Monday, June 16, 2008

Dispelling the myth

I have just read a wonderful pro cycling article in the British Medical Journal. (BMJ) It came out last December so you may have already seen it. If not, there is a link at the end.

What makes this piece different is that it is not written by a cycling advocacy group, but is an article for doctors by an independent writer pointing out the health benefits of cycling, and how these benefits far outweigh the slight risk of riding on the road.

This is a view that I strongly agree with. If cycling is ever to become popular again in the western world, the myth that cycling is dangerous must be dispelled.

The BMJ article comes out against helmet use on the grounds that it gives the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it really is. I am inclined to agree to a certain degree. I wear a helmet, but it is my choice; I am opposed to helmet use being mandatory, especially if it stops people from cycling.

The article points out, when helmets were made compulsory in Australia, hospital admissions from head injury fell by 15-20%, but the level of cycling fell by 35%. Ten years later, cycling levels in Western Australia are still 5-20% below the level they were before the introduction of the law yet head injuries are only 11% lower than would be expected without helmets.

At the same time, 17 times more motorists than cyclists died of head injuries in Australia during 1988, and yet no one is advocating mandatory helmets for motor vehicle drivers.

The BMJ article refers to the inherent risks of road cycling as trivial. Of at least 3.5 million regular cyclists in Britain, only about 10 a year die in rider only accidents where there is no other vehicle involved. Compare this with about 350 people killed each year by head injuries after falling down steps or tripping. (Total cycling fatalities in the UK in 2005 were 148.)

Another study estimated that out of 150,000 people admitted to hospital annually with head injuries in the United Kingdom; road cyclists account for only 1% of this total, yet 6% of the population are regular cyclists and a further 5% are occasional cyclists; 60% of admissions were alcohol related. Maybe we need helmets for walking drunks.

Finally, the BMJ article touched on a point that is the crux of the whole road death issue. In 1983, compulsion to wear seatbelts cut deaths among drivers and front seat passengers by 25%. Up until 1983, there had been a long established trend of declining deaths in car accidents. This reversed and just six years later by 1989 death rates among car drivers were higher than they had been in 1983.

Evidently, the driving population "risk compensated" away the substantial benefits of seatbelts by taking extra risks, at the same time putting others in more danger. This period saw a jump in deaths of cyclists.

Although temporary, the jump was followed by a decline and can be explained by cyclists having adapted to a more dangerous road environment through extra caution, or simply giving up cycling.

It is no coincidence that the long decline in cycling in the UK began in 1983. Between 1974 and 1982 cycling mileage in Britain increased 70%, but there was no increase in fatalities until the seatbelt law was introduced in 1983.

The civilized world should be outraged at the appalling casualty rate on our roads. It is the drivers of automobiles who are doing all the killing. In particular, aggressive drivers are the problem, speeding, running red lights, and taking all kinds of other risks.

In many cases, an aggressive driver is an angry driver, and I have heard it said that an angry driver is as much danger as a drunk driver. However, aggressive driving does not carry the social stigma that drunk driving does. It is time that it did; a dead person is just as dead whether killed by an aggressive driver or a drunk one.

Aggressive driving is unnecessary; it is just a habit, the sad this is, it has become accepted as the norm. Driving aggressively may only take five minutes off an average thirty-mile trip. Aside from the danger, there’s the mental stress, the wear and tear on the vehicle, and the gas wasted. Is it really worth it?

In spite of this, it has been proven that experienced cyclists are still safe because they become street smart, and ride defensively. Just as good, defensive drivers stay out of trouble. Inexperienced riders need to seek advice on safe riding practices, and get out there and ride. Like all skills there is no substitute for actually doing it.

It is a myth that cycling is dangerous, and car driving is safe. That seat belts save lives, because indirectly seat belts have lead to more deaths due to unsafe driving practices. However, we cannot go back. Making seat belts optional would claim more innocent lives, and would not stop aggressive driving.

I will go out on a limb here and state that it is also a myth that helmets save cyclists lives, because it is mostly the experienced bike riders who wear the helmets. It is experience that protects a cyclist’s life; but like the seat belt situation, we cannot go back. I for one will continue to wear my helmet.

Read the BMJ article here


Anonymous said...

"The BMJ article comes out against helmet use on the grounds that it gives the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it really is."

Yet, people still crash and are still hit by cars or take a fall from going into a pothole or from trying to avoid a suicidal jaywalker. And, unlike in a car without seatbelts, there aren't 2 more wheels to keep you upright or a ton of metal to absorb the crash first.

Cycling itself isn't dangerous. Hitting your head on pavement is. And when you are in traffic with cars, the likelihood of hitting your head increases.

Why go unprotected when it is so easy and convenient to put on a lightweight helmet. Yeah, you might still be brain-damaged, but maybe you'll be able to speak and walk instead of drool and have a feeding tube.

I don't know of any adult cyclist who hasn't had some incident where they were either sideswiped, nearly sideswiped, hit a big pothole or wet manhole cover, or just happened to fall over because they had a brain-freeze and didn't unclip from their pedals at a stoplight. Even more so with friends who ride off road, except for them, it's a technical downhill or a log that's too high that does them in.

Who knows, maybe it's all the news about cycling saddles being bad for your love life that is slowing down cycling use, not the requirement of helmets. But I doubt that helmet use, as opposed to increased sedentary lifestyles, is the reason that fewer people cycle.

Kids must wear helmets and they still cycle - until they can get access to a car - and then they don't.

People said the same things for years about seat belts and airbags in cars - i.e., that they don't work - it's better to be "thrown clear", etc. A bunch of nonsense. People used to say, what's the harm in driving a bit drunk, as well.

Hard-core cyclists don't shave their legs for beauty or aerodynamic reasons - they shave them to avoid some of the worst effects of road rash. If road rash is common enough to go to the extreme effort of shaving your legs, why not do the simple thing of donning a helmet. If you can get road rash, you can hit your head.

We should stop pretending that cycling in traffic doesn't have some level of danger involved. Not requiring helmets doesn't remove the danger any more than sticking your head in the sand does.

Anonymous said...

I think that the problem is one of perception: many people feel that they are in control of their fate in a car, and not in a bike. So they feel safe in the car, and not on the bike, even though the evidence does not support this conclusion.

I'm not sure what the answer to this is, but cycling education for all(focussed around road positioning and hazard awareness) might be a good start.

I don't think that one can compare seat belts to cycle helmets: seat belts work (car crash mortality went down after seat belts were made compulsory, even though trip numbers stayed the same whereas this is not true of helmets).


Anonymous said...

Regarding anonymous comment from 8:24, I suspect that you overestimate the amount of protection that a foam helmet can give you. All the cycle helmet standards allow for is non deformation of an enclosed form dropped from six feet (ie if you fall from standing, you should be OK). There are theoretical reasons for thinking that the protruding components of a cycle helmet may increase diffuse axonal injury by increasing the rotational component of the impact.

Of course cycling in traffic has some risk involved: no-one is pretending it doesn't. But being in a car is riskier, and being a pedestrian is (probably) riskier also, and nobody makes pedestrians or car drivers wear helmets. Or gets all high and mighty about it.

Misleading oneself into thinking that you are safer with a helmet is fine. Just don't make me wear one.


Anonymous said...

I agree totally with the article, though I believe it is from 2000 not last year.

Helmets do protect against road rash I agree, but there is no evidence that they protect against major injury and the assumption they do, is counter productive in so many ways.

Wear a helmet if you prefer (it will after all stop scratches and bruises), but don't assume it is any more use than your gloves and don't insist that other wear special cycle equipment when cycling should be as easy as jumping on a bike.

Helmets do not equal safety.

Anonymous said...

Kids don't have to wear helmets (here).

Pedestrian accident figures are similar to cyclists and we don't think wearing helmets is sensible for them.

AIUI, the reduction in cycling in Australia coincided with the mandatory helmet law.

Anonymous said...

Aggressive and distracted driving habits are a direct result of the following variables:
1. Horsepower, 2. Attitudes, 3. Types of roads built, 4. Traffic levels, 5. Norms, 6. Ads, 7. Licensing standards, 8. Public funding of infrastructure, 9. Convenience foods, 10. Electronic distraction devices, 11. Alcohol, 12. Personal schedules, 13. Fair/effective law enforcement of moving violations, etc.

In each case the trend is not positive and reflects behavior patterns common to those in denial of self-destructive addictions. For cycling to become safer and more acceptable to a wider group will require numerous trends to be reversed. Cycling per se is certainly not dangerous but many variables that cyclists have little or no control of have become worse with time along with man's needs for speed and conveniences.

To remain safe, cyclists have learned to be more aware and ride accordingly. It is quite common nowadays to see many motorized vehicles driving over 50 mph in 30 zones, much more than 30 years ago.

Anonymous said...

When one intimidates a cyclist or pedestrian with a motor vehicle, one is essentially making a death threat -- in a most physical way. In most situations death threats (physical, verbal, or written) are taken very seriously. Roadways seem to be an exception.

There are far too many people on the road who do not have the moral capacity to be entrusted with the power that operating a motor vehicle provides.

Yes, I ride daily.

Anonymous said...

"I have read of too many automobile, bicycle or motorcycle operators dead do to absent or failed helmet use."
My web blog depicts the shattered BELL bicycle helmet post FORD F-150 Truck mirror 'brush' while I rode a local S.C. roadway.
Without said helmet my skull would have been 'cracked like a melon'.
Note, the fellow who impacted me is a motorcycle rider who was driving (badly) his employers work truck.
FACT: Helmet use has afforded me injury free bicycle and motorcycle riding for over forty (40) years.
Wonder how many 'pro vs con' helmet use reports or mandates have come and gone during these intervening years?

Anonymous said...

To Anon 2:32pm -

That's precisely why I wear a helmet. Cycling is dangerous because of such drivers. Doesn't mean you don't ride, but (i) you learn to drive like you are invisible and (ii) you wear a helmet to provide yourself with a minimum of protection - really a halfway decent chance against brain damage in many situations.

Gary Burkholder said...

Wow what is with all the anon comments today? I agree with Dave's observations about mandatory helmet requirements, but I always wear a helmet. I do criterium races and have smashed up two helmets in the past two years. The 2nd helmet saved me from a certain head injury, as I was going ~27mph during the crash. A better comparison than seat belt laws, might be compulsory helmet use by motorcyclists and their accident rates.

On average, the healthcare costs of those who don't ride a bicycle are much higher and the longevity is lower for those who don't ride. supoporting stats from the National Safety Council


Anonymous said...

WRW says:
"FACT: Helmet use has afforded me injury free bicycle and motorcycle riding for over forty (40) years."

Sorry, WRW, but your statement is opinion not fact. It may be a fact that you have 40 years of injury-free riding but I suspect it was not due JUST to wearing a helmet. Unless of course you get your head "smacked" every time you ride.

Do you pay attention while riding? Do you look ahead for possible conflicts with other traffic that allow you to avoid the conflicts? Do you ride predictably? Have you developed riding skills that allow you to avoid collisions in emergency situations? Or did this arrive "magically" because you wore a helmet?

My opinion is that collision avoidance has more to do with our riding skills than with just wearing a helmet. I know people that have 40 years of injury-free riding that have not worn a helmet. As for myself, I wear a helmet every time I ride because one never knows when one will have need of it.

However, I don't believe Dave's post is about the helmet debate (so let's not let it go there). It is about the impression that cycling is more dangerous than it actually is. Of course, cyclists are "vulnerable" so there is a certain element of risk inherent in the activity (just as in swimming?) but I believe that developing our riding skills and pratices help us to manage that risk.

Gene in Tacoma

Anonymous said...

On the subject of aggressive driving, I totally, 100% agree with Dave Moulton. Our civilization is much too accepting of this as just part of normal life. It's scandalous that we accept as being unavoidable the incredible death and injury rates that are attributable to cars and to their drivers. I guess we all just go from day to day hoping neither we nor our loved ones will be among the statistics.

On the subject of helmets, I'm against mandatory helmet laws for adults (though I wear one myself), but I'm for it where kids are concerned. They are at most risk for falls and accidents, and it's virtually impossible for a parent to mandate their use without some government help.

Anonymous said...

By the way, in Canada, we have lost close to 90 soldiers in southern Afghanistan over the past few years. Every time one is killed there, our government lowers flags to half-mast. But, nobody lowers any flags for the thousands who are killed or maimed annually by motor vehicles. They only died in the interest of keeping our society moving and getting to and from places they wouldn't need to go to if it wasn't that we have cars in the first place.

Peter Sefton said...

The rise in accidents sice 1983 may be to do with the cars involved not the seatbelts. Cars are getting faster. I remember seeing something a few years ago from the UK about a strong positive correlation between the 0-100km/h time and the number of accidents.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I have worn helmets ever since the day in the late 1980s when she was hit head-on by another bike on a multi-use path. She was lucky to escape with cuts and bruises, and no head injuries. We went out and got helmets the same day, and would not think of riding without them.

I agree with the first anonymous commenter, who pointed out that hitting your head on the pavement is the danger that helmets attempt to mitigate.

Anonymous said...

Gene in Tacoma ...
Regarding bicycle safety perceptions (held opinion).
'One has NO protection from a rearward incident astride bicycle or motorcycle.'
(Note, automobiles and trucks employ a specific rear 'crush' zone expressly for such an occurrence.)
The best insurance you can employ is to equip yourself with protective garment, choose a desired cycling route with care and LUCK!
That said, opinion does not nullify this FACT, Messrs. Duggan, Jackson and myself can empirically prove our safety policies have worked.
(ALL have 'posted' associated after incident photographic evidence or reports.)
'No brag or opinion, just fact!'
Alive to bike another day ...

mander said...

Great post Dave.

Adrian said...

In regards to your comments aggressive drivers, I think the real issue is not just the obvious danger they cause (in terms of serious accidents), but the games of spatial domination and intimidation that unnerve many would-be cyclists. I think this is much more of an issue than helmet laws in terms of improving the numbers cyclists.

Unknown said...

Sooner or later, Dave, a rider will hit the ground. Show me one thing there that is softer than your head.

Anonymous said...

WRW says:

"That said, opinion does not nullify this FACT, Messrs. Duggan, Jackson and myself can empirically prove our safety policies have worked. (ALL have 'posted' associated after incident photographic evidence or reports.)
'No brag or opinion, just fact!'
Alive to bike another day ..."

Based on this post and re-reading your previous post, I understand you are saying that wearing a helmet saved your life. Yes, that can be a statement of fact. And it is also a fact that you were able to keep riding for years after that incident because you were still alive. I can understand that. And I agree that wearing a "protective garment" (do you mean "helmet"?) will help to reduce one's injuries.

However, your phrasing used the word "afforded" which I interpreted to mean that wearing a helmet was what kept you injury-free, when you meant (I think) that because you were wearing a helmet you are still alive to keep riding and that during that time you were injury-free. I certainly cannot dispute that.

Would you agree though that riding safety is not just about wearing a helmet? If I am reading your post correctly, your "safety policies" also state to "choose a desired cycling route with care". I would agree to that and also add to continuously improve our bike handling and traffic communication skills.

To quote Kent Peterson in his article "Safety First: Tips and Techniques for Riding in Traffic":

"...the bicycle helmet is not some kind of magical protective device. A helmet may lessen your injuries in some types of accidents but a helmet alone does not make you 'safe'." The point to me is that focusing just on the helmet leaves out important factors that may help even more to improve riding safety.
While all cyclists are vulnerable, they can mitigate that risk through improved bike handling skills, clear communication with other traffic, and, yes, wearing a helmet. Full disclosure: I wear a helmet when I ride and so does Kent Peterson. Thanks for the civil discussion.

And, Dave, thanks for the thought-provoking post. I hope we can help other road users and non-cyclists understand that the actual risk of cycling is lower than the perceived risk.

Anonymous said...

Gene in Tacoma -
Semantics aside,
'Lack of safety, not risk, while riding a bicycle or motorcycle is (sadly) engineering FACT!'
('you will fall down' helped or not :-)
An interesting related example:
Novel automotive 'hybrid' or pure electric technology is taking an ominous new turn for cyclists and pedestrians GLOBALLY.
How so, LOW AUDIBLE (warning) SOUNDS!
Caveat, during electric motive power operation (engine off) combined with an aerodynamic chassis and tires exhibits NEAR SILENT operation. (0-30 MPH speeds, approaching or departing)
Twice during these past weeks I have successfully evaded a TOYOTA 'Prius' incident while on bicycle (local road) and in car (windows down, A/C off, radio off) at a U.S.P.S. parking lot.
The concern lay in advanced engineering that permits improved efficiency, unfortunately, highlights unforeseen safety limitations for BOTH cyclists and public.
I understand a vision impaired individual has recently alerted industry and suggested some form of audible alert expressly for such wares.
As more electric vehicles soon occupy these GLOBAL roadways cycling and pedestrians must beware things you may not hear 'coming or going'.
Thanks to Dave for permitting conversation regarding cycling perceptions or safety (cyclist, public) ...

Anonymous said...

Helmets are also a good platform for fluorescent and retroreflective stickies, and flashing lights, which grab attention.

Few motorists want to collide with cyclists. The main reason they do is that they "didn't see them".


Anonymous said...

To Gene in Tacoma:

I don't think anybody, anywhere, would disagree with your statement that "collision avoidance has more to do with our riding skills than with just wearing a helmet."

That's obviously the case, just as collision avoidance in motoring has more to do with driving skills than wearing a seatbelt.

The helmet debate is about when you fall (and, if you ride a bike regularly, you will fall, or be hit, at some point in your bike riding career), what should you do to protect your most important asset - i.e., your un-healable brain.

You seem to answer the question by stating "As for myself, I wear a helmet every time I ride because one never knows when one will have need of it."

No credible study has shown that wearing a helmet increases head and brain injury. Helmets definitely prevent fractures and penetration by curbs and rocks that could damage open-skull brain tissue. They also provide some absorption of impact, like (but much more than) an egg carton. Seems silly not to use one regularly and doesn't seem to be an unreasonable burden - after all bells and lights are mandated in some states - and brakes are mandated in most - even for single-speeds.

I simply don't believe that mandatory helmet use, common in many states, is the reason for lesser bike activity or the perception that cycling is "dangerous". Cycling is more dangerous than swimming - there aren't lifeguards in cycling and, other than sharks, there aren't predators (e.g., cars).

Does mandatory helmet use - or massive promotion of helmet use (which is typically the case) - keep people off of dedicated bike paths or inhibit their use in communities that are more "bike friendly"? The answer is that where there are dedicated bike paths or where motorists are better conditioned to cyclists - there is more cycling.

The BMJ article is not about "mandatory" helmet use - it simply comes out against helmet use at all - and bases it on the presumption that fewer people cycle because the promotion of helmet use makes them fearful to cycle. That is hogwash - and pretty stupid for a medical journal (albeit, really a trade journal for doctors) to promote.

This would be like a dental journal not promoting tooth brushing because it might make people fearful of eating and getting a cavity.

Tooth brushing works to prevent cavities, but is not totally effective. Helmet use works to prevent brain injury, but is not totally effective.

I brush my teeth and wear a helmet.

Harry from NYC.

Anonymous said...

Saul Raisin had terrific cycling and accident avoidance skills. Unfortunately, he had a crash and is alive today because of his helmet.

"Raisin was involved in a crash during the Circuit de la Sarthe that resulted in a hematoma on the right side of his brain. He was rushed to the hospital and remained in a coma for over one week and paralyzed on the left side of his body. "I had a hematoma the size of a lemon in my brain because my head hit the ground so hard that it split my helmet and lacerated the top of my head," Raisin said. "I have seven staples in the top of my head; if it wasn't for wearing my helmet the doctors said that my brain would have been lying on the concrete.""

Is Saul Raisin "overestimat[ing] the amount of protection that a foam helmet can give you"?

Anon 8:24

Anonymous said...

Harry from NYC,
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I agree with your post. I was not debating helmet use.

Regarding my discussion with WRW, I was trying to clarify his statement that "...helmet use has afforded me injury free bicycle and motorcycle riding for over forty (40) years." I explained in my post how I interpreted his use of the word "afforded". Hence, my statement about cycling skills.

BTW, Thank you for clarifying that the BMJ article was against all helmet use.

Anonymous said...

While riding next to someone listening to their iPod while throttling their street legal Challenger, I'm so glad to have a helmet.

As described by the NYTimes: The 425-horsepower Challenger SRT8 will blow the dusty doors off its ’70s forebears — including the legendary 426-cubic-inch Hemi version. And true to its heritage, the 2008-vintage Hemi emits the terrible roar of Civil War cannons. High jinks are further encouraged by the Dodge’s performance computer, a sort of live-action video game that’s best played at maximum muscle-car volume. The computer allows drivers to test their skills against the clock, and flashes your Best Score in everything from zero-to-60 acceleration to braking distances.


Anonymous said...


Although the article is more nuanced than "helmets are bad", here are the takeaway quotes:

"{W]hat we need people in authority to understand is that cycle helmets inevitably damage public health".

"By telling people that they need helmets for an activity that for a century has been regarded as "safe"and in fact has a fine safety record, you inevitably engender the impression that cycling must have become more dangerous than driving and walking. That deters cycling. That reduces cyclists' presence on the roads. That increases the risk of death. And if wild claims about helmets saving lives are published in the media, helmet users are bound to feel overly secure, thus compromising their one vital safety featurea sense of caution. . . ."

Because of helmet use promotion, millions won't cycle and "Millions will die early because they did not cycle".

"Promote cycling, not helmets. Get out there and enjoy the dubious pleasure of the wind in your hair."

I, for one, think you can BOTH promote cycling and helmet use without going on a Jeremiad that "millions will die" if you push people to wear helmets. I also vehemently disagree with the notion that helmets do not save lives in a crash situation. They simply do. Why lie to people to bait them into cycling?

We promote helmets for skiing, we promote hard hats for office building construction, we promote rubber gloves for doctors and nurses, we promote seat belts for drivers, we promote lifejackets for kayakers, we promote sunscreen for sunbathers, we promote bug spray for campers, we promote condoms for safe sex, we promote gloves for yard work, we promote bullet-proof vests for police officers, we promote boots for fishermen, and we promote firehats for firemen. No one is suggesting that we should throw the protective elements into the garbage can in order to ensure the popularity of skiing, building construction, medicine, cars, kayaking, sunbathing, camping, sex, gardening, police work, fishing, or firefighting.

It doesn't seem to me that you have to bash helmet use to promote the healthy and "green" effects of cycling. Maybe what is slowing down recreational cycling (if indeed that is actually happening - in New York, it seems to be booming) is what is really being promoted the most - i.e., that you need to right the lightest weight carbon bicycle wearing nothing but lycra, dedicated cycling shoes (and a helmet) and spend $3000 in the process. If you're not a racer (or, conversely, a double-suspension off-road technical trail rider), you're not really a cyclist and have no place on the road. It seems to me that this attitude, ever present in the popular cycling magazines, has more of a deleterious effect on cycling than does promoting sensible notions like wearing a helmet, protective eyewear and cycling gloves.

Harry in NYC.

Unknown said...

Perhaps you need to see this, Dave:

So much for the naysayers who deride anecdotal evidence.


j. said...

What does shaving legs have to do with helmets? But since the topic was mentioned...when I used to race, I would always ask everyone who shaved their legs why they did it, and was always astounded at the variety and creativity of the responses. If you have legs hairy enough to need shaving for "road rash reasons", chances are your arms are also quite hairy. Do the hardcore cyclists also shave their arms? In the end, I came to the conclusion that male roadies shave for the same reason many women non-riders do: simple vanity. (Plus, sure, it feels sexy and secretly titillating.;) )

Sorry, this was a helmet thread, right? Maybe we can have a separate blog entry on shaving, I'm sure it would spawn quite an interesting discussion.

If we're worried about head injuries and road rash, why don't we all wear full-face helmets and long sleeved armoured gear like motorcyclists do? Don't tell me we couldn't make them light enough to race with... I'm sure the technology exists to do this. The roadies who wear a thin layer of nylon between them and the hard ground are taking just as much of a calculated risk as the helmetless rider.

Helmet wearing might be about image just as much as about safety. For me, ditching the helmet and the spandex and the skin-tight jerseys brought back the wind-in-my-hair feeling of freedom that riding a bike gave me as a kid many decades ago. The trappings of modern cycling (that Dave has written about in past entries) seem to have taken bicycling out of the realm of everyday transportation and into the realm of elitist sport. A little piece of foam on one's head (not just *any* piece of foam mind you -- how many of us have been guilty at one point of judging a rider by the type of helmet they wear?), or a little swath of spandex cushioning one's family jewels have, in a way, insidiously helped to take cycling out of the hands of those who can't afford (or don't want to be seen in) them, and made it the sole province of the "drive to the meeting place and do a training ride from there" weekend triathlete yuppie crowd. If we're going to have a true bicycling revolution in this country, if bicycling is ever to be seen as more than just an expensive hobby for affluent overgrown children, we'd do well to reevaluate the image we project as everyday riders. The image of fear and danger is one of those images. If more people see me jumping on my bike without a second thought, without having to stop and check that my helmet is secure or my spandex isn't giving me a wedgie or my legs are smooth enough to avoid potential road rash...if they see the joy and freedom that this simplest piece of rusty, heavy old machinery can bring to my day, then maybe more people will want to start riding again. Bicycling, in its purest form, is about having fun. As kids we knew this intuitively; have we all grown into dour adults paralysed by the spectre of What Could Happen? Is the fear of a small possibility of feeding tubes and drool (oh how the mention of these topics make us clench with fear!) worth giving up that joy? In the end, this decision should rest with the individual (whether they're over OR under 18, by the way), not the Nanny State.

Thanks for a great blog, Dave!

Anonymous said...

Colin (Logging into Blogger rogers my Google account settings):

Stand out statement: "Not cycling is really dangerous".

In case your readers miss the minimalist Glaswegian humour, the "Walking helmets" paragraph is, of course, entirely from the author's imagination. With help of Adobe to paint a helmet on the "Unctuous Twerp", and henchman. Intended ironically, to highlight the absurdity of helmet laws.

However, the author is quite wrong to insinuate observing a helmeted cyclist puts punters off cycling, "because it makes cycling look dangerous".

It puts normal people off cycling to see a bike-wally wearing a plastic lentil on his bonce.

"PRAT!" is the first thought that flashes through their minds.

"I must avoid anything to do with prats." Is the second.

Ask a Dutchman.

Then there's the "special clothing with padded inserts" ...

'Nuff sed?

Gary Burkholder said...

"Ask a Dutchman" what a fantastic idea. In lieu of that how about we ask a Dane?

Several people have pointed out the necessity of wearing a helmet when racing and even shaving to lessen road rash. I don't think that there is any debate that wearing a helmet should be required when racing. I think the USCF also requires jerseys to have sleeves to protect from road rash. Wearing gloves also affords protection. However, this is for competition and I would consider this different than cycling for general exercise or for commuting.

I'm a firm believer that the best way to ensure greater safety for cyclists on roadways is by having more cyclists on the road. In order for this to happen aggressive driving needs to be addressed not whether or not people wear helmets.

Americans can continue to buy 'bigger and safer' vehicles with a dozen air bags and hundreds of safety features. At some point helmets will be required for all drivers in addition to safety belts (just like helmets are required for auto racing). At this point there will be no cyclists on the roads with or without helmets. The roadways will be more congested, there will be more pollution, and gas will be $10 a gallon world wide. But we'll all be 'safe' in our game of bumper cars and it will be good to own an auto body shop.

Anonymous said...

I think it is foolish to believe a couple ounces of expanded foam can protect you.
Defensive cycling is your only hope.

Anonymous said...

As a pediatric nurse now in the midst of "trauma season", I have observed that most of the cycling-accident patients for whom I care (mostly teens) do not involve motor vehicles at all, but occur from inattention, carelessness or some unfortunate mix of terrain, traffic and tempo. I have cared for head-trauma patients whose injuries were clearly mitigated by the wearing of a helmet, rendering a potentially fatal blow to the head an injury from which one might fully recover. Interpret my observation as you would care to interpret them, I am not offering science, but my observations from my job are compelling to me and to those who work with me. Certainly, on-road experience has something important to do with risk mitigation, but I believe that the use of a helmet is appropriate, if not wise when riding a bicycle, whatever the age of the rider.

I also worked as a bicycle messenger for a few years in the 1980's and would not have been caught dead in a helmet. I often fell on wet pavement, trolley tracks, was "doored" and was even slammed from behind at 35mph and survived without more that a bit of road rash. I will say now that I was angry, young, reckless and very lucky.

Nowadays, at the threshold of 50, I ride 10,000 miles annually but I broke 2 helmets in races over the last year. I was happy to have a helmet on my head when I skid to avoid a crash and smacked the back of my head to the tarmac at 25mph. Broken helmet and all, I was able to get up and ride for the rest of the day, bloody, but unbowed. Without it, I think quite a few of my plans might have changed, beyond finishing the race.

Anonymous said...

I would respectfully suggest that these are good summaries of the studies surrounding the efficacy of bicycle helmets, loaded with information, and relatively free of unfounded opinion and ad hominem arguments.


Bruce's Bike Blog said...

Here’s my two cents if you all don’t mind:
I always wear a helmet—mainly for this reason—I used to have a blast riding horses when I was at university up in South Dakota. Often I would ride my bike to the farm just outside of town where I had them boarded. Riding along, my horse stepped on something, lost his balance, and we both tumbled to the ground. I went over his head (like going over the handle bars) and I hit the side of my head and face pretty hard. I fractured my cheekbone—but the worse came from my glasses. The lenses didn’t break because they were the thin plastic shatter-proof kind—what the lens did do was act like a knife and slice my eyebrow open. I had to have plastic surgery to fix the cheekbone and patch up the eyebrow, which luckily is not even noticeable today. After that I always wore a helmet on the bike and on the horse—just for those times when I might take an unexpected spill.

Anonymous said...

Here in Finland wearing a bicycle helmet is manditory but as violations of the law does not carry a punishment you can image how few people wear one. I have been wearing mine for 15ish years now. When we got a bike seat for my son, we put a helmet on him too. One day, a quite elderly man asked me where my helmet was. Since then I've used one but my son stopped riding his bike because I expected him to use his helmet. Now that he's turned 18 he's riding his bike, but without a helmet.

Anonymous said...

I choose to wear a helmet. I ride 300 klms a week and have never hit my head although prangs aren't uncommon, the outcome is usually minor. I wear it because I cannot know when it may become a head saver for me, and even though I have a vast experience and a high level of skill and ride as a vehicle in a vehicular manner, the other road users of today are more aggressive than ever, hence they increase my risk, not me!Perception of helmet wearing as a compulsion made it uncool & killed cycling for many, that is is statistically proven and was the reality in Australia, as stated in the BMJ articlethe reality and it, among other prejudices (PR driven) impacted on car drivers' elevated attitude of hatred to slower vehicles on the road. (ie: You are deemed vulnerable, so stay off the road!)You have a higher risk of a head injury negotiating your own front step.
Deaths were declining before seat belts were compulsory ( read the BMJ article again if you missed that!) and rose after 1983 due to increased acceptance of risk by drivers. Today drivers are more aggressive and risk accepting than ever, due to seat belts, air bags and structural high levels of protection afforded to them by vehicle design. This places other road users, especially vulnerable ones at greater risk. Drivers think they can race as they won't get hurt as easily. They need a steel spi9ke in front of their face to face the reaility of the danger they present to other road users.
Competence, patience and responsiblity allow us to go forward safely. Those who abuse the priviege of road use by agressive behaviour deserve the wrath of the courts and imprisonment, as aggession and threat of bodily harm is in most jurisdictions assault... and should be prosecuted as such. A car can and is used as a weapon every day across the world and as we discuss this hundreds of drivers are steering at toher road users aggressively, abusing them with weapons of steel. There is no such thig as road rage , it is people rage & there is no place for such behaviour and drivers do not have a right to the road to excercise it. Road use brings obligations and consideration for others on the roadway is paramount.

mgr said...

Re the uptick in vehicle accidents after 1983: That was the first year cell phones were sold in the US - for the first few years, up until the 1990s, they were almost always sold as "car phones."

I might stop wearing a helmet when people stop talking on the phone and texting while they're driving.

jarvinho said...

No matter how sensibly or carefully you ride, you can never deal with 100% of the situations that arise on the road.
After a near miss a while back, I started wearing a helmet. About 3 months ago, a car cut out directly into my path from a side street, there was no time for me to stop and I hit him and went over the car landing up on the tarmac on the other side. I cracked my helmet and was knocked unconscious. Thanks to the helmet I was left without serious injury.
Granted, if the driver had been more careful, or there were generally more cyclists on the roads here in Edinburgh, the incident may not have happened, but until that day comes, the helmet will protecting me.