Bike helmet debate

I had no idea there was such an active debate about the utility of bicycle helmets. My assumption had always been that they provided unambiguous protection from direct contact between hard materials and the skull and had a limited secondary value in diminishing momentum at the time of collision by crushing.

Some of the arguments against helmets linked above do seem to have some merit. If it can be demonstrated that they significantly reduce bicycle usage, the general health benefits lost may well be more significant than the avoided injuries associated with unhelmeted crashes. It would also be interesting to see a properly controlled experiment on whether helmet wearing decreases the caution employed by both riders and cyclists.

Walking to and from work every day, I spend twenty minutes beside a noisy six-lane road. That road has certainly increased my aesthetic opposition to private automobiles. Along with the carbon emissions, cost of roads, need to stay cozy with oil producing governments, and other standard externalities associated with the automobile, all the space they take up and noise they produce should be considered as well. There is no uglier element in most cities than the various bits of infrastructure that cater to cars (some bridges excepted).

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

32 thoughts on “Bike helmet debate”

  1. It seems as if, individually, helmet use might make one safer but that collectively it makes society less safe (if deterring other cyclists etc). I also recall reading research suggesting that cars leave more space for cyclicts without helmets, thus reducing the chance of collisions. However, it seems clear that more research is needed, particularly into issues other than fatality.

    I also have personal experience of 2 crashes without a helmet and many without: the first helmetless one produced several minutes of unconciousness, substantial memory loss (lasting days, and obviously I can’t remember how much I still don’t remember) and a lot of lost skin; the second helmetless produced a broken nose and concussion. I’ve only ever been concussed once from a helmeted crash (of which I have had a great many mtbing) & never seriously. Based on that, I would suggest that cyclists who care about their brains ought to wear a helmet & I do so myself (both on and off road).

  2. Neal and Sarah,

    Interesting points. All this has made me a lot less sure that mandatory helmet laws are a good idea. I am going to keep wearing mine, however.

  3. Concerns about the environmental effects of automobile use are reaching unprecedented levels. Our whole way of life is adversely affected by dependence on the automobile as a primary mode of transportation in urban areas. Automobiles are an increasingly large source of air pollution, a fact Canadians are concerned about. They also consume a much greater amount of energy per person moved than other modes, they demand much more infrastructure support than other modes, and they contribute to urban sprawl which in turn leads to serious reductions in arable land (see The Environmental Benefits of Urban Transit, CUTA, 1990). The urban forms that develop to serve the automobile are in most cases at the same time hostile to pedestrians and bicyclists. This fact, combined with the common problem of urban traffic congestion reduces the mobility of some groups of the population.

  4. My belief in wearing helmets on any set of wheels was re-affirmed when I saw a collision between a 50 year old man on roller blades skate right into a couple of guys on a tandem bike in Stanley Park. He fell backwards and slammed his head so hard into the ground that his helmet cracked. Had he not been wearing a helmet it would have been a grisly scene.

    “Along with the carbon emissions, cost of roads, need to stay cozy with oil producing governments, and other standard externalities associated with the automobile, all the space they take up and noise they produce should be considered as well.”

    I am baffled by the double-standards we have when it comes to cigarette smoke vs. car fuel-exhaust emissions. I’d frankly rather have looser laws on smoking in public, and much tighter laws on the amount of exhaust that is being pumped into the atmosphere and my lungs. I can stand away from a smoker, but when I’m standing on the side of the road, I have no method of escape.

  5. I’d frankly rather have looser laws on smoking in public, and much tighter laws on the amount of exhaust that is being pumped into the atmosphere and my lungs. I can stand away from a smoker, but when I’m standing on the side of the road, I have no method of escape.

    Let’s take it all one step at a time. Producing a less hazardous, more respectful world is a hard slog.

  6. The point of the anti-helmet debate is to disconnect the argument “it is good to wear a helmet” from “wearing a helmet should be mandatory”. Anyone making arguments of the first kind to imply the latter has missed the point of the debate. Anyone wishing to argue for the second must argue for the connection between the two arguments, which is, as you point out, more contentious than people outside the debate assume.

  7. Safe streets

    Not pedaling can kill you

    “Here’s what I learned: Biking is safer than it used to be. It’s safer than you might think. It does incur the risk of collision, but its other health benefits massively outweigh these risks. And it can be made much safer. What’s more, making streets truly safe for cyclists may be the best way to reverse Bicycle Neglect: it may be among communities’ best options for countering obesity, climate disruption, rising economic inequality, and oil addiction.”

  8. Interventions for increasing pedestrian and cyclist visibility for the prevention of death and injuries

    We found no trials assessing the effect of visibility aids on pedestrian and cyclist-motor vehicle collisions and injuries. We identified 39 trials assessing the effect of visibility aids on drivers’ responses. Fluorescent materials in yellow, red and orange colours improve detection and recognition in the daytime. For night-time visibility, lamps, flashing lights and retroreflective materials in red and yellow colours increase detection and recognition. Retroreflective materials arranged in a ‘biomotion’ configuration also enhance recognition. Substantial heterogeneity between and within the trials limited the possibility for meta-analysis. Summary statistics and descriptive summaries of the outcomes were presented for individual trials when appropriate.

  9. RIP Fabio Casartelli

    By Davi Ottenheimer on Security

    Last evening I heard two cyclists say “not tonight” when their friends asked why they did not have helmets. I’ve written at length already on helmets and risk intuition, but apparently they had not read my blog. This brought two things to mind:

    First, the statistics on head trauma and bicycling are simple. Close to 90% of brain injuries sustained from bicycle accidents can be prevented by wearing a hard shell helmet. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) puts this into economic terms in their 2008 Legislative Facts document.

    Every dollar spent on bicycle helmets saves society $30 in indirect medical costs and other costs.

    They also note that while California was the first state to pass a mandatory helmet law in 1986 there are many states that still have no requirement at all:

    Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, and Wyoming

    Second, aside from all the data there are far too many empirical stories and examples that people should be aware of when they ride. One of the most known is the untimely death of Lance Armstrong’s team mate in the 1995 Tour de France.

  10. Fuseproject commissioned by the City of New York to make bike helmets look less bad

    In cities like New York, where bikers ride right alongside heavy traffic, bike helmets are a must. Trouble is, apparently plenty of riders don’t like wearing them because of vanity — most bike helmets aren’t exactly attractive, if you haven’t noticed. Well, the City of New York’s commissioned Projectfuse helmets — that combine safety with an attempt at decent stylings. The helmets feature a two-fold design, with an inner protective polystyrene, which is then covered with a customizable soft fabric that attaches with straps. No, you cannot buy them yet, and we don’t know anything about pricing or availability yet, but we do know that you can score one for free — yes, free — at various events around the city. Let us know if you snag one!* P

  11. “Government traffic safety mandates are typically designed to reduce the harmful externalities of risky behaviors. We consider whether motorcycle helmet laws also reduce a beneficial externality by decreasing the pool of viable organ donors. Our central estimates show that organ donations due to motor vehicle fatalities increase by 10 percent when states repeal helmet laws. Two characteristics of this association suggest that it is causal: first, nearly all of it is concentrated among men, who account for over 90 percent of all motorcyclist deaths, and second, helmet mandates are unrelated to organ donations due to circumstances other than motor vehicle accidents. Our estimates imply that every death of a helmetless motorcyclist prevents or delays as many as 0.33 deaths among individuals on organ transplant waiting lists.

  12. What’s Your Excuse?
    It costs $40 and could save your life. What do cyclists have against helmets?
    By Tanya Snyder on March 13, 2009

    Whether it’s because the local daily is glorifying helmetless riding or because people don’t want to pay $40 to save their skulls, this most basic of safety precautions isn’t exactly catching on. A recent study by Hunter College students determined that in New York City, only 36 percent of cyclists wore helmets. More female riders (about half) wore helmets than male riders (about a third). They found lower rates of helmet use among messengers.

    No such study has focused on usage in the District. Unscientific observations of D.C.’s riding patterns suggest that about half of riders wear helmets. Riders commuting downtown during rush hour, wearing loafers and nice pants, usually wear helmets. Cyclists wearing gear like clip-on bike shoes or Lycra jerseys or padded shorts generally do so as well. In low-income areas, among messengers, and during noncommuting hours, helmet use goes down.

    In the last 10 years, there have been a reported 232 bicyclist deaths in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Correctly worn, bike helmets are about 70 percent effective in preventing damage on impact. Mary Pat McKay, director of the Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine, says that with those odds, she doesn’t understand why so many people continue to ride without a helmet. “If I had a magic pill to prevent 70 percent of heart attacks among people with heart disease, they’d want me to put it in the water.”

    OK, but drinking water is easy. It doesn’t mess up your hair. It doesn’t make you look like a fool. It doesn’t cost $40. And it doesn’t prevent you from feeling the euphoric caress of the wind running through your locks.

    Of course, those are just the most oft-cited reasons for exposing your bare skull to collisions with asphalt and concrete. There are other, more creative ones too.

  13. “The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says two-thirds of bicyclist deaths are from brain injuries. And while some riders worry that helmets will be useless in a high-speed collision, experts say that most brushes with the pavement do not happen at a very high speed. Helmets are designed to deal with the average impact exceptionally well.

    Safety standards apply to all helmets, so you can actually get the cheapest model on the market and be just as safe as if you got the priciest. Good bike shop salespeople around the city will tell you the same thing: Buy a cheap helmet and save your money for a really good lock.”

  14. The Safety is Sexy Campaign
    You’d look hotter in a helmet.


    To erase the stigma that wearing a helmet is dorky or uncool and to encourage the idea that wearing a helmet is attractive, cool and smart.

  15. I support mandatory helmet laws, including for adults.

    Without a helmet, my collarbone injury would certainly have had a serious head injury to accompany it. Same goes for when I fractured my ribs earlier.

    One justification is our publicly funded health system. Making people take a basic precaution that can save so many lives and so much money just makes sense.

    Another is that making it mandatory will help produce cultural change. Many people seem to avoid wearing helmets because they are unfamiliar or out of apathy. Making helmet-wearing the norm would benefit everyone.

  16. Bianchi by Gucci Bike Helmet
    14 hours ago ⋅ Style ⋅ by Robert Marshall ⋅ 2630 views

    Italian bike manufacturer, Bianchi, teams up with fashion powerhouse, Gucci, resulting in the production of a special edition bike helmet. Offering style and comfort to cyclists, this helmet features Gucci’s signature green and red detailing on your choice of a black or white base, a mirrored visor and leather straps. Releasing in two sizes, medium and large, this one of a kind piece can be purchased here for $890 USD.

  17. In Vancouver, where wearing bicycle helmets are mandatory, usage seems about 80%. It seems to me that in Toronto where adult cyclists are not required to wear helmets, usage seems to be about 25%.

    However in both healthcare for cyclists who sustain a head injury is mandatory. I believe public interest of limiting injury (and therefore health care costs) warrants mandating wearing bicycle helmets where in the absence of it, it does not occur.

    The cyclists also get used to having and wearing helmets. It becomes automatic. Helmets are also much more ventilated than they had used to be.

  18. I wonder how much public money could be saved if cars were required to be fitted with 6 point harnesses and full roll cages. Sure, they would make driving more of a hassle, but so does wearing a bicycle helmet.

    I’m not just trying to be facetious here – I think it’s a logical extension of the argument; if we’re willing to sacrifice convenience at the level of individual experience for a goal in the common good, then racing-level safety equipment on normal road cars seems a logical step.

  19. The problem I have with mandatory helmet laws is they get the priority wrong, and they expose the massive pro-car bias in society. If we were going to start making laws to reduce the number of injuries in transportation, the first thing would be to lower city speed limits from 50 to 30, or even 25. Sure, it would make driving more inconvenient – but it would make a huge reduction in the severity of car on car, and probably car on bike accidents as well. Also, it would have the side effect of allowing cyclists to proceed at the same speed as cars, perhaps doing away with the need for bike lanes, and doing away with one major incentive to drive rather than cycle, as it would no longer be faster. The benefits to the public good, not only of reduced accidents, but increased public health, could certainly justify asking people to slow down a little, no?

    But, alas, asking cars to slow down is a fridge too far for our car-dominant culture.

  20. Whether the reasons for it are good or not, drivers simply will not accept sharply reduced speed limits. And politicians never have the courage to stand up to drivers.

    Among other things, mandatory helmet laws could encourage a culture where helmet-wearing is expected. I suspect that people don’t make a rational cost-benefit calculation when deciding whether to wear a helmet, but usually just follow the prevailing cultural norm. Mandatory helmet laws could be a good way to change that norm.

  21. Many bicycle accidents occur by the cyclists error and without impact with or involvement of motor vehicles. Most of the time, \i remember a fellow cyclist taking a hard hit on a helmet, it did not involve a motor vehicle or the negligence of a motor vehicle driver. Putting on a helmet protects the bicyclist’s brain from a main enemy – the cyclist’s own negligience in his/her cycling.

    That same cyclist then asks the public through public health and other resources to pay for it. He or she on sustaining a serious head injury also burdens family and friends.

    In terms of comfort, I have cycled well over 100,000 kilometers with a helmet in thirty years, well over mandatory helmet usage in British Columbia. You get used to it, same as we got used to wearing seatbelts when we are in motor vehicles.

  22. That’s a good point.

    The crash that broke my collarbone was caused by a pothole, and left a big crack in my helmet. If I hadn’t been wearing one, I almost certainly would have suffered a serious head/brain injury.

  23. Cycling deaths ‘preventable,’ coroner says

    TORONTO — Too many cyclists are risking their lives by riding without headgear, a review released Monday by Ontario’s chief coroner has found.

    The report — which called for measures to make helmets mandatory for all cyclists — disclosed chances of a fatality are worst on city streets.

    The review reported only 35 of 129 cyclists killed from Jan. 1, 2006 to Dec. 31, 2010 — of which 86% were boys or men — were wearing helmets. And despite being mandatory for riders aged 18 or younger, only 44% were using them.

    “Every one of these tragic deaths was preventable,” said study team leader Dan Cass, who’s also Ontario’s deputy chief coroner.

  24. Almost everything humans do — including hiding under the covers in an attempt to avoid danger — carries some risks. An Ontario coroner’s report on cycling deaths underscores the fact that riding a bicycle, an activity which confers significant health benefits, can sometimes have deadly consequences.

    But it does not follow, as the report concludes, that bicycle helmets should therefore be made mandatory for adults in Ontario, as they are for children. Wearing a helmet while cycling is prudent, but adults should be trusted to take responsibility for their own safety when cycling, unless their behaviour endangers others.

    There do seem to be good reasons to use a helmet, although evidence is mixed. The coroner’s review looked at 129 fatal cycling accidents between 2006 and 2010. Just 26 per cent of cyclists who died during that period were wearing helmets and 55 per cent of the deaths involved head injuries. Helmet use might prevent more serious injury or death in some cases, although it is not a guarantee. In a number of the deaths, the cyclist was wearing a helmet.

    And there are other risk factors as well. In 45 per cent of the cases, action by the cyclist contributed to the accident.

    But not cycling can also be risky. Sedentary lifestyles, including too much time spent in cars, contribute to a variety of health woes from obesity to cardiovascular disease. And driving is also risky.

    Would mandating helmets cause fewer people to cycle, as some argue? It would certainly make popular bike-sharing programs such as Bixi bikes more difficult to use.

  25. Helmet-haters claim that increased deaths merely reflect a jump in miles ridden after laws are repealed, as bikers enjoy the wind in their hair. Not so. Some studies measure death rates by motorcycle-miles travelled: deaths-per-bike-mile rose 25% when Texas scrapped helmets, for instance. In Washington Tom Petri, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives committee that oversees highways, wants the CDC to stop researching motorcycle safety. The agency seems to have “an anti-motorcycle agenda”, he growls. Asked about accidents involving the helmetless, he says: “I don’t think there’s that clear a correlation.”

  26. Portland made it through 2013 with zero bike fatalities

    It is apparent that mass helmet use is not contributing to the reduction in cyclist fatalities, at least not in any measurable way. The results suggest that traffic authorities should refocus to put their efforts into other proven measures. Programs aimed at motorist behaviour over the past 30 or so years have been effective in reducing fatalities among all road user groups, including pedestrians and cyclists. Pressure on aggressive drivers to change their habits should continue. However, targetting the behaviour of only one of the parties would be short sighted. Cyclist-specific measures are also needed. There are two important factors in cycling fatalities which currently get insufficient attention – cyclist behaviour and night lighting equipment. The vast majority of cycling accidents involve cyclist error or inappropriate practices. That includes collisions with motor vehicles. Educational efforts to improve cyclists’ skills should be accorded a high priority. School age children are the obvious target group. Responsible behaviour patterns need to be adopted at an early age.

    The corollary is stricter enforcement of bicycle night lighting laws. Over 90% of bicycles involved in night time fatalities have inadequate lighting. Violaters increase their risks of being fatality statistics by a factor of four. Data from Ontario show 20% to 30% of fatalities occur at dusk or during the hours of darkness. Transport Canada in 2011 indicated over one third cyclist fatalities occur in the hours of darkness.

  27. “We’ve improved our software so it can detect hundreds of distinct objects simultaneously—pedestrians, buses, a stop sign held by a crossing guard, or a cyclist making gestures that indicate a possible turn,” writes Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project, in a blog post. “A self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can’t—and it never gets tired or distracted.”

    It also never gets impatient. That sounds obvious, but it could be a godsend for bicyclists in particular if and when self-driving cars begin to replace human drivers on America’s roads. In the video below, you can see how the car’s computers process various types of actors and obstacles as they make their way through intersections and across railroad tracks.

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