Friday, January 09, 2009

Happy bicycle commuting sans helmet

Image of helmetless bicyclist
From Reuters, 01.05.09:

More than half of U.S. cyclists forgo helmets
WASHINGTON (Reuters)-More than half of Americans admit they never use a helmet while bicycling and more than a quarter skip the sunscreen, even when they are in the sun all day, according to Consumer Reports National Research Center.

The risks of cycling without a helmet are even higher -- the group cited the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as saying 92 percent of bicyclists killed in 2007 were not wearing helmets. Helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent.

Similarly, sunscreen can prevent skin cancer, which is by far the most common cause of cancer, although the two most common types are rarely deadly. The American Cancer Society estimated that more than 1 million new cases of basal and squamous cell cancers were diagnosed in 2008.

The survey of 1,000 Americans has a margin of error of about 3 percent. It found that 58 percent of Americans never used a helmet while cycling and 27 percent claimed they never used sunscreen.(Read more.)
Helmets are an often heated topic among bicyclists. The proponents of strict helmet use and the proponents of helmet-optional cycling offer intense arguments in support of their respective positions.

And articles such as this indicate a clear bias in favor of helmet use: "cyclists admit riding without helmets...tsk, tsk." The media perpetuates a popular perception that bicycling is in itself a dangerous activity, and that riding without a helmet is wanton recklessness.

Of course, this is complete nonsense. Bicycling is safe. Bicycle-related fatalities each year are relatively few, and easily avoidable with proper riding technique (stay sober, ride with traffic, use lights when riding at night, etc.) Certainly bicycling kills fewer people each year than sedentary lifestyles.

Helmets are not, repeat not, necessary to happily bike commute. In much of the world where bicycling is more prevalent, helmets are rarely used. Bicyclists should use their own judgment; if they feel safer with a helmet, fine. Helmets are certainly justified in higher-risk cycling activities, such as high-adrenaline racing or mountain biking.

It is important to stress, however: helmets merely mitigate the consequences of a crash, they don't prevent a crash. Many of the minimal risks of bicycle commuting can be avoided or mitigated through effective maintenance, proper bicycling technique, attentive riding, and street smarts.

Image: Web capture.
Visit: Helmet on Your Head or Egg on Your Face, Streetsblog San Francisco
Visit: 7 reasons there's more to bicycle safety than helmets, DC Examiner
Visit: Is it wrong to show a cyclist without a helmet? Denver Examiner
Visit: The Mailbag-Brain buckets, confessions and bike fit, VeloNews
Visit: The Mailbag-Readers write on helmets, VeloNews
Visit: Wearing a helmet is good resolution, Redding Record (CA)
Visit: Study: More cyclists means safer cyclists, Bike Commute tips Blog
Visit Cyclists should be proactive about safety, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Wearing helmets 'more dangerous', Bike Commuting Tips Blog
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site

23 comments:

Noah said...

I couldn't agree more. A recent post on CBB turned into a minor helmet war. I was quick to point out that in all those photos of Amsterdam's roadways full of bikes, you'll rarely find a single bike helmet. I can't recall seeing even one in any of them. I often tool to the grocery store and back without a helmet. It's less than 3 miles round trip, and I don't use any major roads. I'd not likely be comfortable helmetless on my 30-mile round-trip trans-urban commute, however.

dr2chase said...

What percentage of car drivers fail to get regular exercise, hmmm? Skin cancer is not a big killer, compared to heart disease, diabetes, and strokes.

We've also got to be ve-ry careful with correlations between injury and lack of a helmet, because helmet wearing might be correlated with "I am a careful cyclist" (in the same way that Volvos might be actually safer cars, or perhaps people who care about safety buy Volvos because of their reputation, and then drive their Volvos carefully).

I'm a little grumpy right now. In a town where the only thing people can agree on is that traffic is hateful, we just plowed and salted our streets to a fare-the-well, leaving the sidewalks uncleared and blocked by huge piles of snow at the streets.

Paul Dorn said...

My friend Kash posted this to the SFBike list: "Not wearing a helmet is often a political statement, not a protection issue. There are three types of road user; pedestrian, bike, motor vehicle, and over 40,000 deaths on US roads per year. Remove any one of the three types from the mix. Which one cuts that death rate to practically zero? Now revisit the helmet argument."

Mark said...

When i started commuting in Boston/Cambridge a couple years ago i wore a helmet. However i found that it seemed to, psychologically, foster bad driving habits in me so i stopped wearing it.

Now i feel i am a safer bicycle driver. I will, on average, get into less accidents.

The only accident i've gotten into so far, a small "fender-bender" at South Station, was in fact my own fault.

It is true that i also, now, think of it is a small statement of the fact that Bicycling is NOT dangerous.

Tony Bullard said...

I hate my helmet, but now that I'm a father, I don't want to give my son the chance of saying, "I'd have a dad if he'd just wore a helmet."

Daren Valentine said...

While commuting without a helmet is a personal choice, it is a choice that I am happy to make. Having survived a downhill, over the handlebars, waking up on the side of the road, crash in 2007, I am not likely to commute without a helmet. I was wearing a helmet, and was still knocked unconscious. Imagine if I were helmetless.

So, we must encourage cycling to work as much as possible. But we also must encourage safety!

IgorTheCat said...

My latest purchase was of a BMX style helmet as they seem to offer better protection. I do not favor helmet laws for adult cyclists, but know full well we all have no choice but to obey the laws of physics. I feel naked without one.

Mark said...

Yes, promoting bicycle use is good. Promoting safety is good as well. In fact it is VERY IMPORTANT.

I guess i feel a helmet is only a small part of safety. It is protection when all your other safe habits (and perhaps the environment) let you down.

A big part of safety to me is understanding and obeying the rules of the road; promoting education on the rules of the road to all users of the roads; and working to get equal enforcement of those rules to all users.

Joel said...

Helmet/no helmet all depends on the type of riding I'm doing. When I commute I ride and upright 3-speed tank - slow and steady. Not the kind of bike where I'm concerned about a fall. If I get hurt on that bike it will be by getting hit, and while a helmet might help, it also may not. When I'm on my road or touring bike, riding fast in the drops, I do wear a helmet since I'm a little twitchy and could knock myself over easily.

Ed said...

The statistic that 92% of cyclists killed were not wearing helmets doesn't mean that wearing a helmet would have done anything to save their lives. 99.9% percent of all drivers, pedestrians, and airline passengers killed in the last 50 years were not wearing helmets. Should we start wearing helmets in everything we do in our daily lives for fear that we may bump our head? Why not just wear a big padded suit and we'll have nothing to worry about?

Safe and steady cycling isn't any more dangerous than crossing a street or walking up or down a flight of stairs. I don't think I need protective equipment to climb stairs or to commute to work by bike every day. There is a point at which you have to be willing to accept some risks in order to enjoy life.

Between some cross-country trips (US, Canada and Europe) and daily bicycle commuting (in New York City) I have easily put in 5000 miles of road cycling and have never so much as stumbled, fallen, or made contact with anything, mainly because I ride safely and at a comfortable pace. I'm not saying that makes me invincible. True, a maniac driver could take me out at any moment, but so could food poisoning or a brain aneurysm and I won't live my life in fear of that unlikely occurrence.

Charlie said...

This sounds much like the debate about requiring auto drivers & passengers to wear seat belts. Or wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle. The consequences of a head injury outweigh the wind-in-my-hair pleasure. I've talked to someone who has cracked a helmet on the curb, he was glad he could still talk.

Karl McCracken (twitter: @karlonsea) said...

It's a good statistic, and one that does give me pause for thought.

I generally DON'T wear a helmet, and I think that makes me a more cautious / assertive rider. Sounds like a contradiction - what I mean is, I'm less cavalier with gaps & cornering speeds, but more likely to take the lane to prevent unsafe overtaking from drivers.

But you've still got me thinking again - helmet / no-helmet is by no means a settled argument for me!

April said...

I would vote for wearing a helmet. Watching people in rehab from traumatic brain injuries is something I won't soon forget. True that most of us grew up without using helmets, seatbelts, smoke detectors, etc, and somehow we all survived, but if safety technology is available, why not use it?
BTW great blog--keep up the good work!

Dallas said...

The argument is should we or should we not have a choice? As a paramedic for 16 years I can say that of all the fatalities I have come across involving bikes, a helmet would have not have saved any of them. Your C-Spine is the most vulnerable area to traumatic injury, shall we enact laws to make everyone wear C-Collars? If you want to wear your helmet, fine. Don't force your beliefs on me. I wear my seatbelt every time I get into a car. It is my choice. I don't feel it should be forced upon anyone. Our legislators are passing laws based on poor studies and uninformed decisions. This is true for more than helmet laws. At some point common sense and prudent judgement has to be left to the individual. We have have to quit being a nation that is constantly afraid. The media is quick to propagate misinformation with out objectivity. Especially if it is bad news or another way that you can be killed or maimed. The sad part is most of our lawmakers use the media for their source of information. Maybe if they would have worn helmets when they were young, so many of them wouldn't be brain dead. --- Think for yourself.

Randy Victory said...

Heck, I love my helmets. I've got really nice ones, and they look cool! Right now, I own five helmets - sorta like having a bunch of hats - they go with anything I wear.
Besides, my only real asset is my brain - at 50, it ain't my back anymore, and it's never been my good looks! If I lost my brain, I'd be screwed! What's a bit-o-styro if it'll help me make it to retirement?

One last thing - the comment about mountain biking being more dangerous than just riding around, so you should wear a helmet when you're engaged in a "high risk activity".... I find that when I'm just riding around, my guard is down. When I hit the trail, adrenalin is pumping, I'm focused... I don't think a helmet's necessary for one & not the other.
Anyway, I'm AGAINST mandatory helmet laws - I think of it as a form of natural selection.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, but statistics can be disingenuous at times. What percentatge of the fatalities of people without helmets would have died with or without a helmet. Helmets are fine, but they certainly don't prevent death in every potential occurance. The same way a hardhat won't keep a longshoreman alive if a 40,000 shipping container falls on him. he's dead.

Will Handsfield said...

While I am against helmet laws, I religiously wear one. I have crashed in bike races, which is one thing, but I have also been doored by a cab. I dented the hell out of a parked car with my body, and had my head hit the car, it would have been bad even wearing a helmet, let alone without. I will personally attest to helmet's performance in a crash, they reduce an otherwise bad head injury to a minor one, and reduce a devastating injury to merely a bad concussion.

If you have ever seen a person with a brain injury, you are sure to be averse to them. I prefer feeding myself rather than forcing my loved ones to spoon feed me, so I wear a helmet. If you ride in traffic, you are a fool not to wear one in my opinion. The roads are inherently unpredictable, so one must take precautions where one can. A helmet is easy.

clumsy ox said...

I'm very new to bike commuting, so my perspectives are somewhat immature.

I wear a helmet mainly because it's legislated in my county (not state). And yes, they do ticket un-helmeted riders in this county. I have no intention of ruining my enjoyable morning ride with a ticket.

Roush said...

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the question here, but what I hear is "should one wear a helmet and, more specifically, is one safer when doing so?"

I see a lot of responses to the tune of "they may help, but they may also not help--and therefore I should forgo them."

My question: what's detrimental about wearing a helmet? That is, where's the risk in wearing one? It seems there's a swallowed implication in some of the responses above that helmet-wearers throw caution to the wind, but I'm not convinced of that.

I see arguments like "a helmet won't save your life every time," but I'm looking for one like "a helmet will never save your life. So I'll ask again: why should I forgo a helmet if "it might save me a concussion?"

You can be dead right and still be dead.

Sam said...

I'm a bit late to this particular post, but apparently there has recently been some research (forget who or where!) that showed that drivers instinctively gave a slightly extra berth to cyclists without helmets - not much, just an inch or two - but I thought that that was rather interesting.

Paul Dorn said...

Sam: I believe you're referring to the 2007 overtaking study in Britain by Ian Walker, a traffic and transport psychologist at the University of Bath.

Mark said...

Do the helmet-wearers wear a helmet while traveling in a car, walking down a flight of stairs, even in bed? You may laugh at the last one, but injury estimates for the Top 25 Product Groupings
From the 2007 NEISS Data highlighted the total product-related injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms nationwide:

Stairs, Ramps, Landings, Floors (2,324,938); Beds, Mattresses, Pillows (560,129); Bicycles & Accessories (515,871).

Mountain Bike Helmets said...

The helmet issue is so debatable. Personally, if you bike everyday (to work for example) or go biking in places where your chances of falling are increased (down a mountain, for example), then you should definitely wear a helmet. But a leisurely ride through your park may not require a helmet.