in traffic and paying attention to what’s going on around you with nylon straps rubbing against both the back of your ear (where it attaches to the head) and the front. Trust me, after about 10 minutes it will drive you crazy.
    I guess what I’m saying is, despite what may seem like common sense to you, it actually IS mor dangerous for me to wear a helmet than not.
    I have other more admittedly more argueable arguements against them, but that is the main reason I don’t wear one.

  10. Barry says:

    Is there even any point to continuing having this debate? Every point in the article and the preceding comments can be argued in a million different ways. Each point has been argued repeatedly, redundantly over and over.

    I have my opinions, but I’m not going to present them here. I’m just going to say shame on Commute by Bike for once again publishing an article geared apparently at driving traffic and not providing constructive commentary.

  11. Josh King says:

    Barry, you’ve missed the point of the post: There is no debate. Helmets reduce the risk of serious injury. Period.

    Those who choose to not wear a helmet should be doing so in a mindful and informed manner – either because they judge the risk too small, or because they are willing to accept it. But not because they think there is a live issue over whether helmets reduce the risk of injury.

  12. Mick Allan says:

    The health benefits of regular cycling outweigh the dangers by a factor of twenty to one.

    Cyclists are not by any measure the primary head injury group, we fall somewhere below motorists, ladder users and drunks. Enforcing helmet use among these groups will have a greater effect on head injury figures.

    To my mind the most pernicious element is this; helmet use has a minimal effect on safety but powerfully enforces the notion that cycling is a dangerous activity.

  13. Sean says:

    Actually, I never ride without one. I even keep an inexpensive spare in my trunk for when I go to a recreational ride, as I have at times forgotten to pack my primary helmet.

    I think of helmets like I do my cycling shoes -I wouldn’t try to ride my MTB with clipless pedals without my cycling shoes and I won’t ride without my helmet either.

  14. Mark says:

    I guess I fall somewhere in the middle of the helmet debate. I usually wear one, but am very much against mandating them. For me one of the more convincing arguments for helmet use was the blog by dave Moulton posted recently ( http://davesbikeblog.squarespace.com/ ) where he relates a story of how he was left hooked, and seriously injured (while wearing a helmet). In court, he feels that he received a better settlement because his wearing a helmet indicated that he was taking his safety seriously, whereas had he not been wearing a helmet, the jury/judge may have considered him to be more at fault in the collision.

  15. BluesCat says:

    I wear my helmet for proven safety reasons and for superstitious reasons.

    For proof of safety, you need only to look at the tragic story of beautiful actress Natasha Richardson. Although hers was a skiing and not a bicycling accident, the subject dynamic is the same: your head hitting the ground at a speed greater than walking speed.

    The superstitious reasons? It seems like the only time I have a flat on the car is when the spare is flat. It also seems as if the only time I have car problems — that I could fix with a screwdriver and a properly sized open-end wrench — I’ve left the toolbox at home. I got stopped by the police when I left my wallet at home. So, when do YOU think is MOST likely time I’ll hit the pavement when I hit that next pothole?

  16. Ted Johnson says:

    @Richard Masoner: You’ve modified the helmet thought experiment into a door zone experiment to make a different point. And you’re right that it probably won’t matter if it’s a bus that crushes my head.

    Door-zone or not, I’d rather be wearing a helmet. My biggest risk of injury would be the initial impact with the pavement.

    If I survive that (Thank you, Helmet), then my head may or may not get rolled over by some vehicle.

    If I’m not knocked unconscious (Thank you again, Helmet), I may have time get up and out of the way.

    If I don’t have time to get up and out of the way, my chances aren’t great, but even an unprotected head can sometimes survive getting rolled over by a vehicle–and buses are outnumbered by smaller and lighter vehicles. I don’t care if it’s a Smart Car, I’d rather be in a helmet.

    If I survive that, I’m a lucky guy. And the helmet would have mitigated every aspect of a really really bad day.

  17. Earl Brinson says:

    Interesting point of view … and frankly rather elitist.

    Some people may actually ride a bicycle for the same reason they don’t have private health insurance … and may not have a helmet for the same reason.

    A lot of people I see where I live who ride bicycles don’t wear helmets. They all seem to be proud of the mobility that their bicycles provide them but I doubt that they would be spending their money on the extravagance of a helmet. Needless to say, they don’t wear lycra either. And I doubt they have private insurance either. Just a bunch of thoughtless, inconsiderate people.

  18. Rob says:

    I wear a helmet and I agree that it is generally safer to wear one. However, I also agree with the posters who say that people engage in a lot of activities, incuding car use, that would be safer with a helmet. “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” Safety advocates should not single out cyclists for helmet use.

  19. Joe says:

    I read the Florida data and I think 85% of all treated bicycle injuries were on riders without helmets.

  20. Thomas Bowden says:

    It’s been said that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. So before anyone gets too worked up one way or another, keep that in mind. Furthermore, 42.7% of all statistics are made up on the spot by the person quoting them.
    But seriously – the real issue I have is that people get so indignant on either side, when it is clear that there are far more dangerous activities that large segments of society indulge in or tolerate without seriously contemplating the risks and consequences. Like driving, for example, or walking. Driving may be no more dangerous than cycling for the driver vis a vis the cyclist, but what about the carnage caused to others by automobile crashes? What about huge trucks and small cars sharing the same roadways? How about golf? Lightning kills golfers, and errant golf balls have been known to do some damage. More people die falling down the stairs and into bathtubs than die cycling, and that’s even with including the cycling deaths clearly attributable to cyclist error (wrong side of street, no lights at night, inebriation, untrained children, etc.) So you might say that the the conscientious cyclist’s risk of death from all causes (not just head injuries) is vanishingly small compared to so many other potential causes of death. Every death is a tragedy – and I have lost cyclist friends to hit and run drivers, but until we get everybody on the right side of the road, looking both ways, obeying traffic signals and generally behaving themselves when cycling, let’s save our energy and get our priorities straight.

  21. Charlie says:

    I used to be a bike commuter, 18 miles a day round trip. While in the bike lane one day, I was cut off by a car as it turned right at an intersection in front of me. She only saw me after she tacoed my front wheel with her fender and I had gone over my handlebars into the pavement. I had done nothing wrong. It was her mistake, and that’s the point. I didn’t have a choice, or control over whether or not to crash that day. Shit happens, and low probability events happen every so often. I landed on my head, while wearing a helmet, and broke my neck (C7) and the base of my skull (along with my helmet). It turned out to be a stable fracture. I was in a neck brace for a month and physical therapy for 2 more after that. It could have been much worse and that is terrifying. Had I not been wearing a helmet, I would have suffered brain injury and potentially a fractured temporal bone, not something easily walked away from.

    The argument that wearing a helmet makes one more at risk for injury misses the point. We are powerless in the face of luck. If you are in a crash, and you will be eventually, you definitely want to be wearing a helmet. How many close calls do you have a month? A car driver doesn’t see you at a stop sign and only a loud yell makes him or her hit the brakes. A pedestrian with headphones steps into your line at an intersection. A driver opens his or her door in front of you. Etc, etc. It is an illusion that willing yourself to be safe is all it takes to be safe. You can do everything correctly and still be in a crash.

    I always wore a helmet before my crash, and I always will wear one. My helmet saved my life.

  22. Barry says:

    There’s plenty of debate, but there’s no point to it.

    It’s unproductive, divisive, and often mean-spirited, so why do people continue to discuss it?

  23. hippiebrian says:

    The real problem I had with your “10 rules” post was not that you recommended wearing a helmet, but that after advocating such dangerous activities as running red lights you stated “wear a helmet dummy.”
    I choose not to wear a helmet after careful risk analysis vs. comfort (see my ears response earlier). It was not a “dumb” decision, but a well thought out one. What is really dumb on the streets is violating the traffic laws unless in immediate danger then trying to validate it by wearing a styrofoam hat. Get it?

  24. Andy says:

    On the few occasions when my helmet was left in the wrong place, I fall into the same category. To me, this is proof that people do ride safer without a helmet, contrary to what the blog poster wrote. While we aren’t seeking more risks while wearing a helmet, I think all >90% of-the-time helmet users try to ride safer when they forget the helmet on occasion.

  25. Andy says:

    The data will always be skewed. My viewpoint on this data is that people riding bikes the wrong way on streets or on sidewalks don’t wear a helmet because they don’t care to bother with it or pay for it. When they crash, they add to the statistic that a helmet-less rider was injured, which is not a figure I care about. Find a study that compares helmet wearing to injuries from commuters that ride 15-20mph and then I’ll care.

    While I do wear a helmet nearly all the time. I would strongly oppose laws requiring helmet use unless ALL activities over 10mph required it. Driving cars, trucks, riding buses, etc. Then we’ll see more bike commuters.

  26. Paul says:

    Three words: “Culture of fear”

  27. Randy R. says:

    In a perfect world, helmets wouldn’t be required. In that world, an individual would be responsible for what comes their way due to their actions. The issue I have is once a person is injured, who is paying for their care. If you have insurance and/or the ability to pay for any medical coverage needed, great, go ride without a helmet. If you expect some sort of assistance with any medical costs, then you should be forced to wear a helmet, as you are less likely to suffer a head injury with one on.

    When I owned a motorcycle, I felt the same way. I wouldn’t be caught without a helmet. That said, I didn’t care what others did as long as it didn’t cost me money (as a taxpayer) or cause my insurance rates to increase.

    I typically like to think that we’re adults and should be left to make our own decisions. Of course this means dealing with the repercussions of these decisions, whether good or bad.

  28. Dale Davis says:

    I was in a front collision with an auto. I flew over the hood and my back took out the windsheild of the car. My head struck the windsheild frame. Thank goodness I was wearing my helmet, I walked away from the accident, my helmet suffered though as it had a crease in the helmet and the foam was all spiderwebbed inside. With more and more socialized medicine coming I think Helmets should be mandatory as we will be expected to pay for peoples health care and non helmented people will have more servere injuries. dcd

  29. Paul says:

    I ride my bike (scrap bicycle without gears) to work every day. Slightly faster than a pedestrian. I obey most traffic rules. I pay attention to what is going on around me. The odds that I would en up in an accident is very slim. Even if I did a helmet most likely would not save my life. So explain to me why I should wear a helmet when I am riding my bike and not when I’m walking or driving a car.

  30. A. Ruston says:

    Culture of Fear ™ = A thinly veiled, fashion based ideological war against cyclists who aren’t Dutch bike dandies & dollymops.

  31. Paul says:

    Well, if the goal is to have a majority of the population on bicycles they will not be wearing lycra and helmets, right?

  32. A. Ruston says:

    “Well, if the goal is to have a majority of the population on bicycles they will not be wearing lycra and helmets, right?”

    If the goal is to have the majority of the population on bikes then maybe, just maybe, it might be a good idea to accept all types of cyclists? Or is the goal really just about crapping all over cyclists who don’t fit into one mans very narrow definition of what is acceptable?

    Smear campaigns against people who don’t wear the correct approved retro-tweed WASPy high street chic designer label clothing while cycling are probably not the best way to get more people onto bikes, right?

  33. A. Ruston says:

    Further to my previous rant (My goodness, I am quite the ****** ****** aren’t I?)

    read this:
    http://dowdmuska.com/2010columns/col060310.htm

    and this:
    http://dowdmuska.com/2009columns/col051409.htm

    Think about the mindset behind those columns and then explain how a cyclist wearing pants of a style you don’t like is the biggest problem facing cycling.

  34. Seville says:

    “…you may decide that you’re the type of person who needs to not wear a helmet in order to keep your riskier riding habits in check.”

    heh heh.

    Great post Josh.

  35. Paul says:

    You are missing my point, maye i was not clear. I mean that if cycling is getting the image of something dangerous that requires alot of expensive gear you will not attract the majority.
    If you want to wear a helmet i have no problem with that. If you keep telling me that i am crazy because i’m not wearing a helmet or stubbed tires or other security equipment i get rather annoyed.

  36. WIAP says:

    I crashed on my bike last year. My helmet was cracked in five places. I am still alive and still in one piece. Need I say more.

  37. Alan Selk says:

    I’ve just lost respect for commute by bike after reading this nonsense on helmets use. There is no real evidence that wearing a helmet is any safer then not wearing a helmet. I’ll make a very good guess and say that most all of these moronic stories of someones bike accident that have shown up in the comments are from folks who where going to fast for conditions. I wonder how many of those accidents would have been avoided if the rider was not wearing a helmet and not feeling invincible.

  38. Ben says:

    The fact is most drivers dont pay attention, so in traffic we as cyclists must take every possible precaution in order to stay alive. Even then, when someone runs a red light the only things that can affect the outcome after you rebound off the front of that Cadillac and before you hit the pavement is the protective gear you have on. I have several friends who have been hit in similar “accidents” and the severity of the injuries would have been inconceivable if they hadn’t been wearing helmets. The real reason for people not wearing a helmet, justify it any way you want, is they are seen as un-cool. That’s it, image, that is what they are saving instead of their health. I believe that if your not smart enough to wear a helmet in the first place, then you don’t need one.

    Cheers

  39. Wally says:

    HERE HERE!!!
    My helmet has saved me twice.

  40. Tiago says:

    I’m really depressed by these debates, the comparisons done and how someone can so lightly dismiss the evidence given by countless people who are still here because they were wearing helmets.

    How can someone compare riding in traffic with walking – 99% of the time pedestrians are not sharing the road with multi-ton fast vehicles driven by stressed drivers. And I rarely see them walking at 40km/h with only flimsy brakes to stop.

    I suppose all those car airbags, seatbelts and the like also promote fear and wreckless behaviour. I’m sure you can get studies and statistics proving that’s true…

    I commute everyday by bike in a very bike commute unfriendly country (Portugal) and still don’t understand how some people feel safe not wearing a helmet.

    I’m also an avid mtbiker and bike shop owner which gives me bike handling skills I use in my commute and vice-versa. I know I sometimes ride too fearless and fast (it’s not only a commute, it’s also my training :D ) and I would not blame anyone if I had an accident because of that.

    But my 2 helmet craking accidents were from stupid mistakes and distractions (mine and from drivers), not from riding fast, risking it all or taking more chances because of a helmet. I also knew someone who died from simply slipping on a tram track while ridding slow and hitting his unprotected head on pavement. And I witness first hand a friend taking a dive head first when his bike fork decided to break in two while leasurly riding on a bike lane, luckly with a helmet. Hardly wreckless riding on all counts.

    Want to keep on deceiving yourselves, then keep on cycling unprotected and I hope luck is always on your side. As for me helmets are sexy, promote safety (not fear) and should be part of any bike commuter kit (not because of any law but simply because it’s as obvious as taking a jacket with you on a cloudy day will reduce the chances of getting wet and chilled to the bones).

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