Wear your damn helmet!

I’ve been seeing several references on Facebook and email recently to this site or similar sites, which makes the claim that it is safer to ride a bicycle without a helmet.

This is ridiculous nonsense to me, and I finally snapped and wrote a long email rant in response, and decided to post a version of it here as well.

I do agree with these sites that the best thing for a bicyclist is not to get hit in the first place. So I have no issue with emphasizing safe riding skills and not acting stupid just because one is wearing a helmet. But accidents still happen, especially with distracted drivers on the road.

I think that wearing a helmet while cycling is like wearing a seatbelt when driving. If you don’t get in an accident, you don’t need either one. But if you do get in an accident, the vast majority of your potential serious injuries will be prevented by wearing a seatbelt or helmet – according to the CDC, seat belts cut the risk of serious injury by 50%, and I believe that helmets have a similar effect on reducing serious injuries (as a couple ER doctors in the discussions I’ve seen have suggested).

The site suggests that helmets have little protective value, and that any benefit they have is cancelled out by other problems. The main problem they suggest is from one study which suggests that cars give you more room if you are wearing a helmet than if not. I think that’s irrelevant – the dangerous drivers are the ones who don’t see the bicyclist at all, let alone whether the biker is wearing a helmet. A recent example from my experience is a BMW rocketing up Page Mill Road at 50 mph in a 25 mph zone, not realizing the next turn was a U-turn, and skidding well into the other lane where I was descending at 25 mph on my bike. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the car, but it was a close call. Those are the scenarios I worry about (or ones where a driver is calling or texting and doesn’t notice themselves drifting over into the bike lane), not ones where a car gets 3 inches closer to me because they notice that I’m wearing a helmet.

The other “problems” with helmets that the site suggests (that it might increase neck injuries and that it might affect one’s senses) are equally stupid, and have even less support – they are just theories that people made up to justify their point of view. Which is admittedly what I’m doing here, but I’m not claiming that’s evidence.

Is a helmet going to prevent all serious injuries? No, of course not. Is it going to prevent me from dying if I’m hit by a car going 50 mph? No. But will it help if my head gets bounced on the pavement at 20 mph? I believe it would. And I want any edge I can get to preserve my brain in the case of an accident. And I don’t believe there is any downside to wearing a helmet, despite the claims to the contrary on these sites.

I do agree with the site that the world would be a better place if we had more cyclists, and that with more cyclists on the road, drivers would change their behavior. But in that transitional phase, I plan to keep wearing my helmet until after the drivers change their behavior, not before. And I don’t see how not wearing a helmet will encourage more people to ride a bike – it may make it look more dangerous, but all it takes is hearing of one horrible injury because the rider wasn’t wearing a helmet to deter somebody from riding a bike for life.

All that being said, I’m totally in favor of more people biking. And I don’t want people to think biking is highly dangerous – I commute to work by bike 90% of the time, and have put ~2-3k miles a year on my bikes for the past 6 years and have not yet had an accident (knock on wood). But I wear a helmet just in case, the same way I wear a seatbelt just in case while driving – I plan to never need it, and drive/ride defensively, but I want the extra protection if I do need it.

P.S. I should note that I switched over to wearing a helmet while skiing about ten years ago for similar reasons – if I do get in a bad crash, I want the extra protection. I haven’t needed it, except for a couple falls while learning to snowboard, but it was impressive even in those minor falls how much it helped. Ski helmets are admittedly more robust than bike helmets, though.

6 thoughts on “Wear your damn helmet!

  1. Why don’t motor vehicle users and pedestrians wear helmets? Would save more lives than if all cyclists did.

  2. Oliver, two things:
    1) I didn’t say anything about cars or pedestrians. I am simply making the case that I believe it is safer to ride a bicycle with a helmet than without. If you can show me evidence that is not the case, I’d love to see it, but anecdotally, I’ve heard of many bike crashes where the rider said “Boy, I’m glad I was wearing a helmet” and zero bike crashes where the rider said “Boy, I wish I hadn’t been wearing a helmet”. If you can find even one instance where a bike helmet contributed to further injury during a crash, please share it.

    2) Motor vehicle users generally don’t wear helmets because in most crashes, a seat belt and air bags will prevent you from hitting your head. My understanding is that most head injuries in car crashes are where the rider was not wearing a seat belt. The additional value of wearing a helmet in addition to a seatbelt is minimal unless you are driving at extreme speeds (e.g. race car drivers) or in dangerous situations (e.g. motorcyclists).

    As far as pedestrians, pedestrians are much less likely to get hit by a car in most situations than bicyclists. They’re not on the roads, while bikers are. A distracted driver might drift over into a bike lane without noticing, but they’re not going to go over the curb and onto the sidewalk without noticing. I don’t have stats to prove this, but there’s no stats to prove things the other way either, so I’m content with my explanation.

  3. Hmmm. I stopped wearing a helmet years ago after reading these sites. I don’t know if you actually want to engage here, since you yourself admitted you were writing a rant, and that you weren’t using evidence.

    I agree with you that the claim around drivers giving you more room if you have no helmet is likely overblown. On the other hand, I find the evidence around long-term rates of injuries in locales that have passed mandatory helmet laws fairly compelling — if a helmet were a no-brainer, you’d see vastly different rates of injury across domains where helmet use is and isn’t common, and you just don’t see it.

    Note that I think the evidence is pretty good that you’d be safer on your bike if you wore a MOTORCYCLE helmet. Do you seriously consider wearing one or requiring that everyone else does? I suspect you don’t, which indicates we all have our tradeoffs between safety and convenience, right?

  4. Rif, it’s interesting to me that your comment and others I’ve seen immediately jump to me “requiring that everyone else [wear a helmet]”. I am not advocating for a helmet law. I just think that people that don’t wear helmets are taking a bigger risk than those that don’t, and none of the reasons I’ve seen to not wear a helmet are compelling to me.

    Agreed that a motorcycle helmet might be safer, but then you do get into the “reduce sensory input” aspect, because you really can’t hear in those things. Also, they are _really_ hot, which is not okay when I am biking up a long hill. Admittedly, I have worn my ski helmet while biking when it gets cold here, and I’d love to do that more, but again, it reduces hearing and is too warm. So, of course there is a tradeoff, but the safest thing would be to never leave home and not do anything – we all choose where we want to take risks.

    I haven’t reviewed the data around helmet laws. It’s possible that there are mix effects in the population that affect that. For me, though, it’s pretty simple. If I get into an accident, would I rather have a helmet than not? I think the answer is definitely yes – it may only reduce my chances of head injury by 3%, but my head is worth a lot to me, so I’ll take every edge I can get. It’s possible that for others, they would rather not bike than wear a helmet, and in that case, I understand that it’s probably better to ride without a helmet than not ride. But since I bike so much regardless, I’d rather reduce my risks by wearing a helmet since I don’t mind wearing one. As I said in the other comment, I have seen _zero_ evidence that wearing a helmet would increase my chances of getting hurt in a crash. So why not help myself out a bit?

  5. Sorry, I didn’t mean to directly state that you supported a helmet law. But your lede was fairly inflammatory, and you called the opposing position “ridiculous nonsense”, rather than just stating why you think it’s smart to wear a helmet. If you admit that you haven’t reviewed the data, then why do you say that not wearing a helmet is “ridiculous nonsense?” That’s a strong claim, and why I bothered to respond in the first place. If you’d just said “Well, I haven’t really looked at the data, but I just think not wearing a helmet is a bigger risk, and I think that risk is not worth the costs,” I probably wouldn’t have written. But that’s not what I read.

    Personally, I find that bike helmets reduce sensory input and biking enjoyment. I think biking without a helmet is vastly more enjoyable during the ride, and I arrive at my destination less sweaty and with better-looking hair. Then I have to cart around a helmet at my destination, or lock it and hope it’s not stolen. So wearing the helmet has costs; those costs may be negligible to you, but they are real to me. I have reviewed the data, and my belief is that while obviously there exist accidents in which a bike helmet protects you, there are not enough such accidents to make helmet wearing a clear win for me personally compared to the cost. Additionally, I agree with the point various sites make that if we had a culture of not wearing helmets, we’d probably have a culture with a lot more biking, which itself would lead to more bikes on the road and [relative to ridership] fewer biking accidents.

    I have no problem with you [possibly] helping yourself out a bit by wearing a helmet, but without any real information on how much it protects, why bother? Intuition? Gut feeling that the costs are negligible? How risky is biking in the first place compared to other things you do and compared to its value? There certainly isn’t afaict hard evidence that bike helmets substantially reduce injury risk; this is contrast to car seat belts where I think the evidence is quite strong. If there *is* an effect for bike helmets we know it is small. So why is it worth ranting against people who don’t wear them?

  6. Oh wait, excuse me. I misread your original post! You didn’t actually say not wearing a helmet was “ridiculous nonsense”, merely the claim that it was safer not to wear a helmet. I agree that wearing a helmet is almost certainly no safer than wearing one. But I think my points stand: wearing a helmet while biking is *not* like wearing a seatbelt while driving, in that there is enormous amounts of evidence for the effectiveness of seat belts that simply isn’t nearly as strong as for bike helmets even though studies have been done. There’s a reason you don’t see nearly as many websites advocating that seatbelts are a waste of time.

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