Clearly, this issue is one of those religiously debated topics around the world, particularly in the English-speaking world (U.S., UK, Australia, etc). I want to address here my rationale for not wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle, based on the reading and research I have done on the topic. This document is in the header of my blog because it is one of of the most common things I get talked to or yelled at about (usually entirely unsolicited), and I want it to be here simply to serve as a reference so that I don’t have to explain it over and over again.
The following statement of mine is not meant to be an argument, it’s not meant to convince anyone to not wear a helmet, and it’s not meant to incite yelling, name-calling or any other such emotional reaction. If you find yourself reacting that way, please take a moment to ask why. I intend this document to be a statement of why I don’t wear a helmet while riding a bicycle for transportation, nothing more and nothing less.
Firstly, I am not anti-helmet. I don’t hate people who wear helmets, or think they are stupid, or childish. I think many of them make a perfectly rational decision to wear a helmet at least some of the time they are on a bike, and I believe that is their free choice, and I trust them to make a decision based on their own set of circumstances, as I would expect them to do for me.
I am pro-rationality and research, all for personal responsibility and ability to make decisions, and all for an informed public, not a fearful, overawed public. I want people to have information upon which they can make a clear, informed decision for themselves.
Ok, let’s get to the meat of this (or the tofu or tempeh, if you’re vegetarian or vegan – unless you count bacteria as animal life, in which case, well… nevermind)
How beneficial a helmet will be for a person depends largely on what type of bike you ride, and how and where you ride it.
Bicycle helmets which are currently on the market are not designed to withstand an impact over about 15-20mph, as the current helmet standards do not test for impacts beyond that threshold. At that point they may have a much higher chance of failing and transferring the impact to your head, not absorbing it as they do at lower speeds. Therefore, they are unlikely to substantially help in an impact with a car, especially since you are then more likely to have multiple impacts (with the car, and then the ground, for instance). Because of this, I don’t feel the need to wear a helmet to protect my head in case of a collision with an automobile, as, given the forces involved, even if I were to hit my head, it seems to me that the helmet would be unlikely to make a significant difference. In the case I were to get hit by a car, I am at least as likely to suffer from broken bones, internal injuries, and lacerations over my body anyway. Given that my likelihood of getting hit in the first place is really quite low, and my experience has shown that in my case, interaction in traffic is not a battle, but is often quite pleasant, boring even sometimes, I don’t feel nervous about this.
At speeds under 15-20mph, a collision with a car is much less likely, as they have a much greater chance of stopping or swerving before hitting you, you have a much greater chance of swerving out of the way before they hit you, and the chance of them doing major damage to you if they do hit you is significantly reduced, exponentially even, from 30mph to 15mph.
A helmet only does any good if you crash, go down hard, and hit your head. There are many factors which influence the likelihood of all of those things. The type of bike you ride, where you ride it, and how you ride it all have significant bearing on how likely you are to crash, how likely you are to go down hard, and how likely you are to hit your head if you do go down. Some of those things you have a lot of control over, some of them not as much. In my particular case, I ride an upright bike, I ride carefully, responsibly and slowly, and I am able and choose to avoid riding on busy streets in traffic almost always. So, therefore, in my particular case, the likelihood of crashing, going down hard, and hitting my head, all in combination, is undeniably low. Lower than many things most of us do on a regular basis without any thought of using safety gear.
To provide some additional perspective, there has also been some research done that suggests that a bicycle helmet may exacerbate serious head and neck injuries in some cases, causing your head to be more likely to be caught on the ground, twisting it around (since the helmet is not a smooth surface), and causing a neck injury or an internal rotational brain injury (from your brain scraping along the inside of your skull). Whiplash is also more likely, as you have more weight on your head, and the helmet may actually cause your head to hit the ground in some cases where it wouldn’t have otherwise, just because it makes your head both slightly heavier, and several inches bigger all the way around than it was before.
All in all, there is evidence pointing both ways. I believe, based on the research I have seen, my own common sense, and my own anecdotal experience, that a bicycle helmet certainly can help prevent minor injuries. I also believe there is some small chance of it causing more harm than it helps in certain situations. I think a big part of the decision for me is that, yes, a helmet will probably reduce your overall likelihood of injury – but the likelihood of any kind of major injury (speaking with regard to my own personal case specifically) is so small in the first place, it doesn’t make that much difference. The chance of avoiding scrapes and bruises on my head, in the unlikely event it did hit the ground, is not worth wearing a helmet every time I get on a bike, to me.
It would be like wearing a helmet while walking up and down stairs. Will it reduce your chances of a head injury, if you fall down the stairs? Almost certainly. What are the chances of you falling down the stairs and hitting your head hard enough to give yourself a major head injury? Not all that high. Low enough that most of us choose not to wear a helmet while climbing or descending stairs. It does happen, yes. But it is not risky enough to be worth taking precautions, over and above paying attention to where you are walking.
If you look at the total reported number of cyclists who go to the emergency room (most of which are for things like road rash, not critical injuries, and not injuries to the head), a very small percentage of them are for any kind of head injury that requires hospitalization. And the percentage of accidents that result in moderate to major injuries is likely even smaller than is reported, because most bicycle accidents that don’t involve major injury are never reported, such as my own 3 crashes – so the number of major injuries looks heavier percentage-wise than it actually is. The crashes that resulted in a major head injury were almost always either while participating in sporting events, or involved a collision with a car, and something like 92% of cyclist deaths involve collisions with automobiles. In those cases, either the cyclist was willingly taking part in a higher-risk activity (sport), or were hit by 2 tons of fast-moving steel (and generally not just in the head).
So the point of view that I’ve come to on the issue, is that there is not enough proof (either from research or anecdotal experience) that the way I ride a bicycle is significantly dangerous for me to wear a helmet, given how much protection a helmet offers me, how much risk I believe is involved, and how much risk I am comfortable with. I know that equation is going to work out differently for every person, so I’m not bothered by someone who chooses to wear a helmet.
I do believe we get fed so much propaganda about bicycling being dangerous (fear is a great manipulator), that people start to simply accept it as fact without thinking about whether it actually is dangerous or not (or whether the danger we perceive as coming from riding a bike really comes from another source), and we are also fed the line that anyone who doesn’t protect themselves enough is irresponsible and dangerous. I feel that this is a dangerous position to take, because it excuses the people causing the damage, and allows a dangerous situation to continue. By focusing so much argument and debate on whether people should wear helmets, we take so much energy and momentum from the discussions that could and should be happening about taming street traffic, bolstering education and enforcement of laws, and re-writing laws to protect people who are vulnerable.
So, I’ve kind of come to an “eh, whatever” stance regarding helmets. I would rather just not talk about them at all, to be honest. But it’s hard not to, because if you don’t wear one, you hear about it all the time, completely unsolicited, you get dragged into news stories, and shouted at on the street. I hope that this document will serve to answer some questions as to why I don’t wear a helmet, and if you have any constructive questions, please feel free to send me email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll be happy to point you to the information I’ve found on the subject or try to further clarify my statements.
In general, some good resources to look into on the subject are as follows:
Please take all research and statistics with a grain of salt, and think about them rationally and in relation to your own personal situation before coming to any conclusions based on them. Find out how they were conducted, and the overall scope of the research, if possible. Research studies are often heavily skewed, making the results misleading and even if the study was done well, the results of the study may not be applicable to you, depending on the focus and intent of the study.
People also have a penchant for (consciously or unconsciously) taking the results of studies out of context and using them to make a point, which can also be problematic. The media, as well, has a penchant for creating hysteria where there really is nothing to be hysterical about.
Anyway, all I’m trying to say here, is inform yourself, and then make a decision based on what you are comfortable with.