04 April 2009

Scaring the 'Skit' Out of the Swedes

A Swedish reader of Copenhagenize.com sent in this photo of a billboard in Stockholm. It is paid for by a non-governmental organisation called Nationalförenigen för trafiksäkerhetens Främjande [NTF] or The National Society for Road Safety.

There is no mandatory helmet law in Sweden for adults but these NTF seem to think there should be one. The billboard reads:
"A helmet law protects in more ways than one"

Notice the bird shit on the helmet. You know you don't have a solid scientific case when bird shit is your best Unique Selling Point.

Anyway, our reader doesn't fancy seeing fewer Swedes cycling - which is one of the primary consequences of a helmet law. A drop of 20-40% in the number of cyclists, which has been the decrease in all the regions with mandatory helmet laws, would be a catastrophe for Sweden.

Our reader took the liberty to inform people of the dangers of a helmet law. The grafitti underneath the message "A helmet law protects in more ways than one..." is his work and it reads, quite simply:

"Fewer choose the bicycle."

Wonderful when grafitti is married to rationality and common sense. A little bit of activism is more than welcome.

Our reader asked me if I could come up with other slogans to add to the billboards. He's spraypainted "Fewer Choose the Bicycle" on all the billboards in his area but is keen to finetune the message.

Any great ideas out there among our helmet sceptical readers?

Regarding this NTF organisation, their website is textbook fear-mongering. They link to two pro-helmet websites but not to any of the many helmet-sceptic websites out there.

The Swedish people, like any people, deserve to be presented with both sides of the case if they are to make up their own minds. Refusing to highlight the many scientific studies that feature helmet-sceptic research is just wrong.

Why is it so difficult to at the very least show both sides of the coin instead of insulting your citizens' intelligence by trying to make up their minds for them? When you only show one side of the issue and pretend the other side doesn't exist, it is propaganda. Nothing more, nothing less.

While people like the NTF are doing what they can to promote helmets and reduce Swedish cycling levels, there are, fortunately, many orgs in Europe that are doing what they can to promote cycling positively. Thankfully.

I couldn't find any reference on the NTF website to promotion of helmets for pedestrians or motorists. Must be a mistake.

Here's an idea a friend of mine came up with. 'In many countries there are Advertising Standards groups that promote decent, honest and truthful advertising.
There must be a Swedish equivalent.'

'It would be interesting if a Swede challenged this campaign on the grounds that the helmet is being presented as a road safety aid. It would be good to see how they defend the idea that cycle helmets, designed for simple falls, might be effective in road collisions.'

Interesting indeed.


Erik Sandblom said...

Sometimes I think NTF is a little too wedded to cars. Riding a bus is ten times safer than driving a car, and taking the train is even safer. But you wouldn't hear NTF say that. In fact they want more limitations bus traffic.

Is it just me, or is this a double standard?

workbike said...

Interesting comment from Erik- I've also noticed pro-helmet websites with sponsorship from car lobbying groups. I think I see a pattern...

Erik Sandblom said...

Here's another fact I didn't find on NTF's website: in 2006, 77% of Swedish cyclist deaths involved a motor vehicle. Why doesn't NTF mention that?

Loren said...

Do I understand right that you're opposed to helmet wearing because you think it'll scare people away from cycling and that helmets don't protect you in falls. Why I ask you do all the professional cyclists wear helmets? I've seen a ton of helmets post-crash that were broken in half, saving someone's noggin for sure. It's frustrating to see someone who is so pro bikes be against something so obvious as helmets. I see your stance as directly comparable to a super conservative person who is opposed to condom use because they think it'll promote riskier behavior. The loss of a few bikers is worth the protection of the many heads in helmets. I hope you spend more time focusing on non-helmet related rants in your blog...or you're definitely going to lose this reader and probably others.

Erik Sandblom said...

Why I ask you do all the professional cyclists wear helmets?

I don't think they do, even though racing cyclists sometimes wear helmets. I guess that's just like when race car drivers wear helmets. They take more risks because they are racing.

Just a cyclist said...

Oh, Loren... The pro-cyclists didn't always wear helmets as they do now. Until 2003 there were no such regulations by the UCI and its only since 2005 that they have to wear it, always and whithout exceptions.
They became very common on pro races during the late ninetees but (until -05), were mostly worn by the domestiques... while the team leaders seldom used them.

Morten Lange said...

Loren : "Do I understand right that you're opposed to helmet wearing because you think it'll scare people away from cycling and that helmets don't protect you in falls."

Mikael implies he is against untruthful campaigning for helmet compulsion. Everyone who would like to wear a helmet is of course welcome to continue to do so. I can't remember having seen the opposite case being made.

As Erik points out, the car-racing analogy is quite instructive. Actually helmets for "normal" motorists have been promoted, and for a good reason : They hurt their head in large numbers. Unlike cycling, car-driving is not something promoted for its good effcets on health, the environment, liveable cities etc.

Mikael is not alone in pointing out that helmet compulsion is the wrong answer to the wrong question. The booklet "Kids on the move" published by the EU, DG Envirnoment, voices similar views. So does a document from the European Conference of Transport Ministers.

Many cycle advocates that were previously strongly pro-helmet campaigning, and some even pro-compulsion, turned clearly anti-compulsion and often anti-scaremongering helmet campaigning
after having read up on the research. In Britain activists criticised the arguments used by helmet campaigners, were sued for it, and basically won in court. As far as I recall they had pointed out that the claims of the helmet compulsionists were without sound backing in facts.

There are many starting points if you want to have a look at the arguments. One is to search for the article "Three lessons for a better cycling future". Another is to have a look at the CTC take on helmet laws, or for the less faint of heart :



Cargo Cult said...

Loren, professional cyclists are forced to wear helmets because they ride in tight packs at extremely high speeds. It's a highly competitive and dangerous environment, totally at odds with the reality most of us urban cyclists face. You may as well say everyday motorists should wear helmets because racing car drivers do.

melancholic optimist said...

"A helmet law protects in more ways than one"

...it protects fear.

...it protects the status-quo.

...it protects the auto driver.

...it protects complacency.

I'm sure I could think of some more :)

Ryan (green.ryder) said...

Unfortunately, our North American society has put the fear into people, that bicycling is a dangerous sport that should only be done with a helmet.

I dislike this province I live in, however I am extremely happy that there is not a helmet law for adults. I'd ride either way however can't stand wearing a helmet.

I think Melbourne, pre-helmet law had a ton of cyclists. After a helmet law was introduced that number was pretty well cut right in half. And yes, I'd rather see more cyclists out there NOT wearing a helmet, than fewer cyclists wearing them.

Loren: "Why I ask you do all the professional cyclists wear helmets?"
-That's like comparing a NASCAR driver to someone commuting to work. Should that person driving to work wear a helmet also? I ride much faster than the average commuter (in this city at least) at around 20-25kmh. The average person I see is going between 10-15kmh.
Now when I see these "professional cyclists" aka the spandex wearers, they are going at 35kmh+.

lehommeaulevelo said...

Forcing People to use Helmet's is a Cheap way of not putting in Safe Cycling Infrastructure,and also Pandering to the Motoring Lobby.

When Complaints are made to a Government that it is not Safe for Cycling because of all the Ignorant and Dangerous Motorists Clogging up the Roads and Forcing Cyclists of their Bike's.The first Reaction of the Government with the Connivance of Motoring Organisations is to Try and Force Cyclists to Wear these Helmets.
The Motoring Lobby do not want Restrictions of any kind to their Pleasure of Hogging the Roads,so these are the First to agree to this Helmet use.

guez said...

Helmets good. Helmet laws bad.

lagatta à montréal said...

What is this group? It really sounds like one of those old motorists' or automobile associations. Enemies of the envrionment.

Loren, professional cycling racers travel as fast as cars. I putter along on my old 5-speed ladies' bicycle.

And frankly, nobody is about to force people to wear condoms. Imagine enforcing that one? Anti-condom religious conservatives try to control their availability and distribution. Nodoby is calling for a ban on cycle helmets. I'd wear one too if I were taking part in fast road cycling on mountainous trails. Not to ride the old Raleigh Sprite to work or to the shops.

Helmet laws protect polluting industry, and car-centred society.

Sean said...

A while back Mikhael wrote an excellent piece on winning converts to cycling. He describes "Mr. Motorist," a man driving in his car who sees people that are "like him" cycling (average folks, law abiding non-athletes, no spandex) and decides to give it a try.

I think this illustrates why spray painting other people's billboards doesn't work. Mr. Motorist doesn't think graffiti is cool. He hates it and he hates the people that do it. Even if he could grasp the vague message ("fewer people bicycle"), he'd reject it because of the messenger and the method.

If the non-compulsion helmet lobby wants to promote rational discussion based on scientific data and win converts, I think they best find another way to get the word out.

Mikael said...

Welcome to the real world, Loren. Welcome to science, rationality and common sense.

I think the other readers have responded well enough.

@Sean. I agree. But what I find interesting is that activism exists. That is rare in this helmet subject.

But it's not the ONLY way to combat the Culture of Fear. It's merely a personal expression. A small protest. And that is respectable and honourable.

There are better ways and many people are finding them. This is just a modest, passionate start from a citizen in Stockholm.

Kiwehtin said...

Loren, I hope you don't feel hopelessly ganged-up on here but there are many reasons to object to the kind of helmet campaigning displayed in Mikael's post. As I said several months ago in his defence, he talks about *much* more than helmet fear-mongering and it is unfair to criticise him when he *does* turn his attention to it from time to time. Unlike Mikael and others who promote cycling for a wide range of reasons, helmet promotion lobbyists rely exclusively on promoting the idea that bike riding is especially dangerous for your head compared to other everyday activities and seem to show little to no interest (from what I've seen) in the very strong contrary evidence.

Much of the objection to the rhetoric behind bike helmet campaigns - and especially helmet laws - is that they refuse to recognise three basic sets of facts that weaken or eliminate their arguments (leaving aside the often questionable statistics they cite):

- It has been very clearly shown that the safest cycling is in places with low to nearly zero helmet use that have made the responsible choice to put in place a cycling and walking infrastructure that demotes the car as much as possible and that the places that gravitate toward bike helmet promotion and not toward sage (oops! typo, but very à propos; I meant "safe") infrastructure have two to three times the casualty rates. Read this wonderful article co-authored by John Pucher, the "biking professor" at Rutgers University:


- Simply saying it's better to protect your head than risk injury brings up the question why people insist on this only for cycling among everyday activities. How about for climbing ladders, or as part of everyday wear for the elderly (to cite just two examples from a huge list of similar risk factors)?:

(Note that they don't say you should wear a ladder helmet...)


(Stats at the end of the page.)

This Canadian publication from somewhere between 1989 and 2000 about "household and recreational" injury prevention shows falls account for 21% of deaths compared to 1.7% for "bicycle/sports-related" injuries. Yet at the end of the paper, they inexplicably come to the conclusion that helmets should be worn for cycling (citing the by now long-discredited 85% prevention rate statistic) but it does not occur to them that the same logic would require them to recommend helmets as a means of preventing fatalities from falls, which are over 12 times more prevalent. Logic would say to require helmets to protect you from everyday household or recreational falls before recommending them for cycling.


Note this Wisconsin summary of pedestrian injuries and fatalities, which shows a decline that obviously is not due to any successful pedestrian helmet campaign:


This US Department of Transportation page on pedestrian fatalities in traffic discusses pedestrian injuries and fatalities in terms that apply equally to cyclists, but of course does not advocate pedestrian helmet wearing as a means of self-protection - even though all the statistics provided for bike helmet studies should apply to a similar degree, mutatis mutandis:

A page on causes of head injuries in car "accidents":


The few people who actually advocate safety helmet wearing *inside cars* are generally treated as somewhat harmless nuts and ignored.

I could have added links to sites showing the massive rates of traumatic head injury deaths to car drivers and passengers (and this despite high seatbelt wearing rates), but you can find scads of them by doing a search on the relevant terms.

- Finally, even this helmet promotion site warns that bicycle helmets are not a panacea and are only designed to protect against low-speed impacts:


To wrap up, here is a page worth going through for its summary of the important relevant points:


lagatta à montréal said...

Actually, I don't think your "average person" is particularly annoyed by graffiti on billboards - the latter are already a form of visual pollution. Mr and Ms Average are annoyed by graffiti on the buildings they live and work in, historic churches and other monuments, natural stone formations, etc.

People really aren't offended by billboard graffiti.

mikey2gorgeous said...

Any helmet that has split in two has failed & will not have absorbed much energy at all. They are designed to crush to dissipate energy.

Road A said...

About what Loren said..

I completely agree with you. Both this site, and the copenhagen cycle chics are great websites, but I really dislike the "anti helmet" propaganda.

I find it completely ok not to wear a helmet, but I find it really difficult to understand why you guys try to stop these helmet campaigns.

Please do not start talking about science. Even though you claim to have seen som nifty statistics that is supposed to show that biking with a helmet is as dangerous as biking without, everyone (at least everyone I know) knows that a helmet will help you if you crash.

Where I work, almost everyone with a scientific background wears a helmet while biking...

As far as I've understood, your argument is that people are biking more carefully and responsible when they do not use a helmet. If that is your argument, then I guess we should stop using a safety belt when driving a car. That would obviously make us drive more carefully.

That was a silly argument from me, but I have extreme problems understanding the difference between mine and yours.

If this anti helmet propagande keeps going, I will also stop reading these websites.

Mikael said...

People who promote helmets wish to sell helmets.

People who promote cycling, wish to sell cycling, public health and liveable cities.

I fit into the latter category.

You make it sound like I'm the only person on the planet with these points of view.

On the contrary. I merely refer to the collective body of science on the the subject of bike helmets, which many people are not acquainted with.

My opinions are aligned with the offical bicycle helmet policy in the European Cyclists Federation as well as the cyclist groups in Germany, France, UK, Holland, Belgium, Ireland.

The seat belt comparison is lame. Science has shown us that seat belts work and what's more, are actually designed to save lives.

Strange to call all this propaganda. Propanganda is usally driven by either politics or profit. Those of us who are helmet-sceptical earn no political office or monetary gain by selling and promoting cycling.

On the other hand, helmets sales earn money for helmet manufacturers and the automobile industry. That's why these two groups are among the most ardent promoters of helmets around the world.

By promoting cycling the only profit is a collective one for our societies.

I'm happy to spend some time doing that and when you actually read the collective scientific work on the subject, as I have, it's all the more rewarding to know that science is on your side.

Road A said...

I told you that the seat belt comparison was lame, but I still find it quite interesting.

I read briefly through some of the links in this discussion, but I could not find any research similar to the one done on seat belts.

I do not find the "scientific" work very scientific, but I might take some more time reading it one of the days.

My biggest problem is that I do not understand why you so strongly oppose the helmet campaigns. Have any of you guys strongly opposing this ever taken a fall, slamming your head against the ground?

I've done so skiing many times, and every time I did not wear a helmet my first though was "Where is my helmet?!".

melancholic optimist said...

Road A: it doesn't seem like you've tried very hard to understand the arguments presented against pro-helmet campaigns and regulations.

the gist of it is that the best way to increase the safety of cyclists is to prevent collisions with automobiles. statistics from all over the world (including the U.S.) show that the more cyclists there are, the lower the rate of collisions. helmet advocacy and required helmet usage (among other things) present the message that cycling itself is dangerous. this lowers the number of people who are willing to cycle. this means the rate of collisions goes up.

pro-helmet campaigns and helmet regulations also give the idea that safety is equivalent to helmet usage, which is far from the case.

helmets may help with minor injuries, cuts, scrapes, etc. they have not been proven to reliably prevent more major injuries. more importantly, they do nothing to prevent collisions.

lights and brakes on your bicycle, and riding in a responsible manner are much more important safety tools than a helmet, because those things help avoid collisions.

melancholic optimist said...

...and also, the view of helmet=safety gives people an easy out whenever they want to point fingers - "he wasn't wearing a helmet" - even though his injuries were all to his legs (this happens all the time in media).

it all just feeds an irrational negativity towards cycling.

Road A said...

Melancholic optimist:

I understand your argument about fewer impacts with cars. I agree with that one.

But "helmets may help with minor injuries, cuts, scrapes, etc. they have not been proven to reliably prevent more major injuries." does not appeal very well to me. Unfortunately I can't site any research one it. But by use of common sense, I guess the solution is to rather wear one than not. It is not a pure coincidence that a helmet is required in almost every sport involving some kind of speed.

Have a nice evening.

melancholic optimist said...

Road A: and if you cycle for sport, I think it makes much more sense to wear one. for those of us (most cyclists in the world) who cycle for transportation and not for sport, they don't make nearly as much sense. maybe that is where you're getting tripped up.

I'm not riding bent over, head first, at 30mph on a 20lb racing bike with 1" wide tires. I'm riding straight up, at 8-10mph, with a 40lb bike with up to 50 extra pounds of stuff on it. If I crash, I'm not going to fly 50 ft, I'm not going to go over the handlebars (probably), and if I do hit something, it will be at low speed.

Cycling is not just a sport. People who ride for sport take much higher risks (generally) than those who simply ride for transportational purposes (most people who read these blogs, and the overwhelming majority of "cyclists" in the world).

melancholic optimist said...

I think maybe another way to look at this, in the positive, is that we increase the overall *actual* safety of cyclists by getting more of them out on the roads. What gets them out on the roads is feeling that cycling is easy, convenient and safe.

If you spend all your time talking about the safety of cyclists, people will always be thinking about safety (and worrying about it). The simple fact is, cycling is no more dangerous than a million other things we do on a daily basis, that we don't even consider whether they are dangerous or not.

We, especially in the US (but apparently in Denmark too), make it sound dangerous by talking about how dangerous it is all the time, and we discourage large numbers of people from doing it (up to 60% of Portland residents cycle less or not at all because of safety concerns, but feel totally comfortable driving a car, which is statistically much more dangerous).

Statistically, by discouraging people from cycling, we make it more dangerous for those who choose to cycle.

Therefore, we choose to promote cycling for its benefits, and hopefully increase the number of people using a bicycle as a transportation option, and therefore (among other things), increase the safety of those cycling.

Kiwehtin said...

For Road A:

Remember Mikael's post was about the Swedish billboard in the photo that says "En lag om cykelhjälm skyddar på flera sätt", in English, "A bike helmet law protects in many ways".

This billboard is clearly part of a campaign for a law to FORCE Swedes to wear helmets while biking. This was not from a group interested in permitting choice in the matter.

Unfortunately, you are accusing Mikael of something he does not do here. He quite justifiably argues against the campaigns of fear coming from those who want to compel everyone to wear helmets. He does notpropagandize against helmets though. What he does is argue against the campaigns of fear based on the clear science.

If, as you say, you "find it completely ok not to wear a helmet", it doesn't follow why you "find it really difficult to understand why you guys try to stop these helmet campaigns". If it's OK not to wear one, then you cannot logically agree with these campaigns that say it's not OK not to wear one and want to force all cyclists to wear a helmet, no?

I see from the latest message you posted while I was typing this that you accept helmets will help against minor impacts. All you have to do is go to sites describing exactly what they are designed to protect against, in fact go to the helmets.org link at the end of my reply to Loren to see a description of what a helmet will not protect against. This is from a helmet promotion site.

It may well be that "where [you] work, almost everyone with a scientific background wears a helmet while biking", but that doesn't mean anything about the science. Anymore than the fact 700 scientists (who themselves have not done the research on the subject) have signed a petition saying global warning is not man-made means it is so. Saying this is a basic logical fallacy, known as the "appeal to authority".

The basic problem is people saying that biking, alone among ordinary daily activities, is unsafe and so unsafe that it requires a helmet to protect against falls (and laws to force you to wear one). If you fall off a bike, yes, you risk hitting your head and hurting yourself. If you fall off a ladder, off a chair you are standing on, or down the steps, the same is true. If you get knocked down at a very slow speed by a car, a helmet gives you a good chance of avoiding injuries if you hit your head. If you get knocked down by the same car at the same speed while walking, wearing a walking helmet gives you exactly the same protection.

If you fall from a ladder or from standing on a chair, or down the steps, or slip on ice and hit your head, wearing a helmet will give you the same protection. It follows logically that if you should wear a helmet to protect your head against falls while biking, you should also wear one to protect your head in all situations where the statistics tell us people do hurt their heads (often seriously) by falling (look for the links in my reply to Loren). If you feel it is obviously not necessary to go around wearing a pedestrian helmet, a ladder helmet or a staircase helmet, then it follows it is just as unnecessary to wear a cycling helmet.

This is just unassailable logic that undoes the basic arguments for helmets for simple biking alone. Just like the unassailable fact that the safest places to bike in the world are The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, where helmet wearing is low to next to zero.

If people want to wear helmets to bike around as if biking were the only daily activity that has some risk to it, nobody here has ever said they shouldn't. But if there are people out there who insist everyone should wear (cycling) helmets, and who falsely make out cycling to be unusually risky or dangerous compared to other daily activities in order to further their agenda, everyone has the right to point out they are not supported by fact or logic.

Threatening to boycott people you don't agree with rather than exploring their arguments to see whether they have merit when they contradict yours is not really a good way to find out the truth.

workbike said...

"Have any of you guys strongly opposing this ever taken a fall, slamming your head against the ground?"

Does slamming into a stone wall at a 30 degree angle count? Because I did that.

From the research I've since done, it seems possible that had I been wearing a helmet I could have had some nasty rotational injuties. As it was I got a couple of scratches on parts of my heat that aren't covered by a helmet.

I used to wear a helmet every time I got on a bike (well, except the time I forgot one and drove into a wall) but after becoming aware there is a question on ther effectiveness I read the evidence and came to the same conclusion as on this blog. If you want to wear a helmet and you feel safer that's fine by me, especially if it's helping you to cycle, but please don't call me names or try to force me to wear one.

workbike said...


"As it was I got a couple of scratches on parts of my heat that aren't covered by a helmet."

That should read parts of my HEAD. Ahem.

Road A said...

A lot of opinions against me here :)

melancholic optimist: I agree with your points on "cycle for sports". I usually do that, so maybe that's the reason why I am this pro-helmet.

Kiwehtin: Comparing biking and walking is just ridiculous in my opinion. The whole point of biking is that it is faster than walking, or have I totally misunderstood? :)

Workbike: I find it really hard to understand that you would rather slam your head into a wall without a helmet, than with one...

I guess I will leave this discussion here, I will only get more frustrated if I continue.

Just a cyclist said...

Hope that your frustration isn't because the points about the horrific inherent dangers of cycling and the magic powers of the styrofoam "panacea" haven't been fully accepted.

Kiwehtin said...

A couple of answers to questions:

To Road A-
The pedestrian comparison has to do with the risk of being hit by a car. The velocity with which the car will send you flying will depend on the speed of the car when it hits you, not whether you are walking, running, or cycling. (This is assuming that you are not colliding front on, coming from opposite directions.) Normal, non-racing cycling speeds (and I think I am slightly faster than average at my usual 15 km/h or slightly over) are within the range of the 30 km/h or under at which a pedestrian hit by a car stands the best chances of surviving without serious injury. Falls from a bike at these kinds of speeds should in principle be comparable in severity whether you start off from a standing position or seated on a bike. Also, since you are falling from a position not much higher than normal standing height, the final impact velocity of a fall from a bike at normal speeds should not be much different from a fall from high on a ladder or a staircase.

About hitting my head-
Yes, I have had this happen while ice-skating, while playing volleyball or something similar in gym class and while roller blading down a hill. This last happened when my wheels got caught in a fault in the pavement/asphalt: I hit my head against the side wall of the bike path underpass and was left with a bump and a headache for a day or two.

I also had my head hit as a result of a crash with a car some 12 years or so ago. I was crossing a road on my bike after checking it was clear in both directions but just as I was reaching the other side, I was hit in the back wheel by a taxi coming along on a special contraflow lane that was set off by orange marker cones but not signalled to warn people traffic would be coming from a direction opposite to normal. I was sent flying about 3 metres and spun around about 130 degrees, landing on my face and left side on a patch of gravelly dirt inside the concrete road edger. (I imagine the taxi was probably doing 30 km/h at least.)

I got up and was going to get my bike and noticed my nose seemed to be bleeding: a scared bystander told me to lie down because I was bleeding from my forehead. I needed seven(teen?) stitches to close a cut in my forehead and the left side of my face (as well as my knee and arm if I remember right) was badly scraped up and looked like a good Hallowe'en horror make-up job.

Had I been wearing a bike helmet, I would have been able to walk away and would be alive to tell this story today.

I have also been hit in the face by a mugger while I was riding home from the metro stop near where I lived just outside Washington DC. He tried to block me in the bike path and as I swerved to get out of his way he reached out and hit my left eye, which ended up pretty badly bruised and swollen. Of course, had I been wearing a face mask while going through that dodgy neighbourhood in between the metro stop and my place, I could have avoided that injury.

A friend of mine (recumbent bike enthusiast himself) who worked at the local food co-op endlessly badgered me to wear a helmet because I could get hurt from hitting my head was attacked in nearly the same spot a year later, was knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked in the face to the extent his eye was swollen right out of its socket. (He recovered OK, like I did.) Had he been wearing his face mask, I assume he might have had less trouble, just as I would have. They had a gun in his case: I suppose since gun-related crimes were a bit of a problem in that area, we should also have been wearing our bulletproof vests...

Just a cyclist said...

Kiwehtin, perhaps the most basic reasoning of helmet designs is that a fall to the side will produce the same veolicity at which the head hits the ground, regardless of whether it occurs at standstill or at any forward speed. This same principle applies to motorcycle helmets, only then the helmets are optimised for taking up the fall at that speed (obviously MC helmets are much stronger than the cycle equivalents). At speeds considerably higher, the lining of an MC helmet will be to soft to optimally absorb the impact energy, and thus to mitigate the acceleration of the brain. Needless to say, cycle helmets are not optimised in the same manner for this stationary fall, which may partly explain why they tend to break apart. That clavicle fractures are much common is because the shoulder is usually the first thing to take up a fall to the side.
Obviously, all falls may not be expected to occur sideways, and sure, there are other factors involved whenever a motor vehicle is involved.
Anyway, the whole thing not the clear case as many seem to think (or want to force others to think).

Mikael said...

there is a good reason I compared bike helmet and religion.
Religion is propaganda in disguise and once you been indoctrinated it's difficult to see rationality again.

Kiwehtin said...


(As it happens, the Montreal English CBC morning radio programme had a piece about helmets a day after yours appeared and they were flooded with reactions pro and con.)

I don't want to prolong this to no end, but a part of what is behind the insistence on bicycle helmets in the USA has to do with a strongly ingrained culture of fear and a perceived need for protection from danger that I noticed when I lived there. This affects all sorts of things. In almost every administration, the US has had some obligatory "enemy" or "Great Satan" that threatened the "Land of Liberty". For decades, it was the Communist bogeyman, quickly replaced by the Islamic bogeyman. Every American president has felt a perceived need to send troops into some war whether Iraq or Dominica, or place embargoes on such and such a country (Cuba, Libya, Iraq) to satisfy this perceived need to "protect America" against "dangerous foreign enemies".

When it comes to the obvious need to cut down on consumption of petroleum, the US follows the worldwide trend. However in the US, it is framed as reducing reliance on "foreign" oil. It is the "foreign" that is inserted there that distinguishes the American approach from the way all other countries go about it, and I get the impression they frame it this way to make it more attractive by framing it as a way of defending "us" against the "dangerous" foreigners.

People know travelling in cars is dangerous. They reason that with an SUV, if you are in a collision, it's the other guy who's going to get creamed and since you are in a rolling fortress, you will be protected from danger, This was one of the biggest attractions of SUVs: perceived protection from perceived danger.

A lot of the attraction of hand gun ownership in the US is the perception that you "need" a gun to "protect yourself against the dangers" from others. A lot of the flight from urban centres to the suburbs is also motivated by the perception that cities are dangerous and the best way to protect yourself is to move to a "safe place" where you are isolated from your neighbours, especially if the community is gated.

The media play an important role in promoting this culture of fear. Among other things, this is what is behind the perception that there is crime everywhere and you need to protect yourself from it, and probably what is behind the high support for the death penalty, in the belief that this will protect the innocent from criminals.

For cycling, this ingrained culture of fear means you "need" to protect yourself from the ever-present danger of injury and the feel-good solution is wearing a helmet.

I may be wrong here, but my impression is that helmet promotion began in the US or at the very least really took root there in the fertile soil of the generalised culture of fear and a need to do something to protect yourself from the dangerous world out there. (Although this is a very widespread world view in the States, I'm not saying everyone subscribes to it; many people there simply don't, and many people in fact will agree that some things are dangerous and require a defence and others not so much.)

My impression is that helmet promotion ideology probably spread elsewhere (first off, to other English-speaking countries) largely through the worldwide cultural power of the US media. Another example of this is that SUVs really became popular as "crash safety automobiles" in other English-speaking countries, much more so than in other places. Bit by bit, though, what becomes popular in the US begins to spread elsewhere just because of the momentum it has taken on.

portlandize.com said...

I would concur with that view - and also add that our system of law seems to be set up to allow anyone to sue for any reason, and win. Therefore everyone feels the need to cover their ass by declaring every potential danger with anything, no matter how unlikely it is, so that, should that case occur, they can say "I warned you!" and therefore not get sued for it. That's why bike manuals are 3/4 filled with "Warning!" and why there are those stickers on bikes that say "Don't ride without a helmet, and never ride at night!" - so that if a cyclist does ride without a helmet, or at night, and gets injured, the bike company can say "it's not our fault, we warned them!". I'm thinking more and more as time goes by that this is one of the primary reasons for all the American fearmongering, and that it will never change unless the legal system changes, because one lawsuit could potentially ruin a company. Not to mention if *anyone* could potentially file a successful lawsuit against anyone...

John said...

My choice, I'd wear one.

OK, I won't look cool, do I care.

Eric said...

If you go over the handlebars at high speed there's a good chance you'll land on your head. That's what bicycle helmets are made for. At normal speeds you're much more likely to take most of the impact with your hands. A pair of cycling gloves is a much more useful piece of safety gear in my opinion. The kind of riding that most people seem to do in Copenhagen is very unlikely to lead to any kind of fall and therefore I don't recommend any special gear for those people.

Kiwehtin said...

One thing I can't help wondering about in connection with flying over the handlebars (which certain elements of the speed biking community seem to routinely refer to with the acronym 'OTH') is whether - apart from speed - this might not be made easier by the geometry of the bike you ride.

On the kinds of bikes we generally have in North America (and in what you could call the Anglophonia), you are already bent over enough that in the case of a sudden stop, it is rather difficult (and I know this from personal experience) to keep from continuing to go forward, head first, without being able to easily gain a footing on the ground. I think this has something to do with where your centre of gravity is.

Drop handlebar racers are the worst since you are bent so far forward that your centre of gravity is too far forward of where you are sitting that when stopping at high speeds, it is not easy to avoid being almost pulled forward over the bars. Mountain bikes and even the hybrids common on North American streets are slightly better but still bend you forward enough that your centre of gravity is not over your saddle.

The main difference between these and the kinds of bikes usually found in Denmark, the Netherlands and Japan, or that I see offered by German or Finnish manufacturers, is that the latter put you in the "sit up and beg" position that keeps your centre of gravity just above the saddle so that when you suddenly stop, it is much easier to slide off and land with your feet on the ground (unless you get caught on the crossbar and fall sideways) rather than being propelled forward over the handlebars.

I don't know if anyone has actually done any studies about the relative safety of different bike geometries in sudden stops, but these are my clear impressions from riding all three kinds of bikes...

melancholic optimist said...

I've often thought the exact same thing. I don't know if there have been any studies either, but it seems to make perfect sense simply from a physics point of view. If you're riding head-first, you're going to be much more likely to continue going head first if your bike suddenly stops.

Just a cyclist said...

I'd say that it is the teeth and the jaw that are in the greatest danger in those cases.

Davd E said...

I am an Australian who has been riding since before the helmet laws were introduced in Australia. I have ridden to school, university, and work approximately 99% of the time for the last 27 years, sometimes with a 50km round trip each day.

I used to wear a helmet when I first started riding to school, as it was a 47km round trip with 100km/hr roads all the way. A dangerous environment. Would it have saved my life in a hit with a car?, I was lucky enough to never have to answer that question, but it was clear to me that with helmet would be better than without. And this was as a kid, when helmets were very uncool.

I did not really care when the helmet laws came in. I guess it is survival of the fittest, if the owner of the head is not smart enough to protect the head, then maybe it should not be protedted.

Now on the other side of the coin, if I was riding in Copenhagen style bike lanes, protected from the traffic, all traffic going slow, and me pottering along on an old bike, I can see that a helmet is maybe not so neccessary. I would still wear one, but that is just me.

Nowadays, I cycle a short distance to work. It was on this short distance that I got hit by a car. This is the only time I have been hit by a car (although there have been many near misses). I was travelling about 40km/hr on a slight downhll, and a car that was stopped at a stop sigh pulled out directly in front of me. I thought I had eye contact with the driver, but it seems that she must have been with the pixies. I hit the rear quater panel, the bike folded so far that the front wheel and rear wheel overlapped, and I flew over the car and landed a car length away, on my head and shoulder. I never lost consciouslenss, but I could not see straight for about 10 seconds. I know it would have been much worse if I did not have the helmet.

I now do a lot of mountain bike riding. To my knowledge, it is not mandatory to use a helmet in mountain bike riding. Who is going to enforce the law? Yet I have never seen a rider without a helmet! I guess helmet laws are not affecting the number of people riding mountain bikes.

In the end, I think that helmets are good, and I would always wear one no matter what. I am a bit shocked to hear that helmet laws would result in a 40% decline in cyclists. Are people really that vane/stupid? Having to wear a helmet would never stop me doing something that I love doing. What is the real problem with wearing a helmet?

David E

Just a cyclist said...

Vanity, discomfort and complication aside, I think that any activity involving mandatory protective gear will have lesser apeal to those who are not inclined to take risks. And vice versa...

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Davd E. I also cycle to and from work everyday, and although I understand that statistics do not show that helmets reduce the probability of serious head injuries in accidents, I would much rather have something, anything, protecting my head in an accident, than simply my hair. So, although I don't think that people should have to wear helmets by law, I don't see how any rational person could ride a bike without a helmet just in case. Btw, I do wear gloves always, no matter how warm it is, just in case I come off the bike and have to use my hands to break my fall :)

Mikael said...

so you, as a rational person, wear a life vest when swimming? (more dangerous than cycling) just in case? and wear a helmet when driving or walking in a city (higher risk of head injury)?

if you don't, where's this rationality of which you speak?

Kiwehtin said...

It seems to me that rational people (including the totality, for all intents and purposes, of Dutch cyclists, the vast majority of the population) are able -- without compunction or temerity -- to ride bicycles without a helmet for the same reason that they climb up and down stairs, escalators or ladders without wearing helmets (and gloves) "just in case". Yes, if you fall off a ladder or down a staircase or escalator, you are likely to hit your head and/or scrape up your arms/hands/knees, and the blow to the head can potentially be serious. In such case, a climbing helmet (properly worn and adjusted) would quite likely protect you to the same extent as a bike helmet in a comparable fall of a bike. We know that people do get hurt falling off bikes, mostly not seriously, sometimes seriously. The same is true of falls (and other household injuries), and the statistics don't point to cycling injuries being significantly more prevalent than household injuries.

If you get hit by a car and sent flying, you may or may not hit your head on the car or land on your head, and receive a light or serious injury -- and it makes no difference that you are on a bike or walking (or even just standing, which is often the case) when the car propels you through the air.

The same interpretation of what it means to be "a rational person" applies in all these other cases, not only to riding bikes. Riding bikes is not inherently more dangerous than other everyday activities: we know that from the statistics. Nor is cycling in automobile traffic more dangerous than walking across a road in automobile traffic: you run the same potential dangers. If it is the measure of a "rational person" that they should wear a helmet to protect themselves from the potential, however minuscule, of head injury from a collision or fall, the same "rational person" is abandoning this "rational" precaution by not wearing a helmet in other similar risky situations like walking across a motoring street or climbing stair, a ladder or an escalator.

And of course, there are all the cases of head injury, often fatal, during collisions while riding a car (seatbelted and airbagged). Flying unsecured objects, including phones, iPods, computers, pets or other heavy objects, and other passengers' heads even, can cause serious head injury. The usual reaction of people used to riding in cars is that it is silly to suggest we should wear helmets while in cars... Take that as you will...

portlandize.com said...

I'm personally thinking about starting a gas-mask promotion campaign, to protect people from all this air-pollution they are breathing in. I don't see why anyone would decline to wear one.

Anonymous said...

Discofirecat said


Could I refer you to this website, it is both informative and informed.

It seems to me that you can war a helmet and protect your head from abrasion and laceration at lower speeds or go at greater speeds and risk a more severe injury than if you had not donned a helmet. I'm going to inverstigate the possible use of a climbing helmet for cycling.