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