04 April 2008

The Great Bike Helmet Hysteria - Introduction

It all started innocently enough. Through this blog and the other one I've become more acquainted with bike culture in other countries than I ever have been before. Bike helmets don't interest me really. They're not a big part of life in cities and countries with high levels of bike usage around the world.

But I became curious. I can see how helmet usage causes such a bitter debate in some countries and I wondered why.

There are loads of things that have made me wonder, so I've decided to delve deeper into the issue.

I don't give a toss if people wear bike helmets or not. It's an individual choice. A voluntary issue in established bike cultures. If someone wants to wear a bike helmet, then more power to them. If they don't wear one, fine. I couldn't dream of having an opinion about someone's individual choice. There are many cool helmet designs on the market these days and the helmet is no longer a nerdy affair. But it sure seems to ignite caustic debates in some places.

Here's a few things that have made me curious and that I'm going to check out and research as best I can:

1. Helmet advocates always seem to quote the same statistics again and again. Where did these statistics originate? The main one is the claim that bike helmets reduce head injuries by 80-88%. What study is that based on? Surely there must be many, many studies on the subject through the years. Why don't we ever hear about them? What does the science say about it?

2. What is a helmet advocate? Why does someone choose to be one? Aren't there better things to do? More important issues to advocate? Like lobbying for bike-friendly infrastructure or awareness of bikes in traffic?

3. Is cycling really as dangerous as it is made out to be in some countries? What's all this talk about "I wear a helmet 'cause I don't want to end up dead or a vegetable". What are the risks of this happening? Scientifically speaking? Why all this over-dramatised fear-mongering? What science is it based on?

4. Why does the bike helmet issue only exist in those countries in the world with the highest rates of obesity and not anywhere else? Why is it most vocal in America? Is it the litigation culture that has created this safety culture? What's more important; getting people wearing helmets or getting people to ride their bikes?

5. I recall reading an interview with a European urban planner who said that European countries won't legislate bike helmet usage because "there is no scientific proof that bike helmets have any effect" and that "helmet legislation is harmful to bike culture and society". What's THAT all about? Why don't we hear about this angle?

I have found some great, informative and scientific websites with a great deal of studies and research paper. I'm just getting into it. I have no emotions invested in the issue since I don't live in a country that has any helmet debate. I'm looking forward to finding out some facts.

I'll post what I find as I find it.

Fakta om cykelhjelm
Fakta om sykkelhjelm
Fakta om cykelhjälm


Oddlily said...

Last week, I watched a pair of bicycle-riding helmet police (yes, we have /actual police officers/ monitoring the this) pull over a cyclist not wearing a helmet on the main pedestrian (and cyclist--no cars) boulevard of my university. They like to stake out the uni: that's where all the free-thinking cyclists are!

Anecdotally, the day before that I tripped up a set of stairs and planted my head in a wall. I wish I'd had a helmet then.

But, yes, riding on the roads here in Canberra, Australia--even those with bicycle lanes--is moderately dangerous, and I would never ride on them without a helmet. However, when going for a quick jaunt to the shops on our off-road bicycle lanes (we have some lovely ones going through parkland, and plenty of space to cycle around the city without going on the road) or from one end of the (very large) uni to the other, I would really like to not wear an awkward helmet without being accosted by police (they give warnings and then a fine).

danielo said...

I wonder if in America (where I am right now, at this very moment, no seriously, why would I kid you?), the helmet debate is yet another indirect excuse for not riding a bike.

"Helmets are cool, they're uncool, they are, if nothing else, contentious, and who has time for that? I know, for sure, that I don't have to wear a helmet to drive, so I'll just take the car until those bike freaks figure out the facts!"

I ride a bike, year-round, in a culture very opposed to such things. I wear a helmet in the winter because it helps keep my balaclava in place over my eyes. In the summer, it's a ghost to me.

aprilstarchild said...

Biking is just so much more dangerous here in the states. Even here in Portland, most people wear helmets. I know I do. The one time I forgot, I felt like my head was naked.

Even if there weren't cars, I might...there have been times when I'm whizzing downhill at a good speed, and it occured to me that if I was startled by something (anything), and jerked my handlebars, I'd still be toast whether a car was around or not.

I wish I didn't feel obligated to wear one. They're a hassle and even the less-ugly ones aren't high fashion or anything.

If I was visiting a country where nobody wore a helmet (like Denmark!), I probably wouldn't wear one. I'm sure I'd feel like enough of a tourist, no need to wear something that makes it so obvious.

green with a gun said...

In 1985-6, 3.4% of trips in Melbourne were by bicycle, in 1990 compulsory helmet wearing laws were brought in, in 2004 2.0% trips were by bicycle.

This Monash University study suggests that the introduction of helmets made head injuries drop in absolute numbers, but no effect on the rate of head injuries.

He writes, "In the first two years of the law, the percentage of serious injuries to cyclists resulting in death or serious head injury (%DSHI) fell by only 1.7 percentage points (from 26.5% to 24.8%). Over the same period, %DSHI for pedestrians (without helmets) fell by 2.5 percentage points. The gains in pedestrian safety are attributed to road safety campaigns to discourage speeding and drink-driving (introduced at almost the same time as the cycle helmet law). Assuming cyclists and pedestrians benefitted similarly from these campaigns, it is not possible to assign any positive outcome to the helmet law."

Bear in mind that Australia has little or no cycling-only lanes, so that cyclists are sharing either the pedestrian's pavement, or the car's road. So the most important factor in safety in both cases is the behaviour of the people.

For example, a couple of years back there was a guy cycling in a dedicated cycling lane (they just painted a line between the middle and side of the road), and a woman was busy sending text messages on her mobile phone, she swerved into the cycling lane, struck and killed the cyclist.

When a one tonne vehicle hits you at 80km/hr, it really doesn't matter if you're wearing a helmet or not.

Where helmets help is in cyclists just falling off, running into trees, losing their balance, striking pedestrians and so on. So there's some data to show that severe head injuries were prevented by helmet wearing. Though the full study I linked to denies that; but there are others around.

It just doesn't prevent fatalities. And that's because, as in my examples above, the collisions between cyclist and pedestrian, tree or ground are rarely violent enough to kill them; whereas the collisions between cyclist and vehicle wipe them out no matter what.

The measures that increase rates of cycling - dedicated and well-separated bike lanes, giving priority to bike traffic, etc - also increase cyclist safety. There's safety in numbers. If there are only a few cyclists around, vehicle drivers aren't careful of them, and regard them as an impediment, treating them with aggression and abuse. If there are heaps of cyclists around, they're treated as just another part of being on the road.

Interestingly, another study concluded that people in cars should wear helmets, saying,

"Full helmet protection would lessen the severity of more than 60 per cent of brain injuries, compared with a bicycle-style helmet (50 per cent) and better interior vehicle padding (30 per cent).
"a helmet would have avoided one in five fatal accidents[...]"

For reference, in 2006 Australia had 1,601 road fatalities; about 1/4 of these are "pedestrians", which includes cyclists.

But of course no-one will ever make car users wear helmets, even if it would save 300 lives a year :)

João Paulo Esperança said...

I am from Portugal, a country known for its petty prohibitions and regulations. In Salazar and Caetano times (before the “Carnation Revolution” of 25th April 1974) there were silly prohibitions like drinking Coca Cola and bringing it into the country, use a lighter in public without a proper official license (the license could be bought and its price in 1970 was enough to buy 60 newspapers or almost 200 pieces of bread – but it was only good for your personal use, a friend couldn’t borrow your lighter to light his cigar or he would be fined and the lighter apprehended), etc…
For a long time it was also mandatory to have a license to ride a bicycle and when I was a kid (I’m 35 now) our bicycles were required to have a license plate. And I had to go to the city hall when I was around ten to get my “rider’s license” – a card with a photo in it stating that the bearer was legally authorized to ride a bike. No one talked about helmets for bicycles in those times. But there was some debate about it a few years ago, even if it was only for a short time. Nowadays people are still riding bikes without helmets in my home town, the exception being bike racers training and one or two goofy individuals who probably moved here from Lisbon.
Personally I agree with the guy who says that "helmet legislation is harmful to bike culture and society". You use it if you want, but don't try to make others use it.

David said...

I'm always amazed, as I think you are, at how vocal people are on both sides of the issue. Anti-helmet people really hate helmets. Pro-helmet people really believe you're an idiot not to wear one.

I don't know who to believe, so I wear one out of agnosticism. It does me no harm to wear one, and may even do me some good some day. The way people drive in Toronto, I feel safer for doing so.

When I lived in Gothenburg, Sweden, I never wore one, because the cycling infrastructure meant that I was never at odds with drivers.

What I can say is that it frustrates me that governmental pro-cycling propaganda always shows people wearing stupid-looking helmets, which I would guess works against their cause. There are plenty of sexy helmets, why do I never see those in the propaganda?

JPTwins said...

In most of America, the cyclist is just not as ever present as in other countries. This makes most drivers not accustomed to the cyclist. This, therefore, means that the cyclist has to take his/her own safety into their own hands, thus the cycle. Unlike in Holland or Denmark where the government (national and local) has legislated bike lanes, bike bridges, bike waiting area, etc. making the average driver of that country EXTREMELY aware of the thousands of bikes around their car. they *know* to look for them.

That's the reason I wear my helmet in Boston. That, and Boston is one of the worst cities to ride in. Oh, and because my step-father would have died in a crash without his helmet. Hmm, now, i guess it's just a bit of superstition, as I would agree with aprilstarchild above and will not wear a helmet this summer in holland.

Zakkaliciousness said...

Thanks for all your comments. Great to hear your points of view.

At least nobody is arguing yet! :-)

Lots of good comments. And they all involve things I want to find out.

As aprilstarchild says, urban biking in America can't be compared with riding in Denmark or Amsterdam. Not at all. But it is much the same as riding in the UK or Australia.

As far as I can see from the documents I have most of the research on the subject is done in the UK and Australia. So it will interesting to see what the science says about the dangerousness and what have you.

Greenwithagun... I can see you have some of the same research studies. Thanks for that.

well, i've got me some reading to do....

Karl McCracken said...

But of course there's no argument yet - you said that you were interested in the science and statistics, so people have either posted numbers and data ("In God we trust, but everyone else had better bring data"), or their own personal feelings & experiences.

I wear a helmet for a number of reasons . . .

o Wife insists, and first got me lidded 12 years ago.
o I do fall off, and while I only hit the road and suffer only minor injuries, the helmet does protect me (I think) from those annoying concussions I used to get.
o Drivers here just don't look. I'm very unlikely to be hit from behind, but a car pulling out in front of me, the bike stopping, and me going sailing over the bonnet? Yeah, I could see that happening.
o In races it's compulsory, so I might as well get used to it in training & commuting!

greg said...

What about non-fatal but still damaging concussions? There have been a lot of studies recently about the threat of sub-fatal head injuries - perhaps there are injuries being prevented in addition to whatever fatalities avoided.

As for me, I cycle in the US, so I wear a helmet. I don't find it a bother (I'd wear some sort of hat in any case), but I can see why some folks might.

Helmet laws? Interesting question. If they discourage cycling I'm against them. If they save a meaningful number of lives then I for them. But what if they do both? :-)

Zakkaliciousness said...

interesting. I'm reading a report at the moment that deals with head injuries more than fatalities.

regarding what many people have written about "drivers not looking", I'm curious...

even here in copenhagen, where bikes heading straight have the right of way over cars turning, you'll still a long line of cyclists slowing down abruptly, in unison, if a car or truck looks as though they will turn without looking.

driving defensively. most of you lot are cyclists, i take it, all these motorists not accustomed to bikes in the traffic flow are involuntarily dangerous, sure. but don't you all keep your eyes peeled and, at the first hint of trouble, slow down or even stop?

Zakkaliciousness said...

worth mentioning that i've ridden in many north american cities, as well as european and australian cities. so i know about the motorists not looking.

Kevin Love said...

My own personal take on the issue:

Helmets are a hassle that is annoying and inconvenient, particularily for short urban trips. Here in Toronto, there is no car parking where I live or where I work, so there are lots of bicycles and public transit users.

The overwhelming majority of my trips are less than 5 km. This includes work, shopping, library, church, etc. I would estimate over 90% of trips are less than 5 km and 50% less than 2 km.

The nuisance factor: It takes a minute to put on and adjust a helmet. Two minutes in winter when I'm wearing a toque and parka hood under the helmet. If I am going less than 2 km, this is a significant percentage of total trip time.

There is also a security nuisance issue: One cannot secure a helmet with a standard U-lock. This makes it necessary to either take the helmet with me into work, church, shop or wherever I'm going or else get a chain and padlock to secure the helmet to the bicycle. And now I'm hauling the heavy chain and padlock when I'm biking up Toronto's hills.

All these things take time. A couple minutes to put on and adjust the helmet. A couple minutes to thread a chain through one of the holes in the helmet and attach it to the bike. If the trip is under 2 km, I could spend more time dealing with the helmet than biking!

Kevin Love said...

I should add that here in Toronto only children and e-bike riders are legally required to wear helmets. My observation is that helmets tend to be a suburban thing: few downtown cyclists wear helmets, but the percentage goes up in the suburbs.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for eliciting opinions from around the world. In the Midwest USA, cycling advocates and riders typically ridicule those w/o helmets.

Personally I use a helmet when riding in a group and/or at higher speed riding. Running errands and casual rides are done w/o but I've learned to stay far away from cars, even cyclists...lower standards beget lower results.


Morten said...

Dear Zakkaliciousness:

regarding the oft cited high figure for bicycle helmet effectiveness. See
Commentary:A case-control study of the effectiveness of bicycle safety helmets This study was on of the early ones and is popular among the proponents for it´s high estimate. It is a red flag for helmet sceptics because of the heavy slant and bad quality of the research, a critique that has been widely publicised, also in mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific journals.


Anonymous said...


Interesting thread.

I think a lot of the answers you're looking for about the conflicting studies (what they were and where they came from) can be found here. This is about as objective an overview as you can get.


Seth said...

I was biking normally one day and I got hung up with my right foot on my front fender. I fell over. I wasn't going at any speed but I fell over and smacked my arm and side of my forehead. Nothing serious, just enough to show a little blood and make my head hurt. I was fine. However, I decided then that while that was not a problem, it could have been pretty bad. So, I wear a helmet now b/c it costs me nothing to wear and I don't have to worry about that one situation.

My girlfriend had not ridden a bike until the age of 26 (I know, it's crazy) she was learning and wearing a helmet b/c when you learn to ride a bike you sometimes fall over. She was getting pretty good and balanced and she caught her hand on the handlebar grip wrongly and pulled it sideways pretty hard and flew over the bars. She landed sideways and smacked her head good enough to do some damage. The helmet absorbed it all and she was a bit dizzy but fine. She wears a helmet all the time, too.

I don't think helmets should be mandatory. I don't think seatbelts should be mandatory, either. I don't think eating a good diet should be mandatory. I don't think riding a bike should be mandatory, either.

I do, however, think that all of the above are good ideas and people should do them b/c they are good ideas. I'm not going to yell and scream and pitch a fit if someone is not doing them, I just think they are good ideas.

Thanks for the blog.

philbert said...

Until you've been in a serious auto vs bike accident, it's hard to appreciate the value of a helmet. I can staunchly state that a helmet has saved my life in such an accident and, for that reason, I'd rather not ride without one. They're really not as cumbersome as some would think and, at least in bigger American cities, you'll get more respect from the cyclists who actually know what they're doing.

My two cents.

Colin.cycling said...

The helmet issue is very difficult to assess fully because much of the information is based on comparisons rather than per hour of activity, sufficent survey data is not normally availabe. Another complication is the overall accident rate range can vary a factor of about 10 to 1 per distanced travelled, for example long distance tourist compared to children or untrained adult.

My Velocity report gives an insight to the topic, see www.ctcyorkshirehumber.org.uk/campaigns/velo.htm

It shows helmet laws have done more harm than good and the issue should have been more carefully approached.

One piece of research that may help would be to measure the balance index of individuals, starting with children from such as the Netherlands who have been carried on bikes from being very young and compare their index with others such from say the UK who may have done far less cycling. Research and a programme to minimise the risk of falling off a bike could reduce overall accidents and identify/measure individauls who have less control.

I can send a pdf of my Velo paper if required, email colin@vood.freeserve.co.uk

Morten said...

Anecdotally, I have fallen once with a helmet and got a concussion, and also crashed with another cyclist and got a concussion. The first kept me from work for a day. After I (almost) quit using a helmet two years ago( and during the 15 years w/o helmet prior to that), I never hurt my head, in spite of several crashes.

I virtually quit using a helmet, after having been forced into a debate on their effectiveness, after insurance companies moved to make it illegal also for adults to cycle without helmets in Iceland. I read the literature for one year before I decided to see if I became more aware of safety without the helmet, and I did, especially at first. At about the same time it came to pass that the Dept for transportation silently dropped the plans for expanding the helmet law, citing strong opposition from cyclists. I do think, however, that the (unofficial) negative verdict of the Icelandic institute for public health played a major role.

I now participate in work to learn and teach about safer, and more assertive and visible (by positioning) cycling, using British material. Do a web search for "Cyclecraft", "bicyclesafe" and Bikeability.

I second that the Wikipedia-article is a great resource for the person seeking the most balanced information.

is clearly sceptical but references and comments on a host of papers that conclude otherwise. It is advisable to check cyclehelmets.org (use the search box) for a review of papers when proponents refer to studies "proving" that helmets work "as advertised", or even better :-)

Its Danish sister page needs expanding.
A good reference link, showing that hysterical helmet promotion is very much alive in Denmark is included, in the Danish Wikipedia article, though. I also notice that DCF.dk in spite of being a member of member of European Cyclists ECF.com heavily promote helmets. DCF has not replied to my queries, nor has your "cycling mayor" , Brit Bjerregaard. You definitely need a debate on this in Denmark. Here helmet proponents say "Yes, but even in Denmark more and more people wear helmets". The Danes and the Dutch do bear some responsibility in taking these matters seriously. Untruthful and forceful helmet promotion is an important step on the road to compulsion.

Tim McFarlane said...

I wear a helmet to provide myself with some measure of security against major head trauma. As noted, it might not matter much if I'm hit by a two ton vehicle moving at a high rate of speed, but I feel better wearing one than not.

driving defensively. most of you lot are cyclists, i take it, all these motorists not accustomed to bikes in the traffic flow are involuntarily dangerous, sure. but don't you all keep your eyes peeled and, at the first hint of trouble, slow down or even stop?

The above quote is part of my personal riding strategy; defensive riding. If I see that there's something about to slow things down or a driver suddenly slows, I'll slow down, evaluate the situation and decide whether I can move around it safely or stay put.

The other day I was riding up a busy street. A car was stopped at the red light and about to turn right. A cyclist was riding on the extreme right (I was in the middle of the lane), rode past the car just as the light changed. The driver was already in motion and the cyclist made no attempt to slow down. He swerved around the front of the car as it was turning and made a face at the driver as if the driver was in the wrong.

A bike helmet is a moot point when paired with ignorance and arrogance.

Some of the problems we have in the U.S. with bikes on the streets is that there isn't enough education/understanding on either side of the road-sharing issue. There's a lot of antagonism against cyclists and vice-versa.

A lot of (mostly younger, but some older ones who should know better) cyclists/commuters here feel that traffic laws don't apply to them: not stopping at lights, moving in and out of traffic lanes, not using the slightest of hand signals for turns, etc...

Many drivers refuse to acknowledge the right of cyclists to be on the road and don't know how (or don't want) to share the road.

The helmet debate is just one part of a much larger problem. In our car-centric culture, bikes are treated as a step between learning to walk and learning to drive. That's it. Once you learn to drive, then bikes are relegated to the kids in most people's minds. It's getting better, but we have a loooooong way to go...

Svend said...

I wear a helmet, just feel safer - why not reduce the chance of serious injury a bit? It doesn't make me a more cautious or more reckless rider, no difference.
It doesn't bother me to wear and I don't bother locking it up.
I don't preach about it, just set an example to make it more common so it looks less dorky.

It's ironic that a more capitalist country enacts laws for the good of all, yet more socialist ones leave it up to the individual. Same with cigarettes, those strange Danes smoke up a storm despite having healthier living standards in other ways.

Morten said...

Q2. What is a helmet advocate? Why does someone choose to be one? Aren't there better things to do? More important issues to advocate? Like lobbying for bike-friendly infrastructure or awareness of bikes in traffic?

Attempts to answer briefly:
Some people choose to become helmet advocates because they have experienced an bicycle accident to themselves and/or others. Protecting oneself seems very, very logical. They experience strong, inspired truth, about the common good, almost like born-again christians. There have also been allegations of the car-lobby and helmet industry pitching in with those individuals.

Many comparisons of safety measures , even with inflated estimates of helmet efficiency, have shown e.g speed reductions of motor traffic, reduction in drinking intoxicated by alcohol, other substances or sleepiness to be more important. Also head injuries in other groups in or out of traffic take a larger toll. On segregated facilities, the jury is out. I'd say their primary benefit is to encourage cycling, and thereby health, environment, (etc times 6 or 15)

Q3. Is cycling really as dangerous as it is made out to be in some countries? What's all this talk about "I wear a helmet 'cause I don't want to end up dead or a vegetable". What are the risks of this happening? Scientifically speaking? Why all this over-dramatised fear-mongering? What science is it based on?
One-eyed "science". Comparing risks on a per-distance basis, and including trips using extremely expensive infrastructure, like motorways/freeways. The EU publication "Cycling the way ahead for towns and cities" , written under the auspices of the aforementioned Bjerregaard, Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, sees this in another light.

Q4. Why does the bike helmet issue only exist in those countries in the world with the highest rates of obesity and not anywhere else? Why is it most vocal in America? Is it the litigation culture that has created this safety culture? What's more important; getting people wearing helmets or getting people to ride their bikes?

Several countries' politicians as well as the European arm of the WHO, seem to believe that helmets save lives, but compulsion reduces cycling, especially if it is enforced when wearing rates are low. Thus they do not want compulsion, but advocate helmet propaganda. Sadly the propaganda is most often just that i.e. very emotional and biased, in its "facts" , as can be seen in e.g. Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Q5. I recall reading an interview with a European urban planner who said that European countries won't legislate bike helmet usage because "there is no scientific proof that bike helmets have any effect" and that "helmet legislation is harmful to bike culture and society". What's THAT all about? Why don't we hear about this angle?

This angle does not sell well, except where cycling already stands strong, and there are journalists that feel they understand and that their readers will understand. ( Car salesmen have strong influence on media ) The "helmets save" mantra is also strong, and it takes courage to question it.

However, another EU booklet, conveys those sentiments, and says focus on helmets constitutes victim blaming. Kids on the move was written under the auspices of the successor of Bjerregard as EU commissioner for the Environment, Margot Wallström.

The notion that traffic safety for soft modes of transport that are restrictive, directly or indirectly to their movement, is not the right way to go, was pointed out in a report of the European Conference of Transport Ministers, building in part on the results from EU research programme "PROMISING".

WestfieldWanderer said...

Regarding the Australian helmet law. It was noted that cyclist head injuries reduced after the law was introduced. The proponents of the law claimed that this indicated the effectiveness of helmet wearing. What they omitted to mention was that cycling almost died out after the law came in, which, naturally would have reduced the casualties! Good ruse - eliminate cycling casualties by eliminating cycling! I'm told that it took a good ten years for cycling levels to return to pre-law levels.

The British, and I think, European standard for helmet is that it should protect the skull where you hit the edge of a kerb at 12 mph. As others have stated a helmet will offer zero protection against a piece of moving heavy machinery.

My own views on helmet wearing? I say you pays your money, you takes your choice. But NEVER try force another person to accede to YOUR rules. There are already way to many messianic missionaries in the world trying to bend it their will. Long live free choice!

Zakkaliciousness said...

what a long list of sober, interesting comments. just the mere fact that over 20 people have commented in the past 20 hours is a sign that this issue strikes a chord.

like i said, i have a massile pile of research printed out and am in the process of reading. many of the studies are mentioned in the comments - thanks for the links.

A couple of brief replies: Svend, 40% of Danes are smokers, which is roughly the same percentage as in many western nations, including the USA.

Morten: I have a booklet about bike helmets from the Danish Cyclists' Union from 1996 wherein they state that they support voluntary helmet use and they distance themselves from legislation.

Suddenly, it seems, they have gotten all helmety. They don't reply to my emails, either. They cite the same facts as helmet advocates in other countries, but leave out the scientific evidence that indicates the opposite.

I have been reading that helmet manufacturers are good at funding pro-funding groups. i wonder how much the Danish Cyclists Union may earn. There is little alternative explanation to their change of opinion.

Longleaf Bicycles said...

Here's what I've noticed from my perch in the States.

Helmet zealots are usually deeply committed, though perhaps conflicted, about car culture and the helmet is a way to assuage this conflict. Cars being quite efficient at killing people (1.2 million a year they say) the helmet has become the primary symbol for bicycle safety, imbued with magical powers to ward off injury and death.

In the states bike helmets aren't about bikes. They're about cars, the risks that cars pose to bikers, and how the public can avoid feelings of guilt.

I've never met a helmet zealot who didn't own a car and drive regularly.

Anthony King

Frank said...

Interesting discussion, and nice that it's quite civil so far.

My personal story: I've bicycled for nearly all of my 60 years. Since 1972, I've cycled enthusiastically as an adult, commuting by bike in various American cities, and touring extensively in several countries.

Until about 1978 or so, I never heard much about bicycling being unusually dangerous, and I certainly never heard anything linking bicycling to any rash of head injuries. Then Bell Sports came out with their helmet, and suddenly the propaganda was everywhere. "Why, you could topple over and DIE!"

I was very skeptical. Then my wife grew worried, and I donned a helmet to please her. I bought the propaganda...

... until perhaps ten years ago, when I actually started digging into the research. Surprise! I found that cycling is NOT very dangerous. (Safer than swimming!) And I found that helmets are NOT very effective in preventing the few serious head injuries that do occur. Certainly, mandatory helmet laws have been a big flop! (Unless, that is, you're selling helmets!)

I now wear a helmet only when it's mandatory, and sometimes not even then. And I firmly believe that the culture of fear used to promote helmets is very harmful to cycling.

Much of the information that changed my mind is available at www.cyclehelmets.org. And regarding the danger or safety of bicycling, I modestly recommend http://www.bicyclinglife.com/SafetySkills/SafetyQuiz.htm
or http://tinyurl.com/yqquw5

green with a gun said...

Svend wrote, "It's ironic that a more capitalist country enacts laws for the good of all, yet more socialist ones leave it up to the individual."

That's because the more capitalist countries have a stronger car culture, and in this car culture the responsibility for road safety in car-bike interactions is pushed away from the car driver and towards the cyclist.

So rather than having a programme promoting awareness of cyclists, they enact a law enforcing helmet-wearing.

Me, I am neither pro- nor anti-helmet. I don't see how helmet-wearing can do harm to an individual, but I do see that it discourages cycling in general. But other things more strongly discourage cycling, for example having no separate biking lane.

If they enforced helmet-wearing but brought in cycling lanes and lots of Copenhagen and Amsterdam-style approaches to cycling, I wouldn't have a problem with it. They'd be trying for safety while encouraging cycling - and as is well-known, the more cyclists the safer cycling is.

But instead they promote car use, and discourage everything else. Whether we use cars, public transport, cycle or walk should be our own free choice. And it's not a free choice; they strongly encourage cars, reluctantly allow public transport, and discourage everything else.

So the helmet-wearing enforcing isn't really about the safety of cyclists. If they really wanted safe cyclists they'd encourage and support cycling. It's about putting responsibility for safety in cyclist-car interactions onto the cyclist.

So that if some idiot is texting on her mobile phone and swerves into you at 70km/h, if you die it's your fault for not wearing a helmet. Woops, he was wearing one and died anyway. Oh well - six months suspended sentence and 12 months loss of licence, pretty girl who cried at the trial.

twodeadpoets said...

Lately I've been questioning my use of a helmet although my wife insists I wear one. If it weren't for that, think I'd like to ride in some situations without it but in North America not wearing one seems the equivalent to being caught smoking in public and in that you're of "bad moral character." "What you do in your own home is of your concern but when in public you'd better be wearing a damn helmet and unlit!" I think even my wife would not want to be seen with me if I were without a helmet.

Another interesting thing to consider is that US is a lawsuit happy culture, Canada on it’s way to becoming so. I live on property that my wife’s organization owns and it is in their policy that everyone riding on the property must be wearing a helmet. This isn't as much for safety (traffic is minimal) as it is for insurance purposes and consequently to avoid lawsuits.

So I continue to wear a helmet, partially because the local drivers are particularly crazy and the roads very biker unfriendly but also because I don't want the Catholic guilt from my wife and be seen by others as a "bad, bad" person. But know that from time to time I would love to unchaste my golden locks (more like dishwater colour stubble) and allow them to flow freely in the breeze.


NPerry said...

People's understanding of the level of protection offered by helmets is often at odds with reality.

In reality helmets are tested by dropping them 1.5m while fitted to a headform.

Layperson's interpretation: If you are over 1.5m tall, trip while walking, and pitch headfirst onto the pavement/sidewalk then you have exceeded the test specification of a bicycle helmet.

Putting in the numbers: a fall from 1.5m amounts too an impact speed of ~20Km/h or ~12mph.

This is why bicycle helmets are *not* rated for collision with vehicles.

So an interesting question is why do so many people say they wear a helmet when they are around busy traffic?

And what about those people who believe their helmet has saved them in a vehicle collision, when such is outside the specification of helmets?

Anonymous said...

Bicycle helmets are of no help in a serious car crash: they're only designed to protect your head in simple falls; they do not offer enough protection against the forces of being hit by a high-speed 2-tonne bullet. For decent protection, you'd need something like a motorcycle helmet, which is way too heavy for such physical activity as bicycling is.

Also some studies show that most serious brain injuries result from torsional forces, not direct hits, and helmets offer no protection against those. In fact, they may make the situation worse, by increasing the size and mass of your head. When hit by a car, you're likely to roll on the bonnet or on the asphalt, causing these torsional forces.

As for the simple falls: I can see helmets being useful for children (and others learning to ride) and the elderly, whose sense of balance may not necessarily be so great anymore. But a tricycle does the same thing, and if you take bicycle helmet compulsion to its logical compulsion, there should be walking helmet compulsion, and "standing on the chair to change the light bulb helmet compulsion", etc. You're just as likely to fall down in these activities. (In fact, from my personal experience, you're more likely to fall over when walking than when cycling, especially on icy surfaces: with a bike you can quickly put down a third support point, a food, whereas when walking, once you loose your feet, there's nothing to support you until you hit the ground.)

Adults skilled in bicycling (and not too intoxicated) are quite unlikely to simply fall over given good bicycling infrastructure. Also, when you do fall from a moderate speed (and the helmet offers little protection at high speed falls), your natural reflexes are quite likely to be able to protect your head from even hitting the ground. I've occasionally fallen on bad surface (very slicky ice under snow and, especially, loose gravel on asphalt, as it takes ages for them to clean it up in the spring after the snow has melted, causing also serious breathing difficulties, as the cars raise it all up in the air), and I've never hit my head. That's not to say it couldn't happen the next time I fall over, but the likelyhood of that seems too small to justify the inconvenience of wearing a helmet.


The list of countries with mandatory bicycle helmet laws from Wikipedia is interesting: "The following countries have mandatory helmet laws, in at least one jurisdiction, for either minors only, or for all riders: Australia, Canada, Finland, Iceland, Israel, Sweden, USA, and New Zealand." These are all very American/car-oriented places, and perhaps Israel aside, sparsely populated. (The swedes even joke that they're more American than America, but I must say they lose to Finland.) I think some easter european countries do also have compulsory bicycle helmet laws (and indeed they're seeming to choose a new role model in America after getting rid of the Soviets...)

Anonymous said...

One more thing.

One situation in which I might even support bicycle helmet compusion, is small children riding on a children's seat on an adult's bicycle. They can't protect themselves in the event of a fall at all, and fall from high compared to their own size. I once saw a lady wearing a helmet herself, fall with her bike on an icy surface, and the small child on the seat on the rack did indeed hit its unhelmeted head. That's quite serious neglect, protecting their own head, but not that of a much more vulnerable passenger.

Of course, cargo-style tricycles often offer an even better solution again.

Zakkaliciousness said...

The biggest question I now have, thanks to all of you, is why are these voices not heard in the debate? all of your sober, thoughtful, well-informed, researched points of view.

The helmet advocates are louder, perhaps.

Seth said...

To the person who asked why not wear a helmet walking? I am not an advocate for mandatory helmets on anything but as an amusing anecdote. I was working under a table (putting a shelf together) and I kept underestimating the length of the edge of the table and banging my head. After the 3rd time I got up, went over to my bike, got my helmet, put it on and then the next time I hit my head It didn't hurt.


disgruntledcommuter said...

I don't wear a helmet because I feel less safe without one. No helmet = cycling more defensively. If I wore a helmet the false sense of security would probably make me take worse risks. As I don't think a helmet will save me from much but road rash, I'm on balance safer without one.

Plus I read some recent British research (sorry ZAkkalicious, I don't have the reference) that showed drivers passed closer to bikes where the rider wore a helmet than where the rider didn't (they also gave a wider berth to wobbly cyclists and women)

OTOH, cyclists caught up in accidents who weren't wearing helmets got lower rates of compensation than those who were, even if the injuries weren't to their heads and where the driver of the car was completely at fault (drunk, speeding, running red lights), so if you don't want a helmet, get a good lawyer.

WestfieldWanderer said...

I think "disgruntled commuter" might be referring to some research done by Dr. Ian Walker of Bath University.

Interesting reading.

Riccardo said...

Hy from Italy.
I really don't know if it is a question of Law or not Law.
Last year I am fallen down in a mountain track with my mountain bike...in a race...
The helmet crash...my head not.
So I prefear to wear one everyday...

Morten said...

Ricardo :
Of course you and anyone else are free to wear helmets. Especially in settings where you are not interacting with traffic, but take chances regarding speed, terrain etc.

You feel convinced that your helmet saved you, but perhaps, the outcome would have been entirely different, and you had not actually hit your head if you did not have a helmet on. One point is that of risk compensation. You might have taken less chances without the helmet. Another is that of size etc. You could possibly have avoided hitting your head because it would be smaller, and slightly lighter (and cooler ?) without a helmet.

I understand your helmet cracked into several pieces ? If so the helmet has very probably not functioned as designed. Helmets are designed and tested to compress the inner liner, in such a manner to reduce and distribute the force to the skull.

People with expertise in the field say that a broken helmet, without a compression of the liner has essentially failed its task.

I repeat : Of course "no-one" will say you should not wear a helmet, and especially not in mountain biking races. However, I think I would consider a BMX type helmet, as they have more solid outer shells, and would withstand sharp rocks better.

Morten said...

Regarding the law matter, I agree that law or not law is not (the whole) issue. There is also the issue of conveying truthful and balanced information on what changes / interventions / training could have the greatest effect on cycling safety, especially as pertains to commuting. Nowadays, what we see, except in the Netherlands I believe, is an inflated emphasis on helmets, and scaremongering about cyclist safety in order to convince people of the necessity to wear them.

The British bicycle safety expert John Franklin, author of Cyclecraft, points to research that indicates strongly that those that start cycling daily, live longer and healthier lives. The WHO ( "THE PEP" program) even provided a tool for governments to calculate net public health benefits from increased cycling.

It is based on data from Copenhagen, but the leading author (Lars Bo Andersen) has maintained that the results have been confirmed in British data. The WHO is aware of several studies pointing in the same direction. Helmets are not _very_ widely used in either country, but the cycling environment has a much friendlier air in Copenhagen. The point though, is that the public health bit dwarfes the traffic safety bit, even in Britain. Mayer Hillman says by a factor 20.

P.S. I think the Netherlands government is the only one with a sound stance on helmets. It is referenced in the WHO helmet handbook, in a special "box" ( Box 1.3 p.17) on the Netherlands view. Except for the inclusion of this box, there is very little positive to be said about the manual, regarding bicycle helmets. Our "favourite" authors were contributors, but those scientists that have criticised their work, have not been consulted or even informed, and incredibly no mention is made of the scientific debate. Additionally they mangle motorcycle helmets and bicycle helmets into one soup, which does not make for clear thoughts on the specific considerations in each case. I could go on about this, but I'll just mention that the WHO was interested in joining a workshop on helmets at the Velo-City 2007 conference in Munich, but bailed out when they understood we wanted to discuss, not promote helmets.

nperry said...

zakkaliciousness said... "The biggest question I now have, thanks to all of you, is why are these voices not heard in the debate? all of your sober, thoughtful, well-informed, researched points of view."

I'll postulate a theory on this one:

We like to protect our young, and can be quite irrational about it. Over time we've let adult fears change the environment to protect our kids, but the result is unfortunately often the opposite. We also don't want our actions, like driving cars, to been seen as responsible for negative effects on our kids. It is worth reading: One False Move — A Study of Children’s Independent Mobility, PSI. Hillman, M., 1993.

Bicycle helmet promotion preys, intentionally or otherwise, on this dual - fear for our kids, and our actions are not responsible. It tells us there is a problem (our fears are justified), it is not our problem (great, I can carry on driving badly), and this simple plastic hat will solve it (great, our kids are safe again).

Start a debate with any well prepared helmet law advocate and it won't be long until you hear "So you don't want to protect the kids then?". Been there, heard that.

That the danger is exaggerated, the solution isn't designed for the problem, and the bad environment is indeed largely the fault of adults, are all lost in our enthusiasm to embrace the easy "solution".

Personally I find handing a kid a bicycle helmet and telling them it will protect them in traffic, when we know it isn't designed for that, is little more than child abuse. One can excuse the well meaning, but misinformed parents who push them; but the safety professionals and politicians are without defense.

And so the debate continues: pro-helmet law vs. pro-health and safety; easy answers vs. tough choices. It's human nature.

Freth said...

Sometimes I wear one ... sometimes I just wear a baseball cap. I've taken 50 - 100 mile trips in dense traffic with no bike lanes & no helmet.

When tasking the bike rides with the Mayor of Los Angeles ... the Mayor and most of the people didn't have helmets.

I've been "over the bonnet" several times on a regular bike ... usually just chewed up my hands, elbows, and knees.

My lowracer recumbent sits only 9 inches above the ground ... so falling over isn't an issue.

Having a big, long, flag sticking a couple of feet out to the rear/side of my bike really helps with cars ... they don't want to damage their car, so they drive around the flag ... leaving me perfectly safe on my recumbent.

green with a gun said...

Zakkalicious asked, "why are these voices not heard in the debate? all of your sober, thoughtful, well-informed, researched points of view?"

Stupid people are always noisier.

Also, it's easier to see that someone reliant on a car is more likely than someone reliant on a bicycle to favour helmet-wearing. I mean, me with no car is in favour of people who lose their driving licence having their car confiscated, too - but I'd not expect a regular car driver to be in favour of that!

I once knew a guy who regularly drank and drove, speeded and so on. He said, "Road rules are designed to make the road safe for bad drivers. I'm a good driver, so I don't need to worry about the rules, I can break the rules and still be safe."

Everyone is in favour of everyone else having restrictions, and themselves having no restrictions.

So, car drivers are more likely to favour helmets, and cyclists more likely not to; in the West we have 85% of all trips taken by car, and 0-5% by bicycle. So the car voices will be heard more often, and for the cyclists to be heard they must be very noisy and annoying.

The 10% or so who sometimes drive, sometimes cycle, or who do only one but are sane enough to see the point of view of another, they're easily drowned out.

Again, I don't have a problem with compulsory helmet wearing, except that it discourages cycling; if we were to encourage cycling by other means Amsterdam/Copenhagen-style, then it wouldn't matter.

I'd rather have 33% of trips taken by cyclists wearing helmets, than 4% without. I just want to see lots of people walking and cycling rather than driving their cars. Because cars suck.

Anonymous said...

"I don't wear a helmet because I feel less safe without one. No helmet = cycling more defensively."

Indeed, I find that helmet-wearers can be a danger to the rest of us, bicyclists and pedestrians. While it won't protect them against the cagers, it does offer some protection to them when they crash onto us.

Just like driving an ever bigger car is arms race against bicyclists, pedestrians and smaller cars, a helmet is arms race against other bicyclists and pedestrians. From that POV, helmets should be banned.

lee.watkins said...

From the stats i've seen, you're way more likely to get a head injury in a car, per mile traveled (by a factor of 10 maybe), than on a bike. This assumes experienced adult males, not children. By any reasonable logic, you'd keep you helmet in your car, not on your bike. Helmet use is then social, not rational.

The debate on liability also does not hold any water, because in that case the safety measure must cause fewer deaths overall than it saves by it's design. For example, air bags killy many many people, but they save more people than they kill, so the liability is balanced in favor of it's use. In contrast if you look at the neglect of bicycles directly attributed to mandatory helmet laws, the resulting rise in health-related fatalities is far greater than the absolute number of lives saved by remaining cyclists who choose to obey helmet laws. At any rate the rate head injures (per person-mile) does not change, only the absolute number of fatalities, because there are fewer cyclists. Overall, the libality is balanced against helmet mandates, by any examination. Since helmets kill more people than they save, they are a negative liability.

So rather than being hit by cars, they instead dying inside them at far higher rates, or by health issues, again at for higher rates. What's missing from the helmet debate is a broader analysis of true risk factors.

It should be clear at this point that if helmets were mandated in cars, but abolished for bikes, then the public would naturally trend towards a healthier lifestyle with a more positive liability assessment based on known risk factors.

Hugh said...

Interesting discussion. Admittedly I'm only fairly new to return to cycling, but I've never realised that there *was* a debate about helmets. Here in Australia helmets have been compulsory for quite a while now and no-one seems to get very upset about it. Interestingly when Melbourne City Council recently looked at a free bike rental scheme like Lyon, Paris etc they came up against an unexpected obstacle - helmet laws. Zack you *may* find some useful Australian stats here: http://www.cyclingresourcecentre.org.au/29/Statistics_Common_Crashes

Anonymous said...

Back in 1986 the Bikesafe conference in Australia detailed an 18 page article 'Encouraging helmet wearing' going into how to covert people to wearing helmets. It was part of an overall stratey, very well considered, using the media to maximum advantage. Victoria estimated the gains from selling helmets at $8 million per year. Monash Univ provided one sided reports published in journals across the world. The stage was set for pushing for world wide sales.

In 1985-6, 3.4% of trips in Melbourne were by bicycle, in 1990 compulsory helmet wearing laws were brought in, in 2004, 2.0% of trips were by bicycle, this is a 41% reduction.

In 2006 a researcher from NSW Dorothy Robinson reported "A longer term series of identical counts of all cyclists over six years at 25 sites in Sydney found a 48% decrease from 1991 to 1996." Accident data from South Australia indicates cycling is still well below pre law levels. Survey data from Western Australia indicates cycling may have recovered but their population has increased. Many cycling trips are short journeys and helmets make cycling less convenient every time you ride a bike.

The above information shows overall cycling in Australia has still not recovered. Per million population, approximately 2 cyclist deaths occur annually compared with 3000+ from circulatory diseases. The health benefits of cycling far exceed the risks so helmet laws do cause more harm than good.

Charles Pergiel said...

Follow the money. I suspect the biggest promoter of bicycle helmets are the helmet manufacturers. Who else stands to make any money off of this?

I used to ride a lot, and I wore a helmet, for a variety of reasons, but not because I thought it would save my life.

Svend said...

I believe a broken helmet after a fall means that it did it's job - took most of the impact.
If it was designed to not break, then more of the shock would transfer to your head.

Anonymous said...

Back in the 1980s, when helmets first started becoming available, one freind of mine, a bike racer, adamantly refused to try one. "I don't dare wear a helmet," he said, "I'll feel like I'm invulnerable, and I'll probably kill myself." Having ridden with him, I found it hard to disagree. Given the actual margin of protection provided by helmets, I have come to the conclusion that the only instances in which the rider can justifiably say "It saved my life" are those in which the rider is actually concussed and in a coma. At that point,if they do recover, their recovery can be attributed to the helmet. Otherwise, all that can truly be said is that the helmet reduced the severity of any injuries they suffered, not that this is a bad thing. People like to exaggerate and dramatize, and we have been told for so long that helmets will save our lives that it is an immediate reflex to pull out the "I'd be dead if I wasn't wearing it" testimonial - yes, very much like the born again Christians. It also helps to justify the expense of buying a new one, since they only work once. One of the regular posters at bikeportland.org is know as Opus the Poet, and he can truly say that a helmet saved his life. He does not find this an unmixed blessing, though, and he is vehemently opposed to helmet laws. Personally, I am opposed to such laws because no one gets to tell me what hat to wear. No one. Val

Morten said...

Svend said...

I believe a broken helmet after a fall means that it did it's job - took most of the impact. If it was designed to not break, then more of the shock would transfer to your head.

That is a very common belief, and cracking helmets seem to be very common amongst those that think their helmet helped them a lot in a crash.

However, I checked out the helmet FAQ, and found :

Note {8a} :

Improved shock absorbing liner for helmets

Excerpts :
"These samples are inconsistent because they were post-expanded with poorly fused beads of foam and generally all showed cracking through the slab thickness."

"An interesting situation occurs for the dual-density foam impacted on the reverse side (A2R), when impacted at a drop height of 1.83m on hard surfaces. The more dense side of the liners crack when impacted by the Mg-headform, rather than deform inwards. This inhibits crushing and results in lower crushing values than those obtained for the single-density foam samples."

"In other words, in a real crash situation, it is preferable that the force of impact occurs over the longest possible time to improve the outcome of the motorcyclist and cyclist. It is desired that cracking does not occur, as this does not assist in the protection of the human cranium."

A note about protecting the cranium : That is of course desirebale, but what is most precious ? The brain, not the cranium.

And to many people's surprise, the brain can be badly damaged without hurting or even impacting the cranium at all, through switft rotation or deceleration of the head, producing torsional /shearing forces on the brain as mentioned by "anonymous". According to scientist Bill Curnow, who cites an extensive peer-reviewd material, much smaller rotational forces than translational forces are "needed" to damage the brain. (See Curnow, W.J. 2003, Accident Analysis and Prevention, and articles quoting it )
Look up Diffuse Axional Injury.

I´m no expert in this field, and perhaps there are some inaccuracies in the above, but I think what I convey here makes some sense and is important.

chandru said...

I am a fairly regular cyclist in Brooklyn NY and I never wear a helmet. Many of my cycling (and non-) friends think that's crazy.

But my response is that if you are a careful (almost paranoid) cyclist like me (I grew up in India, and if you can cycle there, you can do so anywhere,) who goes quite slowly. I doubt I would fall off my bike. I would only get into accidents where a helmet would not help-- ie with a vehicle.

I have one fiend who rode into a pothole at 15mph (on a city street) and injured himself fairly badly. Another told me hit a pedestrian who "stepped out between cars" on a local street (he was going "too fast" to stop)...is this responsible cycling?

Many cyclists here go too fast, ignore all lights (to be fair, I do too, but only when there's NO traffic) and in general, act is if they are both invulnerable and have the God-given right to never have to lose momentum.

This sense of entitlement does the rest of us such disservice. But until cycling is a normative activity in the US, we will be controlled by the fanatics, of the helmet- kind and others.

crotach said...

Fascinating comments. Thanks for raising this issue. As many from the USA have mentioned, I too wear a helmet while commuting. Earlier this winter I was riding down a street, heading to my local for an afternoon pint. I went through this shaded section which was very icy. In a split second I was on my back with my bike on top of me. It was totally my fault for not paying attention and the hemet did its job. My helmet (which is white) gives me a bit more visibility at night as well. And finally, I actually like carrying my helmet with me when going into a store - it has started a lot of conversations with other folks about the beauty of bicycle commuting. That said, I find helmet laws really annoying. The main reason? City planners push through a helmet law and can then tick off an item on their "bicycle infrastructure to-do list". I think the emphasis on helmets is just an easy answer to the hard questions involved in making changes to our infrastructure here.

Anonymous said...

The vast vast majority of injuries on bicycles are the complete fault of motorists.

If there was a stupid law like that here I would declare that my vehicle was NOT a bicycle and was in fact a velocipede, and bring it on, losers, you can talk to my lawyers, by the way, you could stand to put a few hours on a velocipede yourself, chubby.

kpankow said...

In "Accident Analysis and Prevention" was article from Ian Walker (http://drianwalker.com/work.html) last year named "Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender".
Link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.aap.2006.08.010
Well, according to this, it is safest to be female and without a helmet. ;-)
Then car driver give more space when overtaking. It is a kind of risk compensation strategy. A helmet wearing cyclist is assumed to be more experienced, so he can be overtaken closer. A cycling woman is probably assumed to be less experienced, at least in Britain, so the driver gives more space. Psychology is so intriguing.

Fritz said...

The 85% figure comes from a study in Seattle in the late 80s. At the time, helmets were not widely used, and when they were used it was typically by the middle class and wealthy who didn't ride in urban streets.

The 1989 Seattle study compared deaths and head injury rates of helmet wearing children and non-helmet wearing children. Of all the children wearing helmets, none were involved in a car collision, and most were riding on empty residential streets, in parks or on bike paths. Of the fatalities and more serious injuries, these were all inner city, often minority children riding their bikes through city traffic.

The so-called "anti-helmet" people don't generally "hate" helmets, as Dave claims. We just hate the ridicule and preaching that Jack reports on from the Midwest.

Several helmet-wearing commentators here clearly believe the myth that cycling in America is dangerous. As others note, your chance of head injury is not that much greater than the motorist's. Head injury rates among American cyclists are about the same between the 70s (when helmets were almost non-existent) and today (when helmet use is much higher).

Cheryl said...

I used be a fairly rabid helmet wearer and proponent. I can remember saying, as recently as ten years ago, oh...that cyclist should have a helmet on. I'm from California, LA and now in SF. What changed? I went to Copenhagen on vacation.

After that I started to almost resent feeling that I needed to gird up like a warrior to ride to work, or the grocery store. Now my trips on my city bike (70% of my riding) are helmet free, and my weekend rides on my road bike are helmet-full.

And yes, I think the cars are more careful around helmetless cyclists.

Alan Preston said...

In Copenhagen you have over 35% of the population getting around on their bicycles,-mostly without helmets and certainly with no compulsion to wear them.

Contrast that with Christchurch, New Zealand's (mythically) most cycle-friendly city where only about 2.5 % of the population get around by bike,-and with a $55 fine for not wearing a helmet, 99% of those who choose to cycle do wear them.
In New Zealand, cycling has been marginalised to 'those who will comply'.


João Paulo Esperança said...

In some areas of the United States there are cowboys who ride horses while working with cattle. If some city slicker from New York showed up there saying from now on they would have to wear helmets when riding their horses, they would probably just laugh and go on with their business as usual. Well, that’s pretty much the feeling of the folks in my hometown. Bicycle culture is not as strong as it used to be when I was younger, mainly due to consumerism, but for many people here riding a bicycle is not sports or healthy alternative living or a new environmental friendly way of transportation, for then riding a bike is just the normal way of going from Place A to Place B. There are even some old folks that keep going to work in the fields riding a bicycle and carrying their hoe leaning against their shoulder. They would just laugh at you if you wanted them to wear bike helmets or lycra fashion and the likes.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, ranchers in
Australia are beginning to require that their cowboys wear helmets! As I understand it, this is the result of a lawsuit by a cowboy who was injured. I think of what my grandfather (a cattle rancher for all my life) think of this, and I can only shake my head. Has the concept of personal responsibility been completely forgotten? People can certainly be silly, I'll say that much. Val

C.Mays said...

Well, I didn't really know there was a bicycle helmet debate. I just thought one shook their heads in disgust at the other and that was that. But I'm in Seattle, WA (USA), a city saturated with cars, and I definitely wear a helmet. I'm serious, if you cycle in this city, three days cannot pass without you almost getting creamed by a car. There are ghost bikes all over the city; these are bicycles spray painted white and left to mark the spot where a cyclist was killed. Eerie huh? And oh yeah, I don't know how it is in Copenhagen, but hear in the good old U.S. of A, if you don't have health insurance, you're toast. And even if you do, your insurance company is still going to find a way to screw you, so...it's good to take precautions.

Anonymous said...

c. mays: I, also, am in Seattle (actually, my normal range takes me through Renton, Kent, Tukwila, Bellevue, Clyde Hill, Issaquah, West Seattle, and Seattle proper). I must take issue with your portrayal of the traffic situation. While it is true that it leaves a lot to be desired overall, I have to say that the I can easily count my yearly "close calls" on one hand, with fingers left over. This, even though I do not drive more than two or three times a year, and I ride pretty much every day. I think that there is definitely a lot to be said for a cautious, defensive riding style, oriented more towards safety than speed. If you're paying attention, the cars are actually relatively poredictable; I treat them the way a kayaker treats white water - look for the safe routes, and never expect the danger to yeild on my account. So many things could improve around here, but I will never let the adverse aspects discourage me - there is always a way to deal with it. Val

Daniel said...

I am sorry for commenting while not having time to read every single comment above, but..

i think this one below is the finest explanation why helmet might be a good choice for an individual cyclist in some cases (i do wear one) but it is a terrible mistake to require it by law.
The bicycle helmet FAQ

Anneke said...

Hi, I'd also like to chip in, I live in the Netherlands and I've noticed that many Americans can't believe no one wears a helmet here.

I've read comments about the lack of helmets that basically boil down to: they must suicidal/stupid cause they don't wear helmets. Then they tell a cautionary tale about how a friend of them ended up in a coma because they didn't wear a helmet.

It's just not how it works here. People always have cycled, so they know how to do it, and unless they are only 4 and still learning the chances of them falling are really low. Getting hit by a car is also a lot more unlikely over here, I can't find the data right now, I can try and find them if someone wants me to.

Another point is that all car drivers are also cyclists. There are more bikes than people, and this means that everybody cycles, not just once in a blue moon, but most people (and in particular kids going to school, primary, secondary and through university) cycle every day.

And I don't know any people who ended up in a coma either, nor do I know a-friend-of-a-friend-of-my-aunt's-neighbour who had an accident and would be still alive had he worn a helmet.

Somehow these kind of discussions only happen in countries where cycling isn't a 'normal' thing to do, whereas in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands where cycling is basically a default thing to do, helmets aren't even discussed.

Charles Pergiel said...

I don't why this is, but America seems to be full of busy-bodies, that is people who make it their mission to tell other people how to live their lives. "Do this, don't do that, can't you read the signs?"

And then there is the whole safety thing. Seatbelts, airbags and not smoking are all reputed to save lives, so anything else that might save one person's life, even if it cost a billion dollars is worthwhile because "everyone is special".

I will stop now. I am being too cynical.

pissed off visigoth said...

I am not at all emotionally invested in the issue, nor would I dream of arguing a person's choice on the matter. For me, the issue was settled on an evening spin around the neighborhood. Bing a child of the sixties and seventies and living in Berlin, helmets were the leather "harinet" type and worn only by bike racers. On the evening in question I was riding as I alway had, sans helmet and at no great speed. I had slowed even more to turn into my street so I was going no faster than about 10 mph if that. My front wheel hit the edge of a pothole I had not noticed and the next thing I knew, my head was in my girlfriends lap and she was calling me by name repeatedly. While no serious injury occurred I was an instant convert, and this from a guy who regularly participated in anti motorcycle helmet law protests at the time.

I completely agree that there are many instances wherein a helmet would be useless and they are generally a hassle to wear, and hot in the Florida climate. My only reasoning for wearing one is that had I had one on at the time of the above mentioned incident I would, in all likelihood been spared stitches, unconsciousness and a severe headache.

In an unrelated but illuminating instance, the son of a friend was riding on the open tailgate of a pickup moving VERY slowly across a recently plowed field. Again, the speed was less than 10mph. The boy somehow slipped off of the tailgate and fell onto the dirt. There were no visible rocks and dirt does not get much softer than when it is recently plowed yet the boy suffered serious head trauma to the extent that he suffers permanent albeit minor brain damage.

Everyone should be free to choose as they will but for me the question has been answered and I would sooner my daughter never ride a bike than do so without a helmet.

Morten said...

To "pissed off visigoth" ( What a strange name ... ) :

It is quite clear to me that you have not read the thread before you posted. The "my helmet saved my life stories" have been answered. You are of course free to bring forward your story nonetheless, but in a sane debate, you would have countered the arguments made about such anecdotal evidence, before telling us about yours. Generaly such anecdotal "evidence" does not count much, especially when compared to scientific studies.

There are vast number of stories of "my helmet saved my life" - very similar to your story, but from people that wore a helmet at hhe crash. Various arguments countering this specific type of anecdotal evidence have been presented, repeatedly.

But htr point is :
We are not discussing whether people who are convinced that a helmet is good for them should use them. We are discussing whether the focus on helmets and the scaremongering that it is often submerged in, helps public health or not. ( Public health of course relates to both good and poorer health, and to deaths from accidents as well as heart attacks etc )

The conclusion in this forum seems to be that the scientific, peer-reviewd literature indicates that helmet promotion builds on false claims or skewed presenations of cycing safety. This type of helmet promotion (and compulsion) hurts cycling and thereby hurts public health, liveable cities, the environment etc.

There is lot of literature out there for those that are interested in widening their horizons.

Some places to start, repeated here:

The Bicycle Hemet FAQ

The Bicycle Helmet Wikipedia article

The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation

And one of the more sober pro-compulsion sites :

Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (anonymous volunteer staff)

Zakkaliciousness said...

anybody have a list of EU countries and their take on bike helmets? i'm looking for a broader perspective and it would be interesting to read what the offical word in other countries is.

and what about the ECF? what's the offical line?

david moxness said...

A helmet will not help you with an encounter with a motorized vehicle, however my helmet probably saved me from serious head trauma or death in a collision with a fellow cyclist at speed. My hemet was cracked and broken extensively. I also took an impromptu fall at medium speed and heard a loud thud when my helmet hit the ground, I remember thinking " sure glad that was not my head".I am still "pro choice".

Anonymous said...

Hello from Detroit, the anti-bike capital of the world! I stumbled on your web site while Googling for a chain guard! No, I haven't found one around here yet.

I can attest to the same cycling problems that the other Yanks have talked about: poorly suited roads, ruthless automobile drivers and occasional cyclists who don't have a clue.

I can remember in my youth a Detroit policeman came to my elementary classroom to teach us bicycle safety. He taught us to ride AGAINST traffic. That was the recommended way back then. That teaching has long been abandoned but riders that remember those lessons still show up routinely on the roads. The concept of continuing education doesn't exist.

Also, I've worked staff on bike tours that take several hundred people across the state, and most if not all the tours have required helmets since the 1980's. The reason is the liability insurance, the cost is prohibitive if helmets aren't mandatory. It's one way to keep the rides affordable, especially to beginning tourists and families. The biggest problem we have on these tours isn't auto-bicycle collisions, it's bicycle-bicycle and solo bicycle wrecks. One tour that I've worked on caters especially to novice tourists and families, it usually has 500 riders on it each year that cross the state from the west coast to the east coast (400km). People run into each other, others run into stationary objects and a bunch slip and fall from gravel on the road. At a single railroad crossing we've had a dozen people fall crossing the tracks. We do have cycling instructors give classes in the evenings but the mayhem still exists. For the vast majority of accidents that occur on these tours a helmet does provide some benefit.

There have been attempts at promoting safer cycling. In the city of Holland, on the west coast of Michigan, bicycle paths were paved throughout the city to promote tourism. One of the bike tours I've ridden on used these paths for three years, then recommended using the streets and ignoring the paths; the residents that paid dearly for the paths were fairly upset. But the evidence was clear: the bike paths are poorly thought out with many blind turns and other hazards, and there was more bike to bike accidents while on the paths than anywhere else on the 650 km tour. Interestingly, there were several bike-car collisions on the bike paths each year! The accident rate went down after the decision to stay in the streets.

Such is the state of bicycling in Michigan, and Detroit is terrible.

As for myself I usually wear a helmet, I've seen too many wrecks not to. But I agree that it's most important to get people out riding and enjoying themselves first. There's very little of that going on here.

Thanks for the great site. Maybe when we're ready you can show us how it's done!

-Tom from Livonia (suburb of Detroit).

mando said...

I have lived in México city, Chicago, Columbus Ohio, and Austin Texas, in all of this cities i rode my bike. Obviously in México city the traffic is horrendous and there is crazy pollution, but i see very few if not at all, people using helmets, i never owned one when i live there. In Ohio there was very little traffic and never thought about a helmet.
But when I started riding in Chicago, I noticed that car drivers loath bike riders, it is as if they associate a bike rider with a poor person, someone that can't afford to buy a car, and thus, they curse you and threaten you with running u off the road, since they think u should be riding on the side walk. I became a bike messenger and over the next 10 years I wore a helmet sometimes, often cuz the police would chase me (bike cops) to give me a ticket ($75), apparently there is a provision to ticket bike messengers cuz they are riding for money.
I also joined a cycling team and did races, and then (with a helmet ofcourse) i had the worst crash on a race. Cracked my helmet and passed out. Woke in the ambulance, went to hospital, got a cat scan and that was it, went home with my face all swollen and a head ache. That time a helmet save my life. But of course, I was racing and going over 30mph (48kph).
But once i crashed with an other biker going the wrong way, came behind a turning truck and never saw him till the last sec. we crashed full on at about 15mph, he got me on the right side ear area of my head, the crash send us flying all over the intersection, my head was spinning for about an hr. The guy took off on a hurry when he saw I was pretty hurt. I called my wife and told her to come get me and take me to hospital. They couldn't do much and eventually i went home with a big bill and a head ache. But after a while i noticed that my ear had suffered badly, I now have about 10-15% less hearing on that ear.
In Texas people are not used to see bikers. I got yelled at when I was (messengering) riding on a road with no shoulder and no side walk, kind of an old state highway. The guy in a huge truck with oversized wheels, screamed at me, "next time I will kill u, get off the road!!!". He went by, and as I saw him go away, I noticed a shot gun perched on the back window of the truck!!.
I still bike and in a few weeks I'm moving back to Austin Tx. I hate wearing helmets, and only will if am in a bike ride over 20mph with other riders or in a race.
Its a drag to wear a helmet in 110 degree weather (43c)!!.
Thanx for this blog.

ebertin said...

I put aside my helmets about three years ago after (1) remembering how few bike injuries I saw in India, Pakistan and Kenya in the '60s and '70s, and where so many people ride bikes in horrible infrastructure and lawless traffic; reflecting on the small number of deaths in professional racing; and reading secondary sources summarizing statistically the dubious benefit of helmets. Most of my riding is urban and semi-urban commuting here in Albuquerque, NM, a relatively bicycle-enlightened city. Still, I often sit on the fence; if for no other reason than that some of the highest mileage cyclists I know wear them. I am very interested in reading further of your own research on the subject.

biondino said...

I think the debate really only exists in countries that do not have a bike culture and it is mainly fueled by people that do not habitually ride a bike. I'm Dutch, so I grew up riding a bike every day, everywhere. In fact, like most Dutch people, I owned between 2 and 4 bikes for most of my life. I have never worn a helmet, except when road racing, or downhill mountainbiking.

And I have NEVER heard of anyone in my extended circle of friend/family that EVER had a serious accident on a bike, ever.

However for the pas 10 years I have lived in Australia, and helmets are mandatory here (I still don't wear one most of the time). There are definitely differences riding here, but in urbanised areas riding can be very safe; if you're a rider that knows what they're doing. You need to be more aware and less cocky than in Holland, as motorised traffic is less aware of riders, but with the right attitude, it's still very safe.

Outside urban areas, it is a little different in my opinion as the roads are often narrow, with deep gutters and 'nowhere to go'. So there is definitely a higher risk factor. Especially as most extra-urban roads in Australia are 100km/h, but they are really only single lane country roads as far as width and condition goes.

Just my 2cts...

Anonymous said...

i find it interesting that many folk who ride without a helmet, say that they would wear one if they lived in a country like the USA due to the driver/cyclist conflicts. BUT this is where the helmet does you the least amount of good. Zak (and others) have posted information that shows helmets help when "tipping over" but against a 1 tonne vehicle there is little that can be done. If you wear a helmet in traffic you are merely whistling in the dark.
I'll admit I wear a helmet reluctantly as it's the law where i live...
I appreciate the website Zak!

greenholly said...

I'm American and live in NYC, but my boyfriend is Danish, so I spend a fair amount of time in CPH--and I never wear a helmet when I'm on my bike there. I always wear one in NYC, though. In CPH, even though there are of course drivers who don't look, for the most part it seems that drivers are aware of--and not angry at--the cyclists, and make a concerted effort not to hit us.

In NYC, however, most drivers are not only unaccustomed to cyclists being around, but they are also pissed that we're on the street at all, distracting them and slowing them down. It's getting better, but until there are more of us on the street on bikes, I feel FAR safer in a helmet. I have several friends who've had nasty accidents because of oblivious drivers here, and their lives were literally and obviously saved by their helmets.

Incidentally, I think it's true that cyclists without helmets often ride more defensively--and I know lots of people who never wear them, and have never had run-ins with those oblivious drivers, probably due to their own extra vigilence.

And I actually hate wearing a helmet--it messes up my very curly hair, it's pain to carry around indoors, and let's face it--even the best of them look dorky. I'd definitely ride more often if I didn't feel like I needed it. Thankfully, I'm neither fat or unhealthy, so I'm not suffering for my missed hours on the bike.

But pretty much everyone I know feels the same about helmets. I think helmet laws, when they're enforced, do keep people from riding and being healthier. But the catch-22 is that the places where fewer people ride, which tend to be the places with the most fat people who would benefit from riding, are the places where the drivers are the least aware of and accustomed to riders (because, duh, nobody's riding)--so the riders there have the most need for helmets, which make them not want to ride in the first place, which keeps the drivers unaccustomed to riders. Argh.

It seems that the solution is for us all to go risk our lives en masse by not wearing helmets in places like NYC, where we will need them the most until the drivers are used to us and we no longer need them so much--but how many people have to get doored or knocked off by left-turning oblivious drivers and concussed before it's safe?

Hm. I dunno. But if that's going to happen, it'll have to be in violation of any existing helmet laws... So there might as well not be any.

Morten Lange said...

greenholly: I see what you're getting at.

But when you write "their lives were literally and obviously saved by their helmets", you seem to have failed to notice one central argument that belongs to the helmet debate. I know it is very counterintuitive, but there are many signs that helmets are not nearly as effective in mitigating serious injuries to the head as what we are led to believe. A cracked helmet has to a very large extent failed its alleged task. If there is no sign of compression of the foam, generally, only insignificant amounts of energy has been absorbed by the helmet liner. Add to this that rotational forces are no less important in head injuries in traffic, and that helmets can more likely exacerbate those effects as counter.

Furthermore, the head, with skull, skin and hair protect the brain much better than we think.

There seem to be no scientific studies that show clearly that helmets save lives or reduce the frequency of serious head injuries. On the contrary there are several instances where cyclists were killed by head injuries in spite of wearing helmets. The opposite is of course much harder to "prove".

But if cycling with a helmet makes it more emotionally agreeable for you to cycle in New York, no one is going to tell you to drop the helmet. It is important to realise however, that modern light helmets are quite flimsy, and not least it is important to not forget that cycling is life- extending. Even in the UK, the dangers in traffic to cyclists have been estimated to weigh 7 to 20 times lighter than the life-extendig effects of cycling.

For further info and references to scientific papers, see e.g . the Wikipedia article on Bicycle helmets, and other sources cited there.

Tom C said...

I'm for personal choice, not fear-mongering. People should make up their own minds based on data and anecdotes - AND their personal experience and confidence on a bike, plus the situation at hand (i.e. risk assessment). Those with extreme positions on both sides of the debate should be ignored. Their arrogance can be a bit much at times - do what you feel comfortable doing.

Taking the above into account, I, an avid cyclist, would not for example, feel the need to wear a helmet in bike-friendly European cities, but would wear one when mountain-biking.


PM Summer said...

The design speed limit for a bike helmet is 16 MPH. A 6 foot tall human falling backwards will have their head hit the ground at over 20 MPH.

Bike anecdotal evidence of the life-saving attributes of bike helmets has never been proven statistically.

In the early 21st Century, the USA saw simultaneously a 1) Increase in bike helmet usage, 2) Decrease in bicycle ridership, 3) Increase in head injuries to cyclists.

Tom C said...

pm summer,

I'd like to have a brew or two somewhere to more fully discuss your post. I like your quoting of statistics. I'd like to see the references for your 16mph stat, but let's say that's dead-on and is precisely the limit for every single helmet design made today (a bit unlikely unless we assume that the evolution of the bike helmet has ceased).

- are you personally advocating not wearing a helmet?

- wouldn't one prefer having the helmet on in case their head impacts at 16mph or less?

I've had two falls hard enough to crack my helmet and have no doubt that the helmet being there saved my noggin from much worse injury. Was it a concussion save or worse I don't know.

One was a freak accident on a road ride where a dog ran between my pedals and front axle, the other a mountain bike accident where the bike got caught in a covered hole that swalloed the front wheel and endo'd me.

Those on casual bikes going 10 miles an hour or less would likel not be exposed to these dangers. Ironically, your stats seem to indicate they would have the most to gain in case of a freak accident, which many accidents are.


Zakkaliciousness said...

for more on the science of helmets and the 20 kph fact, see this article as pdf.

regarding being "pretty sure" that the helmet had any effect, see this article on why anecdotal reasoning is not useful.

spiderleggreen said...

It seems that most of pro-helmet posts come from a personal, individual aspect. "I got hurt", "My friend...". Whereas, many of the helmetless posters seem to have the big picture in mind. "Don't scary people off bikes". Don't waste you're time on helmets, when much better means to safer cycling exist. Get involved in changing your city, to make it safer for bikes. Don't spend your time on something that while it "may" improve your safety, discourages others from riding.

Tom C said...

You make a great point, spiderleggreen, there are many things that can be done besides talking about helmets. But is it a waste of time? I don't think so.

There's room in this big world for many important things to be discussed, and if you've ever seen/heard of bike accidents that resulted in horrific results, you may not be so cavalier as to suggest it is a waste of time.

That being said, I fully embrace your concept of looking for means of safer cycling. Just remember, there is a transition period to getting there, and even in safe surroundings things do happen (dogs run into bikes, bikes fail, and so on).

I say let the great debate continue. :)