by Michael Bluejay
Many readers are surprised that I don’t make a big deal on this site of insisting that cyclists wear helmets, especially since wearing helmets is what most people equate with bike safety.
And in fact that’s one reason I avoid cheerleading for helmets in the first place. The idea that cyclists should wear helmets is already so much a part of the collective consciousness that it doesn’t make any difference whether I encourage helmet use or not. So instead I focus on what people haven’t heard elsewhere: How to ride safely. Let’s face it: nobody is going to wear a helmet just because I say they should. People will not be motivated to action hearing something from me that they’ve already heard a thousand times before.
But it goes further than that: Focusing on helmets distracts people from what’s more likely to actually save their lives: Learning how to ride safely. It’s not that I’m against helmets, I’m against all the attention placed on helmets at the expense of safe riding skills. Helmets are not the most important aspect of bike safety. Not by a long shot.
Unfortunately, helmets have become a panacea: Many parents and city & state governments think they can slap a flimsy piece of styrofoam on a kid’s head and they’ve done their part to make sure that kids are safe. But it’s actually the opposite. This approach is akin to outfitting somebody with a flak jacket and then having them run through a firing range. If you had to choose between giving a child a helmet or the education about how to ride safely, you should choose the education and ditch the helmet every time.
Of course you don’t have to choose between one or the other, but the point is that most people are choosing, and they’re choosing the helmet only. For example, helmet laws are popping up all over the country, but how many of those same jurisdictions are mandating classes in how to ride safely? Almost none. In Adam Sandler’s movie Click, he sends his kids out biking at night, dutifully decked out with helmets—but no lights! That’s what the problem is: A misguided focus, a belief that bike safety begins and ends with putting a helmet on your head.
The problems with helmets
The main problem with helmets is not with the helmets themselves, it’s with the attitude towards them, the idea that they’re the first and last word in bike safety. If that’s the definition (and that’s pretty much how people view helmets) then there are two big problems with that:
• A helmet does nothing to prevent a cyclist from getting hit by a car.
• The effectiveness of helmets in preventing injury is seriously exaggerated.
At this point helmet supporters are jumping up and down with rage and reaching for their email (believe me, I hear from them), so let me be clear about this: Saying that helmet effectiveness is exaggerated is not the same thing as saying that helmets are useless. I don’t believe that helmets are useless. I think if you want the maximum protection possible in a crash you ought to wear one. But I also believe that if you think a helmet will do as much to protect you as you probably think it does, then you’re kidding yourself.
Helmet use among U.S. cyclists was nearly non-existent before the 1990’s. Nobody wore helmets in the 80’s and before. So what happened when helmet use skyrocketed in the 1990’s? Head injuries went down, right?
No, head injuries went up. Let me repeat that: When helmet use went up, so did head injuries. There’s a big article about this in the New York Times, showing that head injuries among cyclists went up 51% in the 1990’s as more and more cyclists started wearing helmets.
I’m not suggesting that helmets caused the head injuries; there are other plausible explanations for why head injuries increased (more attention to helmets and less attention to safe riding skills being one of them). But what I am saying is that the protective value of helmets is so small it’s hard to measure.
Most of us have heard that “bicycle helmets can prevent up to 85% of head injuries”. Many times the phrase is printed without the “up to,” stating flatly that bike helmets “prevent 85% of head injuries.” Typically, no source is ever cited for this 85% figure. Everyone believes it anyway, so who needs a source, right? But where did this 85% figure come from, and is it credible? The answer is that it came from a flawed 1989 study, and it’s probably wildly inaccurate. The study was roundly criticized in the Helmet FAQ by the Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling and by CycleHelmets.org, which states:
This paper is by far the most frequently cited research paper in support of the promotion of cycle helmets. It is referred to by most other papers on helmets, to the extent that some other papers, and most helmet promotion policies, rely fundamentally upon the validity of its conclusions.
The claims that helmets reduce head injuries by 85% and brain injuries by 88% come only from this source, yet are quoted widely as gospel by people who know nothing more about cycle helmets. The prospect of achieving such massive reductions in injuries to cyclists lies at the root of helmet promotion and mandatory helmet laws around the world.
Those who have taken the trouble to analyze the paper in detail, however, have found it to be seriously flawed and its conclusions untenable. (more…)
They also note that not a single helmeted cyclist considered in the study was involved a collision with a motor vehicle!
CycleHelmets has other good information, such as the chart at right showing that countries with the most helmet use also have the most head injuries. This is important enough that it bears repeating: countries with the most helmeted cyclists also have the highest rate of cycling head injuries. And of course the converse is true: cycling head injuries are much lower in countries where cyclists don’t wear helmets very much.
And that brings us to the third problem with helmets: Helmet-wearing may actually promote injury. A study at the University of Bath showed that motorists gave less room when passing helmeted cyclists vs. unhelmeted ones. The researcher was actually struck twice on his bicycle when conducting the study, both times while wearing a helmet.
Another theory is that helmets effectively make the cyclist’s “head” much larger, so with a bigger head a falling cyclist is much more likely to slam it against the road or a car (causing traumatic brain injury because the brain is still slammed against the skull), or possibly even breaking the cyclist’s neck.
Patrick Goetz points out another possible problem with helmets:
With some trepidations, I’ve actually been wearing a bicycle helmet for recreational road biking, However, [a recent car-bike] accident points clearly to one of the problems with helmet usage: I can no longer hear cars coming up behind me since I’ve started wearing a helmet. It’s quite unsettling to be biking down a quiet rural road and suddenly have a giant, noisy pickup blast by completely unanticipated. There’s something about how the wind passes through the air vents that greatly attenuates sounds from the rear (and perhaps otherwise).
If any of these things is true then it could explain why we don’t see any reduction in cyclist fatalities when helmet use goes up: helmets could be saving some cyclists but killing others.
Putting things in perspective
It’s funny how dramatically perceptions have changed in recent times. As recently as the 80’s virtually nobody wore helmets, and no one thought anything of it. But today cyclists are considered stupid and irresponsible if they don’t do something that nobody did the first 80 years that cycling was around. Today some motorists feel it’s their obligation to scowl and yell “Get a helmet!” at unhelmeted cyclists.
And this brings up another point: The motorists who are so insistent that cyclists wear helmets aren’t wearing helmets themselves. This isn’t silly: crash helmets could potentially save more lives for motorists than cyclists. About 38,000 motorists die on U.S. roads every year compared to fewer than 700 cyclists. If helmets are good for cyclists, they ought to be great for drivers and passengers. Why is nobody banging the drum about this? After all, helmets save lives, right?
Another problem with the focus on helmets is that they encourage state and local governments to enact helmet laws. But while something might be a good idea, that doesn’t mean that not doing it should be a criminal offense. It’s a good idea to brush your teeth. Should you have to risk arrest if you don’t?
The main problem with a helmet law is that it ignores the unintended consequences. If a city passed a helmet law and the only thing that changed was that more cyclists started wearing helmets, then there might be a public safety benefit and no downside. But that’s not the only thing that happens when a helmet law gets passed. The most significant result of a helmet law is to discourage cycling. That’s because many would rather quit biking than have to wear a helmet, and because a law promotes the idea that cycling is an incredibly dangerous activity. Reductions in cycling by 33% to 50% are typical in places where helmet laws have been passed. (CycleHelmets.org, Cycle-Helmets.com)
Ironically, helmet laws thus make cycling more dangerous, because fewer cyclists on the road means that motorists are less used to seeing cyclists. It’s no surprise that the countries with the most cyclists have the lowest rate of injuries per cyclist. Helmet laws ensure that the rate of injury per cyclist goes up. In fact, helmet laws make driving and walking more dangerous, because when people stop biking, they start driving, and it’s cars & SUV’s that kill other motorists and pedestrians, not bicyclists.
There are yet other problems with helmet laws. In some communities police have used helmet laws as an excuse to target minority kids. In Austin the last time anyone checked, over 90% of the no-helmet tickets given to kids went to black and Hispanic kids.
Once something normal suddenly becomes against the law these kinds of excesses can occur. In Palm Beach County, Florida a sheriff’s deputy handcuffed a nine-year-old boy for not wearing the obligatory helmet.
But one of the biggest problems with helmet laws is that they shift the blame onto the cyclist in car-bike collisions, even if the motorist was clearly at fault. The idea is that if a cyclist gets hit by an at-fault motorist, it was the stupid cyclist’s fault for not wearing a helmet. This is no exaggeration; this exact opinion has been promulgated by the defense in countless court cases, effectively denying cyclists and their families justice against at-fault motorists. When Ben Clough was killed while bicycling in Austin both the police press release and the article in the local paper made sure to point out that Ben hadn’t been wearing a helmet. What they didn’t point out at all was that the driver who killed him ran a red light to do so.
Wait, it gets richer. The driver in question was not arrested, paid no fine, served no jail time, and did not even receive a traffic ticket for running the red light. This prompted one local cyclist to comment that the best way to avoid a ticket for running a red light is to run over a bicyclist while you do so.
BicycleAustin has a whole laundry list of arguments against mandatory helmet laws.
• Bicycle helmets probably have some protective value, but not nearly as much as has been claimed, or most people seem to think.
• Wearing a helmet does nothing to prevent you from being hit by a car.
• Real bicycle safety involves learning how to ride properly.
• Crash helmets could easily save more lives for motorists than bicyclists.
• Helmet laws restrict freedom of choice, may result in the targeting of minorities, discourage cycling, make cycling more dangerous for those who remain, and shift the blame in car-bike collisions to helmetless cyclists even if it was the motorist who was at fault.
Pages referenced in this article, and other resources
• How to not get hit by cars
• CycleHelmets.org reviews the literature about helmet efficacy
• Helmet laws reduce the number of cyclists
• Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling’s Helmet FAQ
• New York Times article questioning the effectiveness of helmets
• Deputy handcuffs 9-year-old for not wearing helmet
• Minority kids more likely to get no-helmet tickets
• Lack of justice for bicyclists
• Safety statistics
Also see Dom’s blog on this topic: