Monday, November 05, 2007

Discussing Helmet Use: Like peeking at a snake in a pool cue case

I can’t think of a more controversial subject to write about than bike helmets and the wearing thereof. Nothing will get a cyclist’s anti-bacterial padded shorts in a knot more than saying they should or should not wear a helmet.

To borrow a line from my own novel, “It’s like trying to peek at a snake in a pool cue case.” Let’s see if the bastard will turn around and bite me.

I believe the subject is like religion or politics; an individual should do what they believe is right, but should not necessarily try to force their beliefs on others. I wear a helmet when I ride, but it is not my place to tell others to do the same, anymore than it is my place to say others should wear a seat belt when they drive.

People get extremely passionate on both sides of the fence, and get very upset when others oppose their view. I wouldn’t say I am passionate about the issue even after my accident last December when an SUV made a left turn in front of me. I slammed head first into the side of the vehicle.

I was wearing a helmet, but still came away with a hairline skull fracture; I also damaged a nerve in my right eye. This has left me with double vision that persists even after almost a year has elapsed.

The helmet broke, and it is my view that it did absorb some of the impact. Without it, my injuries might have been worse, even fatal. On the other hand, I could argue that I hit the vehicle at 20 mph and the helmet failed to protect me.

I continue to wear a helmet when I ride, but because they don’t offer total protection, I wear it only as a last line of defense when all else fails. Far more important in my opinion is avoiding the accident in the first place.

A recent report on child related bicycle accidents stated that there are 10,700 children hospitalized each year in the US because of bicycle accidents. The report goes on to say a third of this number had traumatic head injuries, and wearing helmets would reduce these head injuries by 85%. I guess I was one of the unlucky 15%; that is if you consider a skull fracture a traumatic injury.

The report states 30% of the accidents involved automobiles. However, there is not a single mention of safety training for children, or drivers of automobiles. So in other words, buy a kid a bike, put a helmet on their head, send them out on the streets, and they’ll be fine. I don’t think so.

Try to get children and teens to wear helmets by all means, but proper road safety education, I believe, would cut these numbers far more than helmet use, even mandatory use. Of course, this is the parent’s responsibility, but it is the parents who need educating first. Most of them don’t ride a bike themselves, so they don’t have a clue.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-helmet use; I just think some of the pro-helmet advocates would be doing more to help the cause of cycling, if they put their energy into pushing for road safety education, with helmet wearing as part of that.

Bicycle helmet use is still very much an American thing. It began in the US in the 1970s and is slowly spreading to the rest of the world. However, it is not practiced, preached, or accepted in other countries at the level it is in the United States. Certain countries have more of a cycling culture where almost every car driver is also a cyclist; I would feel perfectly comfortable riding there without a helmet.

Many people will not ride a bike if they are forced to wear a helmet, or even if they are made to feel like some social misfit if they ride a bike without one. Helmets have been accepted by roadies because they have been accepted by the pro racers. If you wear the Lycra jersey, shorts and shoes, then the helmet goes with the whole ensemble.

But, put a road helmet, with its bright colors and duck’s arse styling on a guy in a business suit commuting to work, and he looks a total dork. Some will say putting appearance over wearing something to protect your head is stupid, and it may be.

However, try telling that to the teenage kid who is wears a helmet as he cycles to school, and has to run a gauntlet of abuse from other kids. He will quit wearing the helmet, and if forced to wear it, will quit riding his bike. And that is a damn shame.

Some kids are wearing the round skateboard style helmets while riding their bikes, because they “look cool.” This should be encouraged and helmet manufacturers should take note. Produce some plain oval shaped black helmets.

Forget for a moment the safety issue of bright colors and being seen. Get people to ride a bike and feel comfortable about wearing a helmet first; they will come around to wearing bright colors later. Look how many motorcyclists when legislation forces them to wear a helmet, they will opt for a small, plain black one.

I hope I never see the day when there is widespread mandatory wearing of bicycle helmets, for the simple reason they do not offer total protection; manufacturers need to keep working on that one. I realize it is difficult to make a bicycle helmet light enough to be practical and offer full protection.

However, bring in mandatory helmet wearing, and before long governments will push for full protection standards. Then we will all be wearing motorcycle style helmets and dying of heat exhaustion.

Okay, just my point of view and it is not my place to force it on others. Feel free to disagree and even put forward an opposing viewpoint; all I ask is, please be civil about it. But just in case, I’m going to get my snake bite kit ready.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps we should make all auto drivers wear them first until they learn to STR correctly?
Impossible to get this issue right no matter what!

Uncle Bob said...

For an Australian like myself, arguments about whether it's a good idea to wear a helmet are pointless. It mandatory here for all cyclists, and though I find it thoroughly humiliating, I obey the law. There is, alas, precisely zero chance of ever getting back the right to ride in *my* choice of headgear. *shrug*

Anonymous said...

Well done, Dave! This has to be the most balanced, sensible and thoughtful post on helmets that I have seen in a long time, and I have gone looking for them. Here's hoping at least a few people listen; education and communication can be powerful tools, and safety is an important and complex subject. Val

Anonymous said...

Excellent article Dave. I agree with your stance and anonymous 12:49pm comments. Keep up the intriguing articles!

Bob G
Granite Bay, CA

Anonymous said...

It's been compulsory now here in New Zealand for many years and now is simply accepted that when you buy a bike you buy a helmet. (Well most anyway - Nandor has an official exception)

lemmiwinks said...

Like uncle bob, I'm an Aussie and we've had mandatory helmet laws for about 17 years IIRC. I still remember when they were introduced (even if I'm off on the exact year) as I was cycling to school and I greatly resented having to wear a helmet.

Now though, it's just second nature and doesn't bother me at all, in fact I welcome the sun protection! About a year ago I finally stumped up the cash for a decent helmet (well it was only $70 but I thought that was pretty expensive) and I was amazed at how much more comfortable it is compared to the cheap ones I'd been using. It's possible to forget I'm wearing it when I get off the bike.

Considering the speeds I get up to (over 60kph while descending this morning on the way to work) I don't think I'd feel comfortable riding without a helmet. When I'm going the same speed on my motorcycle I'm a lot better protected with a jacket, gloves, boots and full face helmet and I'd still hate to fall off!

Colville-Andersen said...

The next step after legislating bike helmet usage is legislating inflatable rubber safety suits for anyone who ventures out of their own home.

A great post, Dave. Found this interesting website about helmet usage and stats. Might be of interest.

Unknown said...

What do you think about these Dave? We are considering one of these -


VintageSpin said...

A helmet is something like a seatbelt, it doesn’t do anything until you’re in an accident. With sunglasses you filter sunlight and keep the wind out of your eyes. Gloves, they give you grip. Both also keep you safer-gloves, your hands won’t shred when you fall; glasses keep rocks and debris from your eyes.
Helmets just sit there. At the most they keep your head a little warmer in cold weather. That little visor you can attach is useless, blocking your line of vision rather than the sun.
But I wear a seatbelt, and I’ve broken 5 helmets in accidents. One accident was caused by a broken crankarm speeding down a hill. No amount of preparation/training could have prevented all of my accidents.
And even the best race car drivers get into traffic accidents sometimes.
That’s why I wear a helmet.
The way I feel about it all is why I have some friends that don’t wear helmets.

Anonymous said...

"The report states 30% of the accidents involved automobiles. However, there is not a single mention of safety training for children, or drivers of automobiles."

I had a part-time gig at a Long Island bike shop for several years, selling countless helmets in the process. Your simple mention of safety training for children or drivers of automobiles had me thwacking my head as I realized the obvious had missed as I sold helmet after helmet. I suppose my assumption has always been that as cyclists (and POBs) we need to be on the defense since a great majority of drivers don't really give a damn about us. I'm very interested: What type of training for drivers of automobiles would you encourage?

Anonymous said...

I don't want to start a controversy, but there's really no "perhaps" about whether you would have been better off without the helmet in a 20mph crash where your head takes the hit.

I understand that some people want to be "free", and that there is a working argument that the helmet somehow impedes one's ability to avoid an accident (somehow it makes you overconfident or makes it harder to turn one's head, etc.)

But a hairline fracture is a good outcome given a literal head-on collision. A seat belt definitely saves lives, but it doesn't mean that you won't be injured - it can cause shoulder breaks and internal bleeding, depending on how fast you go. But it keeps you from being tossed around or out which keeps you alive, even though you don't have the freedom to move around as much when you are driving.

Most helmets are rated for 15 miles per hour, but they still work at higher speeds. Think of an egg carton. You can drop an egg carton from different heights and some, but not all, eggs will break. Without the carton, they all break - and explode - and from lesser height.

I usually wear gloves on my hands, because if I take a rare spill, it protects my skin from being broken. Some riders shave their legs to prevent the worst aspects of road rash. If you make the effort to shave your legs or wear gloves, or to wear shoes, for that matter, you should be wearing a helmet.

And yes, if drivers, like race car drivers, wore helmets, there would be fewer deaths. But most car drivers are protected already by seatbelts, airbags and 1,000 pounds of metal. Bike riders don't have that luxury. A car driver can escape a 20 mile per hour accident without a scratch. It doesn't work the same way on a bike.

Anonymous said...

Dave - You say, "However, bring in mandatory helmet wearing, and before long governments will push for full protection standards. Then we will all be wearing motorcycle style helmets and dying of heat exhaustion."

Come on - first of all, motorcyle helmets don't offer "full protection". Neither do seatbelts or airbags. What is offered is "some" reasonable protection that lessens your chance of death or severe disability from a crash. A full motorcycle helmet is designed for consistent 65mph+ speeds, but will only help out in slower speed crashes where the body is not subject to the forces of a flying 65mph crash.

Just because there is "some" regulation, does not always mean that we fall down the slippery slope into full regulation. And, in any event, if you disobey, it is only a dollar fine, not a criminal prosecution. Most police officers are not going to issue tickets for this, just like they typically don't issue tickets for not having a bell (mandatory in New York State) or a light (mandatory in New York State after daylight).

This issue is only controversial because other issues such as stem cell research are controversial. People ignore the science, the physics of accidents, and focus on anecdotes and feelings.

Anonymous said...

"As a lifelong (prolonged by helmet ware) bicyclist and motorcyclist, products that exceed GLOBAL head injury prevention standards while performing multiple duties are sorely needed."

blue squirrel said...

great post, i can only speak for myself, but my life has been saved countless times by a bike helmet. i have been hit 3 times by a car and had numerous race and training spills over the past 20+ years . the last 2 times luckly after quality helmets hit the market. one altercation recently with an SUV making an illegal U-turn from standing traffic, had me flipping over the hood of the SUV in slow motion. i stayed up right, sliding along the side of the SUV, until i hit the mirror and flipped over the hood. i landed on my head and shoulder, all i can remember is upon impact, i thought, thank God i am wearing a helmet. i had a concussion, but i walked [limped] away [before going to the ER]. i can not stress how important it is to wear a good fitting helmet.

Anonymous said...

I think anyone who has been in an accident where a helmet has come into play will admit that riding a bike without wearing a helment is akin to cycling suicide. I've split a helmet with no lasting effects on the old noggin, although friends and family might differ with my opinion. I wouldn't be here today, I am certain, had it not been for that helmet. I never...and I mean never... get on a bike without wearing a helmet, not even for a 3 block ride to the store. And, as others have pointed out previously, new helmets are so comfortable and light, you might even forget you have it on. There is absolutlely no excuse not to have a helmet on when riding a bike.

Finally, I sincerely hope that "big brother" keeps their noses out of business and does not force helmet wearing upon us. I hope that the threads that bind our country with freedom of choice do not unravel.

Anonymous said...

I stopped riding when helmets were made compulsory in Australia. 15 years later I realise what an ass I was. A helmet has save me several time after being hit by a car and race crashes. Personally I dont care whether you wear a helmet or not, what I do object to is the drain on the public health system when people not wearing a helmet sustain a head injury. No helmet, no health cover.

Anonymous said...

Another Aussie reader and I agree with the sentiments from my countrymen.
I didn't think it was necessary when it was introduced, but I wasn't about to quit riding just because I was told to wear a helmet. Looking back now on the crashes I've had, if it wasn't for compulsory helmets I may not have the ability to write this to you now.
Another bike blogger Andy White of is currently wearing a halo screwed through his scull while his broken neck heals. Happened alone while training on a country road, if it wasn't for the helmet he would now be a quad or dead.
Even if they aren't a guarantee of safety they certainly make a better outcome far more likely, as with your own head Vs car experience. It's your head, treat it with as much care as you think it is worth.

Anonymous said...

I put in a vote for wearing helmets to protect you in less serious accidents.

I was in a situation where I had to stop suddenly on a road with poor traction. I went down and found out that the angle made by my chin and the front of my helmet was just sufficient to keep my front teeth from being knocked out.

Good enough reason to wear a helmet for me.

Anonymous said...

PLEASE USE YOUR HELMET!!!My dear 40year old friend, Carlos, fell off his bike two days ago and suffered severe head injuries as a result. He underwent cranium surgery to alliviate the hematoma but was pronounced brain dead this morning. For now he is alive artificially, his family is still in shock and does not want to pull the plug yet. He will leave behind three young children and his beloved wife. He will be terribly missed!

Will said...

I never get the debate.

I have twice banged my head quite hard and had no injuries thanks to wearing a helmet.

I can't see any negative from wearing a helmet. None.

Of course wearing a helmet only offers slight protection from some types of crashes - its not body armour. Safe riding is even more important.

But those that are anti-helmet are missing the point.