if you don’t like wearing a bike helmet, you might like to read this…
This post has been updated: February 2014.
A coupla posts back I mentioned I don’t wear a helmet all the time. Which prompted some of you to want to lock me away from your children (should I corrupt them into not wearing theirs). But many more of you shared some very good info about where the research and laws are all at. I’ll stress, before you read on, that my argument is against the compulsory laws. It’s not against your choice to wear a helmet if you personally find that, after weighing up the evidence and risks and your own personal situation, you would rather stick one on your noggin.
Plus, I should point out, again, I do wear a helmet on long trips and when I’m racing, that is, not on familiar roads in my neighbourhood when I cycling at a mindful pace.
There are two separate questions when discussing this topic:
1. Are helmet laws good for society?
2. Are helmets going to protect you personally if you do come off a bike?
Me, I’m more interested in the former. Especially when you consider the following…
Helmet laws make riding more dangerous
Helmets deter people from riding. But regular riders live longer because the health effects of cycling far outweigh the risk of death from crashing. There is ample data to back this.
Plus, cities where more people ride are safer…it’s called the Smeed’s law.
Also, there’s this: While-ever helmet laws are the government’s response to cycling safety, other measures (infrastructure, campaigns) are side-lined.
There’s inconclusive proof helmets save lives or limit injuries
The “science” on whether helmets actually protect us personally is very inconclusive and no randomized controlled trials have been done on the safety of bike helmets. Indeed, the latest – and most comprehensive – study, focusing on Canada, and published in BMJ found compulsory helmet laws had negligible impact on injuries. There are so many variables entailed that cloud a definitive conclusion:
- People who wear helmets are more cautious, therefore less likely to crash. This is a thread that comes up in a lot of studies – helmet-less riders are defensive riders.
- Similarly, studies show “risk compensation” kicks in – helmet riders can be more complacent and take more risks. Ditto drivers – one study shows drivers are more considerate of riders without helmets. This means there are more people beings “saved” by helmets, skewing data.
- When helmets are compulsory, and people don’t choose to wear them (ie they wear them reluctantly and without commitment), they’re often worn incorrectly.
Chris Rissel, an associate professor in Sydney University’s school of public health, has stopped wearing his cycling helmet. He co-wrote a paper published in the Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety that looked at the number of cycling-related injuries admitted to NSW hospitals between 1989 – a year before helmets were made mandatory in this state – and in 2008. It found an initial small drop in the number of cycling head injuries, with figures flat ever since.
Helmets have been shown to prevent injury from “linear speeding”. But many accidents occur from “angular” accidents caused when the head is rotated. Helmets actually CAUSE head rotaion. Bill Curnow, the president of the Cyclists Rights Action Group in Canberra, reviewed the scientific literature for a 2008 book, Transport Accident Analysis and Prevention
“Scientific circles had “widely discredited” the theory that linear acceleration is the main cause of brain injury, yet helmet makers had made a huge investment in this theory and designed their helmets accordingly, says Curnow, while ignoring the role of angular acceleration in causing brain injury, due to rotation of the head.”
This from Dr Paul Martin (“a medical specialist…involved in the resuscitation of trauma victims and their subsequent management in the operating theatre”):
A bicycle helmet will not prevent brain damage if the forces involved are so great that you would sustain brain damage without a helmet. You will certainly prevent superficial injuries but that’s about it. In fact, this is a major reason why they’re good to wear for sport cycling. There is nothing worse than having to abandon a race with a scalp laceration. I do not wear a bicycle helmet most of the time. When competing, I’ll wear one. Do you wear a helmet when in a car? If not, why not? The risk of a serious head injury in a car is much greater than on a bicycle. If there was a mandatory car-occupant helmet law would you all comply?
Seriously, what’s the *real* risk of head injury?
Not nearly as high as the hysteria would have us scared into believing. The problem is:
Vulnerability is confused with danger when it comes to bike helmets.
Yes, cyclists are vulnerable. But the danger – ie the real risk of injury – is minimal.
There are many safety studies about the issue. This one is a good overview. But a few interesting factoids I’ve collated along the way which might interest you and assist you in making your own mind up:
- Cycling is less dangerous than being a pedestrian. Indeed, six times as many pedestrians as cyclists are killed by motor traffic, yet travel surveys show annual mileage walked is only five times that cycled. The proportion of cyclist injuries which are head injuries is essentially the same as the proportion for pedestrians at 30.0 % vs. 30.1 %.
- UK research has pointed out that it “takes at least 8000 years of average cycling to produce one clinically severe head injury and 22,000 years for one death“.
- In the first 400 days of Dublin’s bike share, 1.3 million trips were made (average duration 16 minutes), equating to 3.7 million kilometres of riding, not one incident. Not one.
Some extra factoids to fuel fires (thanks Dr Paul):
- A helmet smashing into pieces is actually a sign of the helmet failing to work as it should. The foam needs to compress significantly if any forces are to be attenuated. If it cracks or breaks before the foam compresses then it has done nothing to help you.
- Helmets are tested to impact speeds of only 19.5km/h (the speed of impact if dropped 1.5m) and to pass they only have to not break. The documents can be read in full at your local state library (the main one is AS/NZS2063 and the testing documents are AS/NZS2512).
- A bicycle helmet will not protect your face, nor will it protect something which I’m extremely protective of – my cervical spine.
- The ‘new and improved’ helmet standard now differs in two key areas, both of which make a mockery of the last standard and suggest that making bicycle helmets mandatory by law unjust. Firstly, the straps now have to stretch to allow the helmet to come off after the ‘initial impact’ (how does the helmet ‘know’ if the initial impact is going to be the ‘big one’?). Contrast this to the last standard which said it must not move from your head…Secondly, visors and other appendages must be of such a design to not increase rotational forces on impact. This is ironic given that the last standard did no test whatsoever for rotational effects, despite being asked to do so for almost 10 years. So are they saying it is important now or not?
- Helmets which currently comply with the AS/NZS2063 standard, but won”t comply with the updated standard, will be illegal to sell after June 30, 2011. However, these very helmets will be perfectly legal to wear after June 30, 2011. This makes a law forcing people to wear them, plainly ridiculous.
You can all make of the above what you will. And choose from there.