To Helmet or Not to Helmet?

David has some interesting musings up on the Dutch bicycle, the sublime, and the pros and cons of wearing a helmet whilst cycling.  Personally, I’m a helmet guy.  However ineffective helmets may be, I still appreciate the contents of my skull enough to do whatever I can to protect them, including donning the rather clumsy foam and plastic encasement even at the risk of forsaking the “sublime.”   Then, too, I’m a parent and one who doesn’t subscribe to the “do as I say, not as I do” approach to parenting.  When it all comes down, I’d prefer to see my daughter wear a helmet when she’s of a biking age.

The “Dutch” bike after the jump…

To Helmet or Not to Helmet?

David writes:

In San Francisco, Chicago, and Brooklyn, supposedly the American urbanists’ urbanisms, the cyclists’ cyclists pedal with their backs parallel to the ground. The Dutch Bicycle, by contrast, is designed for cyclo-flanerie, for the aimless, unsporty civilian. Its riders thrill to the beautiful, not the sublime, even if the beauty of a busy city seen at a not-quite-pedestrian ten miles per hour is a bit unstable.

Hard to make biking a real option until we make cities bikeable.  I know we’ve made real strides in some parts of the country, but we have a long ways to go.  To simply get to the University here is not terribly difficult until we attach the baby-trailer to the back – then stairs and train crossings become somewhat more difficult.  I remember living in Vancouver and biking everywhere.  That city is far more amenable to the cyclist.

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37 thoughts on “To Helmet or Not to Helmet?

  1. My fiancée was telling me about one of her medical school professors who warned them to wear helmets. He was out for some neighborhood “cyclo-flanerie” hit a pothole, flew off his steel horse, and ended up in a four month coma with permanent vision and hearing loss in one ear and eye. So they’re doctor recommended.

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  2. Then, too, I’m a parent

    Indeed. I helmet for the same reason, although not primarily because I want to set an example for my kids (they’re too young for it to matter at this point), but because I’d like my kids to have a non-brain-damaged father.

    However, I stopped bike commuting because despite Seattle being a comparatively bike-friendly city, it’s not bike friendly enough that I didn’t get nearly hit a dozen times in a couple years of commuting. Plus the 15 or so tire changes I had to make mid-route. Road-sharing is a joke, because the drivers aren’t interested in sharing and because bikers assume it’s a license to force traffic to drive at 15mph indefinitely, which just pisses everyone off.

    Dedicated bike paths or it’s not going to work.

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  3. That too, sidereal. A lot of what we do (or don’t do) as parents is because we want our kids to not be orphaned or effectively orphaned. Very true.

    My bike commute includes one ugly stretch followed by an out-of-route but relatively safe ride through campus and then one more rough patch before I’m biking through the woods the rest of the way. That last bit – in the forest, in the silence – is what makes the whole eight miles worth it….

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  4. I’m not a helmet fan. I wear them for ice or aid climbing and pool skating.

    Seattle (same for Van) is a wonderful city for cycling. The key is traffic. It has to be bad enough that the bike is faster than everyone else, otherwise you have people trying to pass when they shouldn’t.

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  5. I don’t impugn the decision of anyone to wear a helmet. I am only an occasional biker myself, since I can get almost everywhere by foot or by train, and I don’t have kids or a fiancée, but under those conditions I might wear a helmet too. There are very few American cities where regular cycling doesn’t entail getting hit several times a year, so wearing a helmet for regular biking is a sign of the objective condition of the biker: constant danger. I’d like to suggest, though, that 1. we should aspire to live in a society where you’re not taking your life in your hands by biking casually without a helmet, 2. that just biking is more important than biking-with-a-helmet, and 3. that there is a lot of helmet paranoia in this country. 2 is a real dilemma. I’ve done a little work with an organization that advocates for “safe routes to school,” and they tell stories about schools that actually remove bike racks because they prefer that all the students be driven rather than some bike without helmets.

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  6. I dislike helmets. There are few more enjoyable feelings than the freedom of riding a bicycle and feeling the wind catch your hair, and a helmet spoils it. I wear one – it’s against the law not to – but I can’t help wishing the government would let us decide for ourselves if we’re willing to take a (relatively minor, as I generally ride on an off-road bike route rather than the road) risk.

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  7. E.D. – Yes, and the the goal should also be a world where seatbelts are no longer necessary, right? And every home will come with a fluffy unicorn.

    Seriously, I don’t even know what that means. A world where everyone’s skull is replaced with titanium? I’m a little agog here at the notion that cars are the only reason helmets are necessary. So are potholes, and tree roots, and the chance that your tire might wear out. Or your front wheel quick-release might release mid-ride, as happened to a friend of mine, and dump you on your head.

    Yes, biking without a helmet probably won’t kill or maim you, just like driving without a seat belt. Not taking out insurance on your house probably wouldn’t make a difference either. But they’re all the same thing in the long run – a precaution that trades a little bit of extra pleasure for protection against catastrophe.

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  8. Agreed, Bryan. I just talked to a friend who hit a rock on a bike path and flipped over and down a hill, which necessitated a trip to a nearby shop for repairs. When he got there, the guy behind the counter said, “Looks like you need a new helmet, too.”

    My friend said, “Huh?” and then removed his helmet to examine it—a sharp, good-size rock had embedded itself deep in the helmet’s outer shell. Ouch.

    (We just moved from Manhattan to Madison, Wisconsin, a super bike-friendly city, and I’ve gone out a couple times without my helmet when I was just doing some easy path riding, but I have to admit, I felt kinda…naked. And when I first started biking in earnest, I really resented having to wear one, so that’s quite a change for me.)

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  9. I can’t believe there’s even a dissenting viewpoint on helmets. But that’s because I grew up playing hockey: some time in the mid-1970s, every kid in Canada had to wear a full face shield in minor hockey. The result? No facial injuries, no lost teeth – for anyone. My dad, between hockey and a lack of fluoridated water, has about three real teeth. All the complaints about obstructed vision are bogus – there’s no excuse for not protecting yourself.

    Same goes for biking…There’s no excuse for taking extra risk.

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  10. As in snowboarding and skiing – finally the “cool” kids are getting with it and wearing them. Or maybe it takes a celeb death for the message to be gotten…

    Also check out any city ER – the sight of bloodied heads with little cracks in them does not reinforce any “I like the wind in my hair” idiocy.

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  11. “However ineffective helmets may be”… – ED

    As many have noted, helmets are quite effective. Andrew Sullivan quoted someone noting that helmets reduce injuries from impacts on 70% of occasions, which is fantastic for a safety device. Though I don’t bike, I will never forget the time I was at a rock climbing area and a man on a rather short beginner climb without a helmet (probably 30 feet) got hit in the head with a rock. He took a nasty fall and was unconscious, gushing blood, and was eventually taken away by an ambulance. Had he worn a helmet he would probably have finished the climb. The lesson was that even when you think its safe (e.g. riding your bike in a quiet neighborhood), having a safety device can make a huge difference. When it comes to a competition in which your head must run into other objects like a rock of the ground, your head will basically always lose.

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  12. Hey, I’m arguing for wearing a helmet. It would be great if we could all bike in a world without cars and traffic, slowly and carefully of course, but in the world as it is, wear a damn helmet and protect your melon. They’re pretty effective, sure, but they’re not foolproof, which is all I meant to say.

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  13. I think Bryan makes some great points. Let’s also add that we all pay the price (societally, economically) for people who don’t wear helmets that subsequently get a traumatic brain injury – among the most expensive to treat (both short and long term). Taking a proven, cheap, 70% effective, precautionary step (wearing a helmet) is a, pardon the pun, no-brainer – for a zillion reasons.

    For the same reasons we require everyone to carry auto insurance if they drive, I have zero issues with requiring people to wear helmets when they drive a motorcycle, ride a bike, snowboard, etc.

    This Libertarian fantasy that people’s decisions to eschew simple, proven safety precautions, exist in some kind of vacuum, were it’s “their decision alone” is just preposterous. Not to mention the preposterous idea that you have complete control over your environment or are an expert enough not to need a helmet.

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  14. I race bikes, on- and off-road. I have busted three helmets in the last 4 years (once in training, twice racing). All three crashes were the result of someone in front of me doing something stupid. The training crash would have left me with a fractured skull without a helmet-I only ended up with a broken rib and collarbone and was able to (kind of) walk away. A friend’s sister-in-law did fracture her skull crashing a bike on a bike trail, because she was not wearing a helmet. It is bizarre that people worry more about style and having wind in their hair, than protecting their health with a simple precaution. You can never account for the possibility of someone around you doing something stupid.

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  15. Sadly, a death is exactly what it takes.

    Mark brings up hockey, so let’s talk about the nets above the end glass. The NHL fought the idea of those for years, claiming that fans enjoyed chasing pucks too much (I certainly did, as a kid) and that they weren’t feasible for all rinks. Finally, after years of sporadic spectator injuries, the inevitable happened and a deflected slap shot killed a young girl. Mirabile dictu, nets went up in all arenas before the next season.

    Those of you who get Sports Illustrated will have read a couple of references to the same debate in baseball. In Japan, there is protective netting all the way down the baselines. In the US, there are fan injuries every year in every park from line drive foul balls and broken bats. The MLB perpetually “studies” the idea of netting. One day, a child will be killed, and netting will go up within a year.

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  16. Helmets are a bad idea. Yes, for a given situation a helmet will reduce an injury, but people with helmets get in that situation more often. Think of it as touch football versus full-force helmet and pads. The human being, especially the male younger one, will play to a certain level of risk – it may even be a developmental necessity. This is the same reason accident rates have not gone down on the goofy plastic playscapes that replaced the fantastic steel ones complete with tall fast slides across the nation. To get the same thrill, the few kids – all very young – who even use them now tightrope across the top. The other kids are climbing cliffs or fattening up at home on the couch. The other reason helmets are a bad idea is that it over-rides and distortes culture. There would have been no spiky-mohawk 1980s if the helmet laws had been in effect. Not to mention no 1950’s pompadours and duck-asses or tall blue hair.

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  17. I ride a couple or three thousand miles a year on a bike, mostly commuting to and from work in Washington, DC. I travel perhaps a mile in a year without a helmet. I prefer the sense of security and safety that it gives me. That said I’ve always been put off by the stridency of the pro-helmet set. It’s a choice. Cycling is dangerous, sure, but not unusually so and people can bike years and years and years without ever needing one. (Case in point – in 20 years of serious cycling, totalling more than 55,000 miles, I’ve crashed perhaps 4 times and not once did my head come near the pavement.) The fact that *in an accident* a helmet can save a life is quite true but may be entirely swallowed up by the fact that such accidents are comparatively rare.

    I wonder how many traumatic head injuries – and how many lives – would be saved each year if all occupants of automobiles were required to wear helmets? More, I bet, than the number of head injuries and deaths even if every single person on a bike wore a helmet 100% of the time. You want to do some real public health good? Get on the sanctimonious car-helmet bandwagon –

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  18. John says: “I prefer the sense of security and safety (not wearing a helmet) gives me. ” Weird.
    But otherwise I agree that helmets should not be mandatory for adults, providing that in the event of an accident causing head trauma, said adult pays all medical costs and expenses related to the injury, so I (we) don’t have to pay for their stupidity through increased insurance premiums or taxes to support EMTs, or other govt agencies cleaning up after them.
    I live and ride in Portland, and head injuries are by no means the exclusive domain of car/bike accidents. I know personally 3 individuals who have spent more than 3 months each in the hospital due to head trauma; a bike fork failure, a bike/bike collision and a low-speed fall caused by slipping on a baloney sandwich laying on the sidewalk as he turned from his driveway to the street.

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  19. It’s about understanding/accepting risk and ones own confidence level. Way back I used to messenger in Seattle, logged in tons of miles. I’ve been a mountain guide and a big wall climber. None of these things are safe to even think about. (Much better to go to the library, assuming it’s close and you don’t have to drive). I wear a helmet when I think the risk merits it. Other wise, I’ll take the small additional risk with the increased pleasure/experience as I choose to do in so many other ways. Risk management, not risk avoidance.

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  20. Hm. Pedestrians who don’t wear helmets run a horrible risk of head trauma if they’re hit by a car. And thousands more pedestrians than cyclists are hit by cars each year. People doing chores around the house without a helmet are making poor choices too, given the number of people who fall off ladders onto their heads. Let’s be sure we don’t subsidize the health care costs of their stupidity either. There’s no coherent reason for singling out cyclists for this disapprobation.

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  21. Robert writes: “Helmets are a bad idea. Yes, for a given situation a helmet will reduce an injury, but people with helmets get in that situation more often.”

    This is about 99% untrue. Hockey’s a great example – when younger players didn’t wear helmets, they supposedly made some attempt to keep their sticks down. Perhaps they did. They still lost all their teeth.

    Now that players wear shields and helmets, perhaps sticks are up more…Who knows? But head and facial injuries are about 99% lower than they were without helmets. There’s no evidence that helmets increased risk-taking so much that the game is more dangerous than when players didn’t have them.

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  22. The phenomenon Robert is describing is called risk homeostasis. And like most grandiose ideas that underly a Libertarian-ish sensibility, they have bear little resemblance to actual human behavior. Risk homeostasis is one of the most over-diagnosed phenomenons out there, it’s like when Libertarians similarly state that people over-use healthcare if it’s free (which sounds reasonable, but is demonstrably false on a macro-level) as a reason to justify co-pays.

    And then subsequent posters have appealed to the slippery slope as well. Which is fine and good in the abstract, but basically useless as an actual guiding principle in situations. Fundamentally, societal mores drive what level of risk and regulation we’re willing to put up with. It used to be we figured “well, kids working in coal mines is fine, as long as they get Sunday to rest”, whereas now we regulate air quality and working hours, even for adults. Using the “reductio ad absurdum” argument we could say, “what’s next? No one being allowed to work at all”? But we don’t, we judge each situation individually, make decisions, and sometimes use those decisions as the basis for future decisions (sometimes not). Sometimes we even change our mind and repeal poorly thought out regulations/laws. Shocker.

    I think we know enough now about the consequences of head injuries (to both the rider and the society paying for their injury) involving bikes, motorcycles to reasonably mandate helmet wearing without fearing a complete takeover by some supposed nanny state.

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  23. Ah jeez, jcricket, now you’ve gone and ruined everything by being all reasonable and all… but I can’t wait to use ‘risk homeostasis’ in my next libertarian encounter, thanks.

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  24. I don’t worry about a nanny state and it wouldn’t break my heart if helmets were made mandatory. The only thing I object to is the self-righteousness certitude of (certain) pro-helmet advocates. It’s a choice. Maybe a bad one – but there are many common ones that are worse. Indeed people make all *kinds* of stupid, societally irresponsible choices , every day. So on the rare day I decide to leave my helmet at home, please spare me the sanctimoniousness.

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  25. John/29 – very much not a Libertarian take on the situation. If you don’t wear a helmet, you increase the likelihood of serious brain injury in an accident. Should you end up permanently disabled, your medical costs will be paid for by the government for the rest of your life. Your choice to not wear a helmet is also a choice to make your fellow taxpayers assume the cost of the risks inherent in said choice.

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  26. I agree. The cost of my poor choice would be borne by the taxpayer. I bet though that my poor choice to “ride a bike a lot but without a helmet” is still a better one for my own health, and for the taxpayer’s pocket, than the next fellow’s choice “never to ride a bike at all and live out life in a state of chronic obesity”. There are millions more people like that, draining precious and expensive health care resources by reason of *their* choices, than there are helmetless bike victim vegetables. How come no one ever complains about paying the costs of *those* risks?

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  27. I’ll say it all a different way.

    Obviously it is better for my health to wear a helmet if I ride a bike. I lower the risk of traumatic injury substantially. That said, although anecdotal evidence of catastrophic consequences abounds, in fact the actual risk of such injury is low. (Indeed the risk declines on a per mile basis the more one rides.) It’s a low risk but God help the magazine or newspaper publisher who prints a photo of someone on a bike without a helmet. On the whole Americans assume much greater health risks every day – simply getting into their cars, eating fatty foods and in excess, not riding their bikes at all ever. These are choices, all of them – choices with profoundly adverse and expensive public health consequences. But the *debates* always seem to be about helmets. And the tone is always hostile, condescending, and sanctimonious. I’m tired of it! I wish people would quit; or spread some of that self-righteousness around a bit at least. There are plenty of equally deserving bad practices.

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  28. John: It’s the myopia of the sheeple. A similar example is mountain climbing. Back in the day there was a debate about allowing people to do hard climbs on the cliffs or Yosemite or the big mountains in the NW. The argument was that they are dangerous and potentially require expensive rescues. The truth is that it’s vastly more expensive to find a lost unprepared tourist than to pluck an unlucky climber off the most difficult face on El Capitan. Of course, should you suggest that Americans not be allowed to wander in the woods unprepared with their families or not be allowed to gorge themselves at a Micky D’s, you’d hear all about freedom.

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  29. If you don’t wear a helmet, you increase the likelihood of serious brain injury in an accident. Should you end up permanently disabled, your medical costs will be paid for by the government for the rest of your life. Your choice to not wear a helmet is also a choice to make your fellow taxpayers assume the cost of the risks inherent in said choice.

    This logic justifies the government running virtually every facet of your life. Almost every action we take has an inherent danger, and almost every action therefore has a lower-risk alternative. This does not mean the government can or should dictate the lower danger alternative.

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  30. The argument that everyone has to pay for your injury or death is false on two counts. First and most important, that is an argument against universal health care, not against choosing risky behaviour. It is a warning to you that I will gain a legitimate say, maybe even a right, over every aspect of your lifestyle once I am forced to pay for it.

    Second, contrary to urban myth, dying early of any cause (biking, cigaretttes) actually reduces cost of healthcare over-all, no matter how much is spent on the attempt to save the life. Under universal health-care, there will actually be a motivation for the government to reduce life-spans.

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  31. Ok, so I had a vehicle/speed-related skull impact accident that fractured my skull in several different directions, and left a sizable dent in my skull at age 13. You’d assume I’d be pro-helmet, right? Well, think again. That incident showed me just how well the skull actually protects the brain matter underneath — there was no discernible scarring on my brain below the impact point or anywhere else, for that matter.

    However, my problem with helmets is more of practicality. If I wear a helmet, that doesn’t mitigate any risk of neck damage. Neck damage often causes paralysis, whereas open-head injuries often enough just lead to death, which is preferred to being a vegetable in my book. Oh, but wait…I guess we could all run out and by neck guards, too, right? Maybe knee pads and elbow pads too, since there’s a good chance of screwing up a joint if you wipe out. Or, maybe just a full body suit? Hmm…

    I actually agree with what others have stated. The risk is mine to take, and since your ‘helmet’ solution doesn’t adequately address my concerns (accident leaving me paralyzed, car hitting me leaving me paralyzed) I see very little reason to even bother buying one, and that is *MY* choice to make — not yours.

    If you choose to do idiotic, risky things on your bike and the helmet comforts you by all means use it. However, *don’t* try to force your beliefs on others. Contrary to what you believe, the universe does *not* revolve around you and your own little world, and what’s best for your situation isn’t always going to be best for the next person.

    Oh, and one final thought. That helmet you wear? It’s an extra burden to have to keep track of and make sure nobody steals when you get to your destination. I prefer to travel light so I can travel fast, and that has the added benefit that when I get to my destination I can just secure the bike and be done with it just as if I’d driven in in a car

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