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Bicycle Helmets Proven Not To Make You Any Safer?

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In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in “The Great Helmet Debate”. My interest has come largely due to the fact that every time I post a photo of myself riding a bike without a helmet (I do that sometimes – not always), I tend to get a flood of comments/criticism about my lack of head gear.

Coming from America, I’m pretty used to this. It’s practically a sin, it seems, for an American cyclist to go out on a bike ride without a helmet on his or her head. And it seems to be even more common for a cyclist like myself to be berated about the lack of head protection when in contact with other American cyclists.

In Europe (and many other parts of the world), however, where cycling is viewed as more of a “lifestyle” activity (rather than as a “sport” like it is here in the United States), wearing a helmet is somewhat of a rarity. It seems that helmet use in the European Union is often times limited to two major groups: toddlers learning to ride and hard-core professional cyclists.

Now, this article isn’t really about whether or not I personally believe bicycle helmets to make us as cyclists any safer (although you can probably feel some of my uncertainty on the matter). Instead, the purpose of all this is to tell you about a recent article I read on Cracked.com titled, “5 popular Safety Measures That Don’t Actually Make You Any Safer.” In the article, bicycle helmets are discussed at great length… and this is what the people at Cracked had to say:

Safety equipment on vehicles creates a kind of weird Catch-22. On one hand, you can show in the laboratory that anti-lock brakes do make cars stop faster. Bicycle helmets do protect a skull when it hits the pavement. But then you factor in the element of human behavior — namely, the fact that most of us are insane — and much of that goes out the window.

It starts with something called the Peltzman effect which Almighty Wikipedia defines as “the hypothesized tendency of people to react to a safety regulation by increasing other risky behavior, offsetting some or all of the benefit of the regulation.”

This fits in with what the Highway Loss Data Institute learned about anti-lock brakes. A 10 year study showed no reduction in the frequency or severity of crashes due to anti-lock brakes. A person in an ABS vehicle actually has a 45 percent greater chance of dying in a single-vehicle crash than someone without ABS. Science’s explanation? Unskilled drivers driving more aggressively thanks to their false sense of security.

Likewise, there are multiple studies showing that bicycle helmets, in the long run, don’t actually reduce the number of injuries. In 2006 a researcher in Bath, England posted up the results of a study showing that when bicyclists wear safety equipment like helmets, people in cars are more likely to hit them. A scientist/test subject found that motorists came an average of 3.35 inches closer to his bike when he rode protected. The sight of the safety gear turned off the common sense part of their brain.

Still, you’d think that in the long run, there’d have to be health benefits to head protection. After all, some countries, like Australia, have made helmets mandatory for all cyclists. A bunch of states in the U.S. have bike helmet laws, and the fight for helmet laws in other states rages on. Some people think it’s weird that the government can tell you what kind of hat to wear during a certain activity, but at least bike fatalities have gone down. They have gone down, right?

Not according to science. Recent studies from Australia suggest that mandatory helmet laws have the opposite effect. Between 1982 and 1989 — prior to the helmet laws — the country saw its number of cyclists double (bicycles actually give pedestrians a decent chance of outrunning the crocodiles and flying jellyfish). You’d expect bike-related injuries and fatalities to have shot up during the same period.

Instead, they dropped — deaths plummeted by 48 percent, while injuries fell 33 percent. This seems a little counter-intuitive until you account for human behavior. More people riding bikes leads to motorists who get used to sharing the road with them. But then, in 1992, they passed the laws making bike helmets mandatory. It was a disaster. 1995 and 1996 saw higher numbers of cyclist head injuries than any year prior to the law’s passage.

How is that possible? Well, the fashion consequences of mandatory helmets caused the women of Australia to stop cycling. Apparently they valued the hair on their head more than the brain inside it. Since there weren’t any girls to impress, the boys stopped cycling too.

When cyclists are rarer, motorists are less likely to be on the lookout for them, so there are more accidents. And — to make it even worse — you lose the health benefits you were getting from cycling. In total, Macquarie University found that Australia’s helmet laws cause as much as half a billion dollars in health-related costs every year. It doesn’t matter what kind of data you get from a helmeted crash test dummy; a real human just doesn’t want to look like a dork.

While the Cracked article is obviously supposed to be of a humorous nature, I think the information presented makes a whole lot of sense. But I wanna hear what you have to say.

Do you believe that mandating helmet use lowers the number of cyclists on the road, which in turn increases the number of accidents? And do you think wearing a helmet makes you more or less likely to be involved in an accident? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below. Be nice!

Photo by Let Ideas Compete

About Darren Alff

Darren Alff is a world-renowned authority on bicycle touring and is the founder of BicycleTouringPro.com - the world's most popular bicycle touring website and how-to information source. He is the developer of "The Ultimate Bike Tour Training Course," and the author of four additional cycling books: The Bicycle Touring Blueprint, The Essential Guide to Touring Bicycles, Winter Cycling and Stretching for Cyclists. Darren has dedicated his life to helping others conduct the bicycle tour of their dreams. His websites, books, email newsletter, products and public appearances now inspire and assist hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world.

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51 Comments

  1. Bryan B

    June 20, 2011 at 5:11 am

    Maybe out in the country helmets don’t make riders too much safer due to the chances you’ll fall and get hit on the skull. But in cities or suburbia, where cars wiz by narrowly avoiding cars and ignore plenty of traffic signs and laws, it makes more sense.

    Chances are, you’re not going to hit your head if you fall off the bike yourself. A car won’t hit you on your head either. What’s more likely is that when struck by a vehicle, the rider would impact his head from the fall.

  2. protoAmerican

    June 20, 2011 at 11:07 am

  3. Michelle

    June 20, 2011 at 11:27 am

    First, I don’t think anything like that should be legislated. Rules don’t make people safer behavior does and I believe you shoule be able to do as you please. However, I do not feel I should have to pay for your choices so I do not want accident data to effect things like my insurance costs. I do believe that seat belts and antilock brakes and helmets make us safer. Therefore, I will chose them. Wearing or having them will not change my behavior one way or another. The fact that if you fall and hit your head on the ground it most likely do more damage if you don’t have on a helmet. Having had a friend hit from behind who had to have the helmet and her sunglasses pulled from her skull made me a belilever in helmets. The doctor said without a helmet there would have been no brain to pull anything out of! She made a full recovery but it took 18 months including 6 months in icu. Suit yourself and God’s Speed!

  4. michael berba

    June 20, 2011 at 11:42 am

    First off…have you noticed? the majority of anti helmet laws studies come from Australia…interesting. There is dubious research on both sides of the helmet controversy. However,there are some simple things to remember.

    “Bicycle helmets do protect a skull when it hits the pavement.”

    Its the only pertinent argument in regards to the efficacy of wearing a helmet.Its the first statement beyond the Headline and then you go on to make arguments that have nothing to do with helmets,like getting hit by a car that comes to close. Whether or not a car comes closer to you because you’re wearing a helmet is such a weak and honestly dubious argument that I cant take anything afterwards as legit.
    You are stirring a seriously murky pot my friend.As an avid life long action sports participant that has seen countless serious TBI from falling without a helmet
    I implore you to consider the kind of damage that you potentially create by dispensing what seems like advice to your target audience,beginning tourers. I just want to remind you of one simple newbie scenario. New bike tourer loads bike for first time,is not particularly familiar with clip-less pedals. Said cyclist goes to mount their steed for the first time.The weight of the new panniers are disconcerting but they go forth with tenacity. As the bike rolls to its first stop at less than 2 miles an hour he/she cant get unclipped from those spd’s that seemed so easy without the extra weight.Over goes the beginner,lets hope he/she has a helmet on. Curbs are hard.
    Finally,consider Andrei Kivilev…the reason why pro cycling requires helmets during competition today. He was traveling at approx a relatively slow 12 miles an hour(according to the other riders involved in the crash) while chatting with teammates when he collided with other riders and hit his bare head. One of the great domestiques of the late 90′s and early 2000′s until his death.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Kivilev
    Could have been avoided. Even saving a handful of kids by wearing helmets is worth it. Sad I really enjoyed your blog for the responsible nature of it. After this post,Ill reconsider that. Please consider your audience. best regards.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      June 20, 2011 at 1:00 pm

      Thanks for your comments Michael, but please remember that I did not write this article (except for the intro). I am simply sharing an article written by another… and seeing what you, my readers, have to say about it. I’m not suggesting that you or anyone else should not wear a helmet. I’m just sharing the fact that I don’t always wear one, people in other countries don’t always wear them, and just because you have a helmet on doesn’t mean you are totally safe from injury out there on the road. The article from Cracked (although it was obviously written to be slightly humorous) says the rest. I think Chris K. has it right: his is an argument where personal beliefs tend to get in the way and no one is really right or wrong. I just wanted to share an article that was bicycle related and see what everyone had to say.

  5. Chris Kmotorka

    June 20, 2011 at 11:52 am

    I hesitate to comment because arguing helmet use or non-use is nearly as bad as arguing religion or politics.

    Nothing is going to save you when you get splattered by a semi. But, as I have personally experienced, when you fall, even at low speeds, and bonk your noggin on concrete, a curb, or a sharp rock, an inch or two of foam in a plastic shell goes a long way.

    Where I live there is a law that cyclists under 18 must wear helmets. I have never, ever seen it enforced–and I can’t count how many kids I see without helmets who are passed by police, pretty much every day. So even if you legislate it it won’t matter until the insurance companies fight over who’s liable.

  6. michael berba

    June 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Sorry, but your inferred cynicism shines through. “although you can probably feel some of my uncertainty on the matter” its your quote.

    I agree with other comments that legislation is not the answer. What I am questioning is your reasoning as a blogger, that others especially beginners, look to for advice,for taking such a controversial stance. The arguments made are dubious as I said. What are the controls in the research,is it blind statistical data mining with no context?

    You start with a controversial headline and it follows through to the end of the blog. The credibility of the original article is just stupefying.I mean really,heres the final line- “a real human just doesn’t want to look like a dork.”

    Looking like a dork,hmmm.

    If I was writing a blog about cycling,I would certainly consider very delicately the potential ramifications of reposting a seriously flawed/biased article about helmet safety.
    Beginners look to us that are experienced for guidance.

    best regards,I’ve always enjoyed your blog.
    Michael

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      June 20, 2011 at 1:53 pm

      I totally understand where you are coming from Michael. But it should be noted that the article from Cracked is supposed to be funny, and it is more about what happens BEFORE an accident takes place, than it is about what happens to your head DURING an accident. That’s why the article is titled, “Bicycle Helmets Proven Not To Make You Any Safer”. Of course helmets make you safer when you hit your head, but that isn’t what the Cracked article is really talking about. It is talking about how helmets tend to give cyclists and motorists a false sense of security, which then results in more accidents and head injuries.

      You mentioned that Andrei Kevilev may not have died if he had simply been wearing a helmet when he accidentally crashed his bike. But, according to this article, he may have not needed the helmet at all if he had simply been paying attention to what he was doing instead of “chatting with teammates”. Of course he would have stood a better chance at living if he had had a helmet on during the crash. But he may have not crashed in the first place it if weren’t for the other factors involved. And that’s what I think this Cracked article is all about. It isn’t saying that helmets don’t work. In fact, it says the opposite of that! It is just saying that a helmet on your head isn’t the one and only answer to keeping you safe out there on the road. The first step to bicycle safety is reducing the chance of you falling and hitting your head in the first place (or being struck by a passing vehicle). The helmet, and whether or not is actually works as it should, is secondary.

  7. Peter

    June 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    I have heard more stories of people having miraculous escapes thanks to their helmets than I have heard stories of people being seriously injured or worse because they were not wearing helmets. That in itself is meaningless. Personally, I wouldn’t ride without a helmet. I shave my head, so there’s no hair to mess up. If you don’t want to wear a helmet, fine. I wear a helmet when I ski, I buckle up in a car, I don’t drink and drive or break the speed limits. I use sunblock. I try to eat right. I’ll defend your right not to do any of that, with the notable exception of two things. Just try not to blow your cigarette smoke my way, eh?

  8. Roland

    June 20, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    I’ve been brushed by cars twice while riding in cities … The first time my head hit curbing so hard that my glasses were found on the other side of the street, the second time my head also hit the curb … Both times I was bruised and dazed but got up and walked away … I’m convinced that would not have been the case without a helmet …

    I’m not sure I can quite agree that touring cyclists don’t wear helmets in Europe, that wasn’t my experience riding with Austrian, German and Dutch cyclist in Croatia, Sardinia and Corsica. I admit in Italy and France, helmets were not common.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      June 20, 2011 at 2:04 pm

      I didn’t say helmets were not worn by “touring cyclists” in Europe. I just said that helmets in general are less common in Europe than they are in the United States.

  9. michael berba

    June 20, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    cyclists fall off their bikes for an infinite amount of reasons. Of course the helmet isn’t the only thing keeping you safe.But when Im hauling ass down Wilshire blvd and hit a double flat pothole and endo… God Im glad I have it.
    You’re dodging the benefits of the helmet. Thats what perturbs me,you seem to make every argument that its just a secondary,or that other behaviors will kill you. These are all a given to cyclists. Its the accidental head trauma that we shell out $100 bucks for. They work. They worked last season at Squaw Valley when I hit a small tree,they work when Ive fallen repeatedly on a skateboard ramp and they work when I ride my bike on the road. Do you wear a helmet when mountain biking? If yes then whats your reasoning to not wear one while on the road? By all your arguments there are many subjective hazards to avoid,cars,teammates and whatever else can distract us.
    Sorry friend,you’re wrong on this one,ESPECIALLY as a blogger that doles out advice to beginners.

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      June 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm

      Again Michael, I’m not saying that bicycle helmets don’t work or that you shouldn’t wear one. I never said that and the article from Cracked doesn’t say that either.

      The reason I bring up the differences between American and European cyclists at the beginning of the article is because this actually has something to do with what the Cracked article is saying. In Europe, it seems, where cycling is more common and drivers are used to seeing cyclists on the road, helmets are not used as frequently. But here in America, where cycling is still seen largely as an oddity, more people wear helmets (possibly due to the fact that they feel they are more likely to be hit by a passing motorist?).

      So I’m not saying that bicycle helmets don’t work. That isn’t even what this is about. That is why, at the end of the article, I asked, “Do you believe that mandating helmet use lowers the number of cyclists on the road, which in turn increases the number of accidents? And do you think wearing a helmet makes you more or less likely to be involved in an accident?” I didn’t ask “Do you think you should ride with a helmet at all times? Or, do you think bicycle helmets actually work the way that they should?” Instead, I asked about the thinking behind the reason we wear bicycle helmets in the first place… and the ideas brought up in the Cracked article. I hope you (and others) can see the difference.

  10. jddockery2

    June 20, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    I played a little with the road experiments referenced in the article. The street cloths, MTB and wobble got a lot more room than high vis spandex, road bike and blinky. So I find there is some truth to the article. My feeling on the subject are as follows:

    I feel that making helmets mandatory for cyclists is definitely not the answer. Adults should be free to make their own choices, however children are our responsibility as parents. As such we start by setting the example. Probably why Touring Pro gets so much flack.

    Children’s bikes should not be sold without helmets.

    Car drivers need to be educated and held responsible for their actions.

    If you fired a gun down the street and killed someone you would go to jail. Run over a cop and kill him and leave the scene (Indiana news this week) you get 4 years house arrest. How can the safety of the cyclists in the states be taken seriously when penalties for ignoring it are so lax?

  11. Georginos

    June 20, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    I was accidentally attracted to this article and, as a European (:D), I was – as I often get in American sites – impressed by the rigidity of some pro-helmet arguments. So, this urge came up to me to share a few things the way I see them.

    Agreed: children should always wear helmets. Hell, if we could dress’em up like astronauts before they go for a ride, we’d do so, wouldn’t we?

    Fact: Making helmets mandatory through legislation takes a huge burden off of the government shoulders. By making you wear a helmet they feel ok, but reality is that they simply avoid doing what actually matters: educate motorists and build a safer, bike/pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. This, of course, would cost a little more.

    Fact: The less safety equipment you use, the more on your toes you are. No point in trying to deny this as an argument. That’s a fact everywhere, every time, for every activity. A simple test: If you’re wearing a helmet everyday, take it off and go for a ride around the block. For the duration of this ride, it will be virtually impossible to crush (and if you do, you probably won’t be coming back any time soon to dismiss my theory!). You’ll feel naked and vulnerable. This feeling will go away in time, but not as much as you may think. You’ll always be more vigilant than when wearing a helmet.

    Fact: Hitting your head on the pavement while wearing a helmet is, by leaps and bounds, preferable than without. Not hitting your head on the pavement is preferable to both. But, should we even be wasting bandwidth discussing this particular aspect of things?

    And for the panem et circenses: in this video,
    http://momentumplanet.com/videos/mikael-colville-andersen-why-we-shouldnt-wear-bike-helmets/
    Mikael-Colville Andersen, founder of Copenhagen Cycle Chic, gives his anti-helmet talk at TED. Of course the guy lives in Denmark…

  12. Stevejust

    June 20, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    As a kid, I used to jump crazy dirt jumps on bmx bikes, do huge gaps, bunny hop up and down stairs, over walls, across medians, whatever — without any gear on except when I raced because the tracks requried helmets.

    Nowadays, I wear a helmet regardless of whether I’m on my commuter, roadbike or mtb. I have been hit by a car on my commuter (a right hook) and I’ve been doored by a car on my motorcycle and was happy to be wearing a helmet both times.

    I’m the same person, but the biggest difference other than age is now I’ve spent over $150,000 on schooling. If I’d have eaten it badly as a kid and wound up as a vegetable, I wouldn’t ever had a reason to spend the money on the school.

    The nice thing about things like helmet laws is they typically tend to help normalize behavior. Normalized behavior over time doesn’t look dorky — by defitinion it looks normal. There’s no question in my mind that if I had worn a helmet as a kid I woudln’t have done anything riskier than what I was already doing — but if a not wearing a helmet was yet another thing to get harrassed about by cops I would’ve worn a helmet.

    The state tells you you have to pass a test to get a drivers’ license to drive a car. The state tells you you have to wear a seatbelt. I wouldn’t object to the state telling me I have to wear a helmet — or that my kids have to wear helmets. I’m not sure I agree with the Peltzman effect. Correlation does not equal causation. Cars have generally gotten bigger over the years. Cars have gotten much faster over the years. I think people have become increasingly douchey over the years. There’s a lot of explanations for the statistics that may account for a failure to find a cause-and-effect between helmet laws and safety.

  13. Donna

    June 20, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Interesting article, Darren. In my opinion, mandating helmet use won’t work. I always wear one because of what I’ve seen happen on bike paths–the most innocuous situations can lead to a head injury (caused by inattention, as you’ve noted in your ongoing debate with Michael), so I strap one on out of habit and personal preference.

    Will a mandatory law reduce the number of cyclists? Maybe. Human behavior is a tricky thing, isn’t it? There are multiple variables that can determine the likelihood of an increase or decrease in injuries/accidents.

    Maybe it’s more important to consider the behavior of the cyclist rather than what he/she is wearing. As a cycle commuter, I’ve had my share of boneheads on bikes who ride on my ass on a busy street when my racks are loaded with panniers. They’re absolutely clueless that it’s not a paceline workout, but they’ve seen the pros do it, so they copy them. What if I have to stop suddenly because a car pulls out in front of me from a hidden driveway, or if a truck nearly right hooks me? We’re all sunk, with or without a helmet. I have no problem telling other cyclists to give me room if they’re doing something that compromises my safety, but I doubt that it changes their future actions beyond their immediate experience. A helmet doesn’t come with a single drop of common sense.

    There are huge numbers of people who take cycling lightly because, as you’ve said, here in the U.S. it’s a sport and not a lifestyle. You just get on a bike and ride, right? For many folks, it’s an optional activity with no rules to govern their good time.

    The hours spent arguing about helmets might be better spent educating the general public about being responsible on the road, whether as a driver or cyclist.

  14. Denys moore

    June 20, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    My personal experience with wearing a helmet,am fit from the legs down,scooting along in top gear,had a side wind,allso carrying a plastic shopping bag on the racer style handlebar.Plastic bag was swinging wildly,did a really stupid thing,instead of stopping and swapping the plastic bag to the other side,so it would blow away from the bike,did it in “mid flight”.As I removed the bag from handlebar, it swung in towards the wheel and jammed in the forks which immeadiately stopped the bike,I went over the handlebars so fast that I didn’t even have enough time to put my hands out to cushion the fall.My helmet took the full force of the impact,it split in two( yes it’s a bloody miracle that I didn’t break my neck) I just got a small grazing when I hit the bitumen.

  15. Leah

    June 20, 2011 at 7:46 pm

    I definitely think it depends on the situation. When I am bicycling in the city I never wear a helmet, however when I’m mountain biking I need one for sure. The reason I choose not to wear one when I am city biking is because my forehead gets really sweaty.
    I once almost got fined 150$ for not wearing a helmet which I feel is ridiculous.

  16. Georginos

    June 21, 2011 at 2:47 am

    Everyone should be able to choose whether they want to wear a helmet or not.
    But MANDATING helmets is just plainly wrong.
    Mandating helmets means:

    a) bicycle helmet lobbying pays off!

    b) senators get their share

    c) the state collects VAT (in my country that would be full luxury item 23% VAT for equipment which is supposed to be mandatory! Sounds fair, right?)

    d) in my view, such legislation would indirectly make a statement like “hey, you wanna ride a bike? fine, just wear a helmet ’cause there’s no way in hell we’re gonna build you safer roads”

    e) in the broken-arms-and-legs-due-to-criminal-neglect-of-road-signs case of you vs the state, you will most probably lose, because “you were not wearing a helmet”.

    f) MANY women WILL get off of bikes. Really, they will. Everybody knows that. In fact, many people will get off of their bikes, regardless of gender. A nice way to make the roads safer to bikers is to get people out of their cars and onto their bicycles; not the other way around.

    My bottom line: wear a helmet if you feel like it or don’t. Make a civilized discussion with other people who may disagree with you and try to convince them with your arguments. But don’t pass a law.

  17. Dave

    June 21, 2011 at 10:21 am

    It’s tough to respond to research based on an article in Cracked. :) My recollection is that Cracked is kind of a less funny version of Mad magazine, and has never previously been found in a footnote or bibliography.

    Anyway, helmet use should not be encouraged or discouraged. We should let Darwin’s Principle of Natural Selection run its course, and the species will ultimately be better for it! :)

  18. Darah

    June 21, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    I agree with both sides. I grew up never wearing a helmet. It was hot, it was uncomfortable, I looked like an idiot. I didn’t wear one.
    Now, as a mother, you better believe my kids are wearing a helmet! They all know they aren’t allowed on their bikes without one. (Even the littlest wears one before he gets into his roll-cage trailer!) If I expect them to wear one, you better believe I had better be wearing one. It’s taken a lot of getting used to wearing one. It’s still hot, uncomfortable, and I still feel like an idiot wearing it….despite what my husband says.
    When my husband started commuting by bike my only request was that he wear a helmet. I didn’t care how much he wanted to spend on his bike and gear, as long as he wore a helmet so he stood a better chance of coming home safely. The rest is details.
    I think it’s a personal decision and what one person says isn’t the end or beginning of the world. Yes it’s better for your brain when you crash if you’re wearing a helmet…that’s a given. I guess if you decide to ride without a helmet, just make sure you have your will and life insurance set up ahead of time!

  19. Sands Spencer

    June 21, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Even if one does not believe a helmet adds to safety, it certainly does add to the PERCEPTION of safety consciousness in insurance companies, as well as judges and/or juries who may be asked to sit on an accident related claim.

    “So, Bicycle Rider,” says the Car Driver attorney, “you say my client acted in an irresponsible, unsafe manner?” “Yes, I do,” responds Bicycle Rider. “And you consider yourself to be a safe and responsible bicycle rider?” “Yes, I do.” “Why then were you not wearing a helmet? Had you been wearing a helmet you might have walked away from the accident unscathed!”

    It doesn’t matter how many studies or facts you throw at people, perceptions and beliefs are going to be what they make a decision on; and in the above scenario the bicycle rider will be seen as being irresponsible and unsafe, greatly hurting the chances of a just outcome. The car driver may have cut off the bicycle rider and caused the accident, but in the eyes of the insurance company, judge, or jury, the bicycle rider is tainted as unsafe and irresponsible if not wearing a helmet, bright clothes, and proper lighting/reflectors. So, wear what you want, but be aware of ALL the consequences.

  20. Opus the Poet

    June 21, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    There is a simple way to test the best-case scenario. It doesn’t even require crash-test dummies or fancy lab equipment, just some hard data.

    Number of cyclists in (country)

    Number of people who die while riding bicycles in (country)

    Number of people that die because of head injury while riding bicycles
    (minus)
    Number that would have died of some other cause if they were wearing a majick foam hat (Hypothetical Uber-helmet that prevents all head injury)

    This leaves only the people that would have survived a wreck had they not had a head injury.
    (minus)
    The ones that had head injury in spite of wearing a helmet (helmet failure, wreck exceeded design limitations of the helmet or other)

    This would be the number for whom wearing a helmet would supposedly have made a difference.
    (times 0.85)
    Best case scenario from helmet propaganda.
    (divided by)
    Number of cyclists
    This gives you the percentage of cyclists that could be saved if everyone wore a helmet. Or
    (divided by)
    Number of deaths while riding a bicycle
    This gives you the percentage saved if only people who had bicycle wrecks wore helmets. Given the extremely small number of cyclists killed in the US (still too many) this has a chance of being a pretty large fraction.

    The problem is that even if cycling stays flat in the face of a helmet law (which it never has, it always declines) the number of cyclists saved through helmet laws is much lower than what could be saved by growing cycling. And that ignores the health benefits of cycling over driving, transit or any other non-active mode of transport

    So, all things considered, helmet laws are not a very good allocation of resources.

  21. Jason

    June 22, 2011 at 1:08 am

    I run bike tours and I have seen too many customers come off their bikes and hit their heads. The only thing saving them is the helmet. Helmets are mandatory on our tours.

    I saw two very experienced independent cyclists in Mongolia. They had cycled from France to Mongolia overland and without incident. On the penultimate day of their grand tour as they headed towards Ulaan Bataar and a flight home, a dog ran out in front of one of them and onto his head he did land. No helmet. Surgery required in a Mongolian hospital. A helmet probably would have helped. If you’ve been to Mongolia you’ll know there is not much around to get you while cycling. You never know where the next dog, chicken, drunk driver, or lapse in concentration is going to be – I always wear a helmet.

  22. Ron

    June 22, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Its a fact that helmet use is a matter of personal preference, unless mandated by law. There are pros and cons for each side, as well as numerous studies, some good, some bad, for each side as well. Motorcycle helmet laws are not universally applied through out the US either, and that debate has been raging on for decades. I like to think for myself and not have the gov’t do it for me.

    I do take issue with a theme that runs through all of your posts here Michael; blogging and social responsibility. I believe Mr. Alff has stated on numerous occasions that these are his personal opinions.He operates a website that is a collection of information from himself and other contributors based on personal experience and preferences. Like I tell my children, don’t take what you read on the internet as the end all be all truth. Think for yourself. Mr. Alff does provide good advice in his content, but still it is ultimately up to the reader as to what they feel is right with the information. He has simply provided an alternate opinion on the helmet issue.

    Michael, if you surf the web and think everyone is giving advice that would should accept at face value and blindly then I have a website you should check out the will make you a millionaire in 10 days.

  23. Tim D

    June 22, 2011 at 8:20 am

    Around about a million people a year go to hospital in the UK for treatment of head injuries. About 3000 are injured and 100-150 killed each year. Assuming that all of those killed or injured have head injuries (not the case), that leaves at least another 997,000 people who suffered head injuries whilst not riding a bike. What helmets should they be wearing? To follow some of the reasoning above, what head protection do you wear when driving or going to the pub or walking down the street? If it makes sense to wear a helmet for riding, it certainly seems to make sense if going out for a few beers.

  24. Tim D

    June 22, 2011 at 8:21 am

    sorry, meant to say 3000 cyclists

  25. Pingback: Should You Wear a Helmet While Riding? | Spokes and Chains

  26. Rick

    July 5, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    I have been involved in two bicycle accidents since I began actively riding in 1977. Both times I was wearing a helmet and both times the helmet saved my life. The first time, the helmet was destroyed in the accident and Bell replaced it for free when I sent it in to them. The accident happened in downtown traffic and involved the driver of a parked car opening his door directly in front of me. I collided with the door and was thrown off my bike, over the door and struck the pavement head first. The second accident happened on the highway (an expressway). After the bicyclist in front of me (we were drafting) slow suddenly, my front tire hit his back tire and both bike and I tumbled end over end into the ditch. My head struck a large rock in the ditch, cracking the helmet.

  27. Jacek

    July 5, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Yes you are absolutely correct about North American cycling, helmets views, it’s very different
    Let say Europe, where young people are dating, gather together in the city Piazzas Cyclist wearing fashionable clothing and as you said, who want to look like a racer, kiss his girlfriend when wearing helmets
    I was recently in Japan and there are people riding bicycles in the passages of shopping centers, on the side walk, no one was wearing helmet

    North America is a car kingdom and most of people treat cycling as a sport activity wearing sporty, very tight clothing (looks funny on alder folks?
    I don’t understand how you can fell of the bike if you riding normally
    I’m not talking about riding skip downhill’s, rising. I was wearing ones helmet in New Zealand but with my heavy touring panniers I was going 45mph downhill, there were special metal bars on the road to stop the cows from changing the owner, and it was smart to have helmet but not on daily rides
    My point is that if you like to wear helmet and you enjoy the ride, do it but
    If my country would force me to wear a helmet I would move to another one and I never visit those countries who are forcing citizens to wear helmets and make them abnormal to follow another extra rule to make you a slave
    Cycling without helmet is a last source of freedom on this Earth

  28. Sharon

    July 11, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Actually the helmet thing here in Australia is pretty weird. Plenty of people completely ignore the law – and those are usually the people who also ignore all other traffic rules and expectations while riding the bike.

    I’ve never quite worked out how they manage to survive for so long. I think it must have something to do with the fact that they aren’t trying to be part of normal traffic, and therefore don’t find themselves in the path of the rest of the “normal traffic”.

    As for helmets? Well, I’ve needed mine most when traffic had nothing to do with it. Poor road and path maintenance have lead to most of my accidents, and the helmet has successfully remained between my head and rocks, so I’m perfectly fine with looking like a dork.

    Much better than looking like an accident victim.

  29. Christina

    July 21, 2011 at 10:18 am

    I understand your position regarding helmets. I don’t like wearing mine, either. Statistically, however, it makes sense. Of the fatalities among bicycle riders from 1994-2008, the vast majority (91% in 2008) of people who died while riding bikes were not wearing a helmet. There isn’t really any good reason not to, just there isn’t a good reason not to wear a seatbelt.

    http://www.bhsi.org/stats.htm

    As for the lifestyle/Europe argument, more people in Europe smoke as well, and you know how good that is for you.

    Be safe on the roads.

  30. Jacek

    July 21, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/VEe2mzHLhWElG2hmR4BSig?feat=directlink

    Please check this picture from Europe , it will show my point how different is cycling here in Europe
    Happy Cycling
    J

  31. Don

    May 23, 2012 at 12:54 am

    In Vancouver Canada, I can’t account for the sociological information of people taking more risks when helmuts are on.

    I’ve survived 2 head crashes while wearing a helmut, the worst one and most potentially injurious occurred 3 weeks after I started wearing a helmut. (I was a lot higher risk cyclist before I got a helmut than after, mainly because it took me a while to realize how bad I could hurt myself on a cycle.

    As far as my friends are concerned the biggest deterrent to cycling is the scare me to death, traffic in Vancouver. (We have a very pro-bike lane city hall right now but I don’t know how that’s effecting numbers).

  32. Amy

    June 2, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    I was riding my bike in Canada when my wheel got stuck in a train track. I fell over, became unclipped, and my head bounced along the pavement. Thankfully it was my helmet and not my skull that bore the brunt of the impact. Cars saw me and stopped. I wasn’t being a risky rider just because I was wearing a helmet. But I can’t imagine riding without one or assuming that the only way my head risks coming in contact with the road is if I have a false sense of my own immortality.

  33. Martin Willard

    June 18, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    Awesome article. I love all the moron’s who write comments like, “there is no way i will look at the other side of an issue, even when the writer says ‘this is counter intuitive’…no way!” Not only would this stifle debate, but it makes for boring improv as well. oh and it also aims to destroy the foundation of the scientific method, which makes stuff like commenting on someone’s blog post on the internet on computers possible. or, said another way, coming up with an hypothesis to confirm or deny natural phenomena is what makes this whole conversation possible. the same arguments show up in politics: blame the victim for riding a bike (blaming poor people for being poor), saying the science was bad (global warming, nearly all economic theory) are just a few.

    A perfect place to see “risk compensation” in action is the NFL. when football started it was almost exactly like rugby with no pads. people got hurt, so they introduced more padding. but then more people got hurt; so they added more padding. now they have horrific head injuries because people assume their helmet protects them, and they engage in more dangerous behavior.

    SCIENCE is AWESOME! pull your helmeted head out of the clouds. if you get nothing else from this comment just remember, “cycling isn’t dangerous, cars are”

  34. legal immigrant

    June 21, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    We all should wear helmets driving a car, especially kids
    It’s much safer
    In the cities pedestrians should also wear helmets, when swimming helmets on, many rocks
    Having sex after 65, helmets mandatory
    What is wrong with the people, sending sons to the wars but worry about scratch on the head?

  35. Dwayne Obyanki

    July 25, 2012 at 4:50 am

    Helmets look stupid. End of story. Get motorists to wear helmets as they’re significantly more likely to benefit from one that a cyclist.

  36. Cliff Stark

    August 12, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Sorry if it touches peopl the wrong way, BUT bicycle helmets DO make you look like a dork. Especially the swoopy torpedo “I’m Lance Armstrong” style. Just a fact.

  37. Dave Wyman

    August 31, 2012 at 12:37 pm

    I’m so late to the party!

    I just had a bike accident. The bike stopped, and I flew over the bars. I landed partially on my head, attested to by the compressed foam at the back of the helmet. I don’t know how hard I hit my head, but if it compressed the foam, it was a hard enough hit to make me glad I was wearing a helmet.

    People probably should wear helmets when they drive. If we all did it, it wouldn’t look silly. Nobody thinks it looks silly amongst serious cyclists where I live, in Los Angeles.

    And helmets are required at many places where people ski or rent horses.

  38. iain

    December 16, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    I was a reluctant wearer right up to the point when a crazy blood nut (red head for you non aussies) came through a stop sign and deposited me on my head on the road some 10m later. I sore her coming and managed to tuck and hit the top of the bonnet (hood) taking out my right shoulder and then the road took care of my left shoulder. My helmet was smashed into 4 pieces. Two shoulder reco’s, no brain damage. Helmets are like seat belts no one likes them until you need them. Go and visit the local brain trauma hospital. Sit and talk to the families and hear how their fathers don’t recognise their own kids, can’t hold down a job, have fits of rage.
    My advice is to grow up and stop being such a show pony. Treat your helmet like your brakes, necessary safety equipment. Besides you know what the snow boarders say, if you not wearing a helmet then your just not going hard enough.
    cheers from Aus

  39. Mike

    January 27, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    I live in New Zealand, the only country to make helmets mandatory everywhere. I live in Christchirch, a small and flat city. On a normal day, I might see 10 people riding a bike. Te conditions here are perfect, but no one does. I have been all over Europe and untill you spend time in a country with this law in force you should not comment. The damage the law has done is immense, no one feels safe on a bicycle and I may not see a single child bike to school in a day.

  40. matt

    May 22, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Why is it that scientists evaluating this question insist on confusing the distinction between
    1. Dose a helmet increase the level of head protection.
    2. And, does wearing head protection increase unsafe or aggressive behavior, neutralizing
    any additional protection – from a statistical point of view.
    I just want to know am I safer wearing my helmet than I am not wearing it, lets say,
    assuming the same behavior.

  41. Rideon

    September 3, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    Well, as soon as I saw this as a topic I knew (and you did too) that there would be all kinds of “reaction” to whether or not to wear a helmet. So making my point here of “reactions”. I was a person who only wore my helmet while sliding and picking my way down steep icy roads while winter commuting in Colorado. Later when I moved to New Mexico I encountered what I would define as ‘insane people” that is those folks would throw full cans of beer, soda, etc. while I was riding my bike. Whatever, I got a helmet (Bell Metro) glad I did as later I was unavoidably hit by a car and I wasn’t hurt physically although I was quite upset at listening to the cackling laughter. All cars around stopped at the loud thud except the car that hit me. Glad I had my helmet on.
    Years later I took my bike through New Mexico, Colorado and Oregon. I encountered many climate changes and was glad to have a versatile “bike hat” as the accessories for the Bell Metro with winter liner, snap on rain shield, ear muffs that permit safe hearing and visor mirror kept me safe and warm or cool even. I have found that my helmet works very well in hot riding conditions as the vents channel a nice breeze and color choice (titanium) helps deflect heat. A guy in Oregon used to wear nothing but baseball caps and after several years of that he got skin cancer on his hears from sun exposure. In Oregon!! where it rains all the time, hmm go figure. Any how, salty bike touring experts like to travel light and keep it simple, while packing for a tour how many hats to you want to pack? I packed four with one. Pretty cool as I would work on my self esteem sitting outside a coffee shop or pub with my “bike hat” on declaring silently to myself “that’s right I’m a bike dude, see the hat? I make this thing look good.” Hmm, not sure I ever bought into that one but nonetheless the helmet can keep me looking good. Cheers! My friends to riding safely and swiftly helmet or not just don’t get hot headed over it and “you can keep your hat on”. Invited to a nudist birthday party, consider wearing nothing but your favorite bike helmet.
    Here’s a fun link to Joe Cocker’s “Leave your Hat on” with typo “You can leave your head on”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFso6brN-FI

    visit http://www.biketourings.com

  42. GH

    October 2, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    I just moved to New Zealand a few weeks ago and already got pulled over for not wearing a helmet!
    I wear a helmet voluntarily during rides of what I deem significant length. I was however on a ride of less than half a mile. Beautiful country, but it suffers from the same foolish problems as other democracies.

  43. A+

    October 4, 2013 at 11:05 am

    I feel it’s my choice if i want to wear a helmet or not. Usually i do but sometimes i don’t. I agree here in America bicycle snobs gleer at you if your not wearing a helmet like they are more entitled than you to be on the on a bike because they have protective gear on. Situations like high speed riding on pavement or in the city around cars i think its a smart choice but for overall trail riding i dont think its necessary unless very treacherous terrain is involved.

  44. Darrell

    March 6, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Keep it down. If they figure out these helmets don’t actually help, we’ll be wearing full faced motorcycle helmets.

  45. Nicholas Bazin

    June 27, 2014 at 7:53 am

    If you are aware of the troubling psychological effects of wearing a helmet, then you can compensate for them. Thanks for bringing these issues to light.

  46. Carmen

    July 1, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    I live in France and plenty of people make comments about my non-helmet-wearing. This annoyed me to the point that I wrote a song about wearing helmets for everything: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AwFGdwvZgTI

    And I’ve started to keep a Google document tracking all the comments I get: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xUImab6n2U2G1X6iE5SyOV8W-SkY2GbYytbeeSr4E-Y/edit?usp=sharing This way, instead of getting annoyed at people telling me how to live my life, I just think it’s cool I can add a new person to the list.

    I thought about printing business cards or buttons: something like “Carmen Safety Club member #X” and handing them out to people who give me this unsolicited advice :)

    I asked a couple of these people why they don’t go around telling all the smokers, on their smoking break, that what they’re doing is dangerous. :) The answers range from “people are aware of the dangers of smoking but I need to impart my valuable knowledge to ignorant fools not wearing helmets” (my paraphrasing) to having seen people injured in bike accidents.

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