The Helmet

As I sailed through the air the one thought I had time to conjure was, “Damn, I just bought this jacket and now it’s going to get shredded.” The impact came in a not-all-at-once loping, rolling, whiplashing smack that wouldn’t have been so bad had it not involved my head.

Concussions are frequently referred to as ‘getting your bell rung.’ I soon realized I’d taken up residence in the belfry of Notre Dame and judging by the clanging, mass was due to start any minute.

I laid on my back, eyes looking blankly up into the evening sky. The were four streetlights above me, swirling with the same animated dance the snow flakes made as they sank to earth. I counted and then counted again. I knew there weren’t four streetlights on this section of dead-end road. ‘Must be double-vision,’ I thought. So I waited. Soon enough, there were two streetlights.

I gingerly made my way to my feet and began the inspection. My elbow and shoulder were tender and judging from the dark spot on the inexplicably shred-free jacket, my elbow was bleeding. Never mind the bleeding, I hadn’t ruined the jacket. From the neck down, I was fine, as was my clothing.

My head was another matter. It felt like I’d been walloped with a golf club. My balance was off and it seemed the internal volume was Who-concert loud. I picked up my bike, looked around and realized there was but one streetlight.

I made my way home. After a shower and dose of ibuprofen and discovered I’d cracked my helmet. Little wonder. I’d hit a tree that had fallen in the road. I was going 25 mph downhill and squinting due to the falling snow and didn’t expect to find a tree lying in the road when I roared around a bend. It wasn’t there when I passed that spot two hours before. I can be forgiven for being surprised, can’t I?

I came upon the tree with the unexpected surprise of a roadside bomb. I didn’t even have time to touch the brakes.

In my mind, whether or not I had a concussion had been settled by the time I got on the bike. My then-wife’s concerns didn’t run in the direction of ER, but that I was delaying dinner with my wound care.

Any time any person starts to poo-poo helmet use, my mind returns to that December ride. Whether or not a helmet saved my life that day isn’t the question. There really isn’t any question; rather, I have a certainty: Had I not worn a helmet on that ride, my injuries would have been worse. As it was, I didn’t race ‘cross the next day and mostly sat on my ass during the main event, when I was supposed to be offering neutral support. My head hurt too much to bend over and do a wheel change.

Anything worse than what I suffered is more than I’m willing to entertain. That hurt plenty, thankyouverymuch.

Ten years ago, a friend of mine was hit from behind by a Range Rover. The driver was reaching for her cell phone and priorities being what they are for the affluent, my friend on her bicycle was, for this woman, just another recyclable. In the wake of that event a mutual friend swore off helmets. His reasoning was that if a helmet couldn’t save Debra (nothing short of a cinder block wall could have), then why bother?

Somehow, he came to the conclusion that helmets embolden us to take risks that we wouldn’t take were it not for the styrofoam cooler strapped to our noggins.

Dane Mikael-Colville Andersen has a similar dislike of helmets. Andersen is the style maven behind Cycle Chic, which espouses “style over speed.” In a recent presentation at TED, Andersen talked about what he calls a “culture of fear” of which he says bicycle helmet use is part.

He points to the fact that there is a study that has shown you have a 14 percent greater chance of having an accident while wearing a helmet. Maybe, but correlation isn’t causality. He also claims the car industry is behind the promotion of bike helmets. This will be a revelation to the folks at Easton-Bell Sports who have labored under the misperception that they have been paying for all the advertising for Bell and Giro helmets.

One wonders where all those ads placed by GM appeared.

Andersen also says bicycle use fell in Denmark after helmet promotions began. For those of you who slept through logic or didn’t take it (perfectly understandable), as I mentioned before, correlation is not interchangeable with causation. There may be a relationship between the promotion of helmet use and 10,000 fewer cyclists on the road in Denmark, but conjecture should not be trotted around like fact. Street lights come on when the sun goes down with perfect correlation every flippin’ day; it doesn’t mean that the street lights cause the sun to go down.

He says people stop cycling when helmet use is promoted. I suspect it is true for some people. Is it uniformly true? Not for a second.

In the United States, there was a fear when seat belt and shoulder strap laws were enacted that it would hurt car sales and impinge on our freedom. Education and enforcement overcame that issue. What’s that you say? People will give up a bike long before they give up a car? Too true.

The issue I have with Andersen and others who criticize helmet use is that they demonize a perfectly valid device. Helmets aren’t the problem. To the degree that people don’t ride as a result of a “culture of fear,” I can tell you what they fear: CARS. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think, ‘That was entirely closer than necessary.’ Anyone who fears a helmet more than they fear a car will probably make a tin foil hat for you, too.

You want to change how people feel about riding a bicycle on city streets? Change the consideration drivers show to cyclists. Granted, that’s even less likely than McDonald’s going vegan, but this is a cultural change for which any incremental improvement would be notable and deserves the effort.

Let’s ask the question a different way. Which do you think would get more people out on bikes: a reassurance from the government that helmets don’t make you safe and you need never wear one, or streets utterly devoid of cars and trucks? I’d have whole new training routes open to me if there were no cars.

Andersen criticizes the bubble-wrapping of babies, going so far as to show product photos for a helmet designed to be worn by children—indoors. I can’t argue how ridiculous the idea (much less the product itself) is.

Spied from any angle, my son has visible bruises. He leads a full-contact life. Standing up beneath tables has introduced him to both pain and spatial skills; it’s likely one did have a causal relationship with the other. In my view, both are helpful. Does he need a helmet when strapped in to his trailer? I’m not so sure. But I can assure you, he’ll be wearing a helmet as he learns to ride a bike.

However, I’m not sure that in a tabletop-flat land such as Denmark commuters riding 12 or even 14 miles per hour need a helmet.

As for my friend who thinks that helmets are the root cause of risky riding, my response is that if helmets didn’t exist, I’d ride just as I do now. I don’t ride in a way I believe to be inherently risky, but I do like to descend mountains like a falcon dropping on prey. Knowing that a safety device is out there that can increase the likelihood of me conjugating verbs in the wake of a crash, why would I ride without it? Based on my previous airborne experience, it’s not worth the risk.

Are we really to believe that if helmets were eradicated more people would ride bikes? Have you heard a more feeble-minded idea this week? Andersen closes his presentation by saying, “Let rationality become the new black.” This from the man who espouses the emotional “style over speed.” Sorry Mikael, you can’t have it both ways.

Honestly, I thought TED was home to better ideas than these.

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  1. sophrosune

    Hear, hear, Padraig. I sit writing this while recovering from a fall on my bike during last Sunday’s club ride that has resulted in a really sore few days but is not as tragic as it could have been if I had not been wearing a hemlet, to which my cracked helmet can attest. I avoid taking even the smallest risk while riding my bike–this accounts for my rather poor descending skills. But also accounts for the fact that since starting up bike riding as an adult 20 years ago I count maybe 3 falls, including this one and this being the most serious. My fall involved hitting a speed bump that I was not entirely prepared for and losing control of the bike. I believe I was reaching for my water bottle to take a drink at this point in the road because I knew further up the road it would become a little narrow and dangerous because of CARS. You nailed it with correlation and causation. These statistics ring to me as just rationalizations for a behavior which is just recklessness motivated by vanity. But to each his own, I say. For me, I prefer to keep my sense of smell and long and short term memory for a little helmet head, thank you very much.

  2. randomactsofcycling

    Well said Padraig. Who is this Andersen twit? I support your argument not because I have, rather embarrassingly, had to purchase two new helmets this year but simply because if a little well engineered styrofoam can be the difference between concussion and brain damage, I am OK with looking a little less Rapha.
    Interestingly, those that poo-poo helmets love to cite statistics that when Italy introduced helmet laws for motorcycles, scooter sales dropped dramatically…..they conveniently do not mention sales of ‘real’ motorbikes went up even more. Ducati must have thought it was the best thing ever.

  3. Mike

    Many of us who have been riding for a while, particularly off road or racing, recognise the need for helmets. Some of us have our own stories of crashes where helmets have reduced crash injuries- I broke my last helmet a year ago after an arse over tit fall having been hit from behind by a van overtaking with negative clearance. I now wear a helmet most of the time when I’m riding and my kids always wear helmets.

    I *don’t* wear a helmet on shorter utility trips- for example nipping into town to go to the pub/go shopping. These are all trips where I’m wearing normal clothes, riding slowly and usually on a town bike instead of cross/racer/mtb when I’m lycra’ed. I don’t want to be carrying a helmet around with me when I’m doing this and I don’t want to lock £100+ of helmet up by its strap, risking it being nicked by some townie scrote!

    I fully support the right to choose to wear or not wear helmets. Making helmets compulory will put casual people off cycling- we need those ‘people on bikes’ to build cycling up as a mainstream mode of transport instead of a sports biased mode which requires more kit than just a bike. The risks from a sedentary lifestyle are far greater than the risks from head injuries from a bike fall. Helmets don’t protect you from fatal injury to other parts of the body, not do they provide real protection against high speed impacts.

    Experience from Australia shows that cycling dropped after mandatory helmet laws were introduced and the difference in take up between Australian metropolitain bike hire and London/Paris bike hire are extreme.

    Support the right to choose..

  4. michael

    were it not for helmets i would be dead. period.

    way back in 1989 I was just getting into serious cycling in my final year in high school. it was still the days of the “wow those helmets they have now are ugly. who would ever wear those?”. these were the days just after hair nets. when small, rural towns in the middle of nowhere didn’t have full service bike shops; if they did, they CERTAINLY did not carry these newfangled helmets.

    my birthday gift from my mom was an Avenir helmet (you know, those old school soft foam with no hard shell deals). I hemmed and hawed about wearing it for months, until one fateful day I decided that yes, it might be a good idea to wear it – I was 17 at the time.

    some friends came over to my place for a dip in our new, tiny above ground pool. I was due for a training ride that day, and they were sticking around all afternoon so i went out for a ride and slapped the helmet on. i took care in making sure the straps were all properly adjusted as per the instructions and such and headed out.

    on the way back into town I was approaching an intersection where I had the green light. There was not much traffic to speak of, and I paid no head to the engine sound I heard roaring quickly towards the lights as I thought it was coming from behind to go through the green with me – turns out it was a taxi driver burning the red through the intersection perpendicular to my path.

    according to eye witness accounts the resulting collision sent me flying over 50 feet through the air and coming down on my head, screaching to a hault as my face acted as a brake on the ashphalt while my body hung vertically in the air like some sort of sick rag doll.

    I was out cold for over 30 minutes. Helmet smashed to pieces. It saved my life. I never hemmed and hawed about wearing a helmet since that moment.

    Over the years helmets have saved my bacon on 3 other occasions during my MTB racing days. If I were a professional athlete in a contact sport, I would be one concussion away from forced retirement.

    If I had never worn a helmet, I would either be dead or one more concussion away from having the brain power of a sea sponge.

    So to mister Anderson (using best Agent Smith voice from the Matrix) I say – you are a fool. though I guess you voicing your opinion is what makes free speech work, I still don’t have to agree with it.

  5. Touriste-Routier

    Statistics don’t lie,but the people who use them do 😉

    My problem with the whole helmet debate resides in the preachy & judgmental nature of both sides of the argument.

    Causal relationships can’t be well formed without controlled repeatable tests. Laboratory condition do not necessarily equate to the real world, and few who crash and hit are heads are likely to volunteer to do it again, either with or without a helmet (and even if one did, the conditions wouldn’t be 100% the same).

    Are helmets really effective for the conditions I am likely to encounter? I don’t know. Due to liability concerns, few companies publicly disclose their suitability data. Do helmets foster a false sense of security that encourage people to take risks? I doubt it; road rash, sprains, and broken bones hurt regardless of whether you hit your head or not; flesh heals, but Assos and Campy don’t.

    Slow crashes/falls can frequently cause greater injury than faster ones; slamming to the ground vs rolling/sliding.

    I wear a helmet. I thereby put some faith in the fact that it will likely help if called upon, but more importantly, even if it doesn’t help, it isn’t likely to cause any harm, whether I crash or not.

    For those that don’t wear helmets, I don’t judge them. It is an individual decision. I just hope they have health insurance, as I don’t want my tax dollars or insurance premiums to pay for their decisions. While we are all entitled to our opinions, and at least in the US, there is freedom of speech, for those who are preachy om the subject, I wish they’d keep their opinions to themselves; anecdotal observations do not equate to scientific evidence, so lets keep in in context people.

  6. MCH

    As I think back to all of the miles I did in the 70s and 80s without a helmet, my stomach curls up into a knot. All the close calls with motorists, sketchy decents in the rain, all out sprints with the back wheel hopping around, plus all the other day-to-day random events that so easily result in a cyclist hitting the ground….after all that, I can only shake my head and think how lucky I was. Some friends were not so lucky. Then I think about my crashes on the road or the track while wearing a modern helmet. While not pleasant by any means, I’ll gladly trade broken $250 helmets all day long for the protection they provide.

    As for the choices others make? I’ll take the Libertarian, personal responsibility side. Make your own choice and live (or not) with the consequences.

    Helmets aside, nice photo. I miss hanging out before / after a ride in front of that S’bucks.

    Ride safe

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thanks for your comments. It’s always nice to write something that resonates with readers.

      To all of you recovering from injuries (jeez, I had no idea!), please accept the best wishes from us here at RKP and our hope for a speedy recovery.

      I’ll admit my attitude on helmet use is perhaps a little less Libertarian than some. If you’re riding alone, do what you want. But if you come on a group ride I’m on, your equipment should be in good working order and you’d better have a helmet on. I stop for crashes I’m aware of (I ride in some pretty big packs and recently I learned of a sizable crash that occurred behind me only after the ride was over). I’ve tended to a variety of injuries, and was glad I could help my friends, but I don’t see why your vanity should ruin my day. And yes, dealing with the emotions surrounding a crash, calling the guy’s wife (which sucks a melon), sitting around waiting for an ambulance, repeating what I know in fine detail to paramedics and then dealing with the logistics of getting the rider’s bike to his home screws up the better part of a day. Add CPR to it and my week would be wrecked.

      And let’s not forget Benjamin Disraeli’s “Lies, damned lies and statistics.”

      Thanks for reading.

  7. Doug

    I am by no means a defender of Mr. Andersen (surreptitious long-lens photos are kinda creepy), but I don’t think ‘serious cyclists’ were the target audience for his TED speech. I agree 100% that if you are on a long ride in the country, club ride, training ride, gran fondo, mountain bike ride, race etc. that helmets save lives and the value of their protection is far greater than any inconvenience they may pose.

    I also think it is understandable that people in urban and suburban communities (where there is likely to be more bike infrastructure and where risks from other vehicles are different) who only want to get to work, pick up groceries and run errands can feel discouraged from riding a bicycle if they are forced to wear helmets. They won’t be riding fast, bombing long descents, sprinting in a pack. They’ll be riding slowly in the shoulder/bike lane/sharrow/MUP. Whether or not they wear helmets should be their decision based on their perceived risk. Ideally, traffic routes and roads would be designed and maintained to accommodate safe cycling, all but eliminating the need for helmets.

    1. Author

      Doug: Andersen didn’t distinguish types of riders and, worse, suggested that all helmet use is bad. There’s no way to slice that into a reasoned or reasonable argument.

      But I’m completely with you on the surreptitious long-lens photos; they totally creep me out.

  8. Carl

    I really don’t care if others don’t want to wear helmets, but the argument that they’re unnecessary seem to go along the lines of the the old auto safety arguments about holding onto the steering wheel and being thrown clear of the car — they pick a single style of potential accident and focus how in that particular scenario, the safety device is useless or worse. Okay, maybe I’m not likely to hit my head on the pavement on any given ride — but my head has been hit by other things much more often than it has hit things. I’ve been hit in the helmet by bottles (intentional), rocks (not), tree branches, things sticking out of trucks, and other things that all would present some risk of injury. I rode in the pre-helmet days and suffered three concussions, generally acknowledged as too many, so I’m not taking chances anymore.

  9. Mr. Fly

    A controversial topic for sure!

    Needless to say, I support the right of individuals to choose. I own two nice helmets and do wear them regularly. I’m already in a colorful and tight lycra outfit so an odd-looking headgear isn’t going to make me “less Rapha”.

    Nevertheless, if one examines at the topic objectively, a few items really jump out. For example, how much does the testing and thus validated protection of bicycle helmets correspond to real-life situations? How much energy are helmets designed to dissipiate and how does that correlate to the speed and weight of riders? Should a faster and/or heavier rider get beefier helmets, for instance? If not, is that rider less deserving of our sympathy in a crash as a slower and/or lighter unhelmeted rider? If one does not know the amount of protection offered, where does one draw the line of what is enough?

    I work in the pharmaceutical industry and deal with clinical trials on a day-to-day basis, so I have some familiarity with the scrutiny necessary to prove statistical significance (at least enough to have the FDA approve a new drug). Based on what I’ve seen of the published testing methods and what I observe of bicycle accidents (I too rode in packs and suffered crashes), I’ll hazard to guess that helmets may not show meaningful protection, despite the wonderful stories out there proclaiming otherwise. Unfortunately, just because something is *obviously* so, does not make it demonstrably so.

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  11. todd k

    My only complaint with helmets is that the design of some of them make my already huge head appear monstrously large.

    I find the helmet debate a bit baffling myself. I am ok with folks wanting the right to opt out. I may not agree with their choice. And clubs can (and often must for liability reasons) reserve the right to exclude those who wish to excercise that right. But I don’t really “get” the argument some make that having a desire to place something on your head that absorbs/deflects the impact to your skull in the chance of a fall is “on balance” is some how an unreasonable decision.

  12. Souleur

    Engaging article Padraig, and thanks for that.

    I probably fall in to what appears to be the majority on this issue here, that helmets are a good thing and beneficial. Personally, I find it hard to actually believe that some argue (and at times vigorously) that helmets are detrimental. But whatever, many things surprise me now-a-days.

    Personally, mine has saved my life or at least preserved my capacity to live a quality and high functioning life neurologically, without a doubt, as a year ago I took a ‘once in a lifetime’ spill. The helmet split in 5 directions and I walked away dizzy…but nonetheless walked away w/10 stitches to the back of my head and road rash. This year has been a good year, no spills.

    I also ride motorcycles, and ride w/helmets there as well. I see some who purport that ‘to ride w/a helmet’ somehow interferes w/the experience and as noted isn’t really any safer there either as you cannot hear other vehicles the same.

    Fine, don’t wear one. Part of me says just go ahead, its kinda like Darwins natural selection process. Eventually they may see its in their interest to take care of themselves. But there is also a part of me that really does care that perhaps some are out there that innocently don’t understand the imperative need of helmets so truthfully I have no problem for there to be laws to act in the best interst of riders…but whatever, for now I have to take it or leave it.

    Touriste-Routier said it best. Scientifically it is nearly impossible to absolutely recreate reality, and establish absolute cause-effect relationships between helmets and their benefits for us. So we must make judgements based on something else. Experiences, the limited science that is out there which does clearly show benefit in controlled instances and lets just say a healthy dose of common sense. Lets not argue about something based on exceptions, lets argue about realities that repeatedly occur hundreds of hundreds of times and again.

    In the meantime, I will just continue encouraging their use, teaching kiddo’s that are up and comers of their benefits.

  13. Karl

    I always wear a helmet, but I don’t think it should be mandatory. The perception that you must wear a helmet, or wear special shoes, or have special gear at all for riding a bike – is, for many, a barrier of entry into bicycling.

  14. Matt Friedrichs

    Fortunately I have avoided a major crash that involved my helmet, but it did protect my head from the paintball a guy in a car shot at me during my night-time ride home from work in California.

    Even riding cautiously for short distances around home, in bike lanes, on non-busy streets, I feel safer with the helmet.

  15. Robot

    I like to go helmetless, but do it only very rarely, in summertime on the bike path, on long climbs on untraveled roads.

    The rest of the time I wear them because:
    1) I have kids and they want/need a dad.
    2) In Boston, getting three feet from auto traffic is often not possible.
    3) I have been more than a couple times, so I know that is happens.
    4) If you ride, at some point you will fall off.

    Like Soleur I view the helmetless as one unexpected moment from having Darwin yank them off this mortal coil and out of the gene pool. For that reason, I am ambivalent about their personal choice.

  16. Seán

    I have cracked / shattered at least 5 helmets, some racing, one going 2 mph on a city bike path. Each one of those times I would otherwise have ended up far FAR worse off. I would not have survived a few of them, and the others I would rather not have survived with out a helmet. I do not get on two wheels with out a helmet.

    Great article, thank you for publishing it.

  17. David

    Nice article.

    You are right that Dane Mikael-Colville Andersen is mistakenly conflating correlation with causation. I just wanted to add my observation/opinion that he’s making another egregious statistical mistake.

    Risk is not a probability, its an expected value. To know how risky something is, multiply the probability of each type of accident that might happen by the estimated damage caused by that accident type. A 14% higher probability of accidents among helmeted riders can actually lower the overall risk, if the extra accidents are, on average, more than 14% less damaging than the average un-helmeted rider’s accident. And as a matter of fact, that’s exactly what happens, for accidents involving head injury, when you wear a helmet. According to the evidence, you are upwords of 10 times less likely to die if you wear a helmet. The overall risk of death, if a head injury is involved, is far lower when wearing a helmet. To suggest otherwise is uneducated- it ignores the overwhelming evidence. To suggest to others that one is safer when not wearing a helmet is misleading and irresponsible.

  18. grolby

    The helmet issue is thorny, and often personal. After all, there are many cyclists who have had experiences like Padraig’s. I think that his take on what that experience means for helmet use is one of the more sensible that I’ve ever heard, and actually falls along the lines of what data on cyclist head injuries actually suggest: there’s no clear evidence that helmets reduce the incidence of head injuries, and (so far as I recall) that they reduce the incidence of fatal head injuries. But there is very clear evidence that head injury victims who survive and were wearing a helmet have a better prognosis and recovery than those that were not wearing a helmet. So there you go.

    There is a solid argument to be made to the effect that riding a bicycle does not involve an increased rate of head injury compared to (say) walking. This is with respect to the kind of cycling that your “typical” American cyclist does, mind you: slowly, around town, over short distances. I don’t know that anyone has done a study of roadies in particular, but I wear a helmet for long-distance or enthusiastic riding and am otherwise pretty lax about it (on my two mile commute to work, for example). It’s really not that unsafe, but I recognize that other people are going to feel more strongly about it than I do.

    For what it’s worth, and leaving aside both the bizarre conspiracy theories and the fact that Andersen is a sexist, voyeuristic creep, I don’t think that the argument that mandatory helmet laws reduce the number of riders on the road is as weak as you make it out to be. It is certainly true that correlation does not equal causation, but some correlations are more relevant to others. It is important to remember that it is *extremely* difficult, and more usually impossible, to prove causation beyond any doubt. Correlations are used all the time to make important decisions. A particularly important example of this is in the studies that are conducted to determine the effectiveness and safety of a new drug. It is also certainly true that having more riders on the road does a lot more to protect cyclists from drivers than does a helmet (helmets aren’t rated for protection from vehicular impact), so measures that might impact the likelihood of people choosing to ride a bike to run an errand or go to work rather than drive should be taken seriously.

    So, it’s not implausible that mandatory helmet laws could reduce the number of non-enthusiast cyclists. The rub is that Andersen needs to do more than simply plot the correlation for us; he needs to provide solid reasons to disregard possible confounding factors, good arguments for the discouraging effect of such a law, and so on. And he really needs to avoid absurd conspiracy theories. Perhaps, better yet, the community of cyclists could use a spokesman who is not a paranoid, misogynist twit.

    On the other side of the fence, advocates for mandatory helmet laws should provide convincing evidence that requiring helmets would have a real impact on public safety.

    The tough thing about this topic is that it really touches an emotional chord in people, and so arguments really take an emotional, rather than reasoned tone. On one far end, you have people who fiercely believe that helmets are in fact hazardous, for any number of reasons, or at best are a conspiracy theory to make people to afraid to ride bicycles (they overlook that no conspiracy is required to make people unnecessarily fearful of safe activities). On the other far end, you have far more individuals than are really plausible who would be dead without their helmets (they tend to overlook how little impact force it takes to mangle a helmet). It’s nice to engage in an indoor-voices conversation about this.

    My take is: if you don’t wear a helmet for tooling around town, that’s really no big deal. And if you’re spending a lot of time out on the roads, you probably should. It certainly can’t hurt.

  19. Ervgopwr

    I agree with Doug. I watched the TED talk today and Mikael was preaching to the choir in my urban utilitarian cyclist self. Even though he never mentioned different groups of cyclists and their helmet use, I think it was obvious.

    We all get it; racers need helments. In all disciplines, motor, moto, bicycle.

    About daily drivers and their lack of helmet use, this is the equivilant of the bicycle commuter and their need for lack of speed.

    Also we all get that anything could happen at any time. But I suspect most of you don’t walk around with helmets on. And that should be your choice.

  20. BikeRog

    Four weeks ago I hit something in the road while I going about 22 miles per hour and went careening through an intersection. I left a lot of skin on the road, sustained a small break in my hand, and severely bruised ribs. During the crash itself, I was not aware of my head hitting the pavement, nor was I aware of it immediately afterward. Some people helped me over to a bus kiosk, and I called my wife who came and picked me up, then drove me to urgent care.

    It was only then, when I took my helmet off, that I noticed a skid mark on it where I careened along the pavement, and the helmet was cracked in front of, and directly behind the skid mark.

    While the blood and bruises got the attention of the urgent care folks, I was beginning to become aware of those invisible concussion symptoms: headache and wooziness. Over the next few days I noticed I was periodically depressed, and very tired–also concussion symptoms.

    They’ve all gone away now and I’m back on my bike, but had I not been wearing a helmet, I’d have suffered a much worse concussion, if not a fractured skull.

    My helmet did its job and died for my sins. And I, for one, won’t throw a leg over the saddle without wearing one. After all, you can go down at five mph as easily as you can at 25, and hitting your head from that distance can be dangerous regardless of speed.

    I don’t care about whether helmet laws ought to be mandatory or not; I’m too much of a libertarian for that. But I think anyone riding without a helmet is foolish, and riding without a helmet seems as silly to me as playing football, hockey, or lacrosse without one.

  21. sophrosune

    I would like to say that I’m in agreement with the idea that we should have the right to choose whether we wear helmets, or not. But I also agree that unnecessary medical bills affect all of us. Finally, I would like to add another personal experience of mine. I was riding my bike around the Central Park loop one hot Sunday afternoon, and I was racing around with another guy staying just in front of me. We had gotten up to the northern part of the park and there weren’t quite as many people as before and we were on a short downhill. To our right up ahead I saw a couple roller blading. The man was spinning the girl from one side to other and I sensed immediately this could get dangerous. Sure enough the man spun the girl right into the cyclist in front of me. Fortunately, the cyclist who I had been taiing around the park was wearing a helmet, but the girl was not wearing one. She died the next day after they took her off life support. Like I said, to each his own but accidents don’t really discern between whether you’re on a sportif and a run to pick up the milk.

  22. James

    I’ve been wearing helmets on all rides since the early 80’s…the days of the “skid lid”. My decision to wear a helmet wasn’t because I had crashed or because I lived in a hell hole like Phoenix, AZ (back then you took your life in your hands to ride on the streets of metropolitan Phoenix, hopefully things have improved). No, my decision to wear a helmet was driven by my wife. She didn’t want to be married to a vegetable if I had a run in with a car (of which I had many). Today I feel naked if I don’t have a helmet on and the only time I don’t is when I have been working on my bike and I do a quick test up the street and back.

    If people like DCM Anderson don’t want to wear a helmet more power to them, though they won’t get any sympathy from me when sustain a severe head injury. You don’t have to be going fast or carelessly to sustain a severe head injury. I also realize that a bike helmet may not do the job, but I at least stand a chance of retaining my faculties…

  23. Mr. Fly

    Robot wrote: Is it just coincidence that no one has written an “I crashed with no helmet, and this is what happened” story? Or are they all dead?

    OK, I crashed a few times without a helmet and I’m not dead. Anyway…

    I am a bit distressed to see that a lot of people had already made up their minds that helmet efficacy is a given, and the assigned efficacy is quite large. Life-saving even. There is even a bit of disparaging remarks and suggestions that cyclists who don’t wear helmets are foolish, undeserving of our sympathy when in an accident, or somehow driving up healthcare costs. I don’t want to be a contrarian but helmet efficacy isn’t necessarily established. Just because something is so *obvious* does not necessarily make it true.

    Being *so very sure* of something oftentimes closes one to other possibilities. Consider that it was *obvious* that the sun revolved around the *obviously* flat earth, for example. Although presents some data, presents others that is worth a ponder.

  24. sam

    Before all of us (myself included) helmet-wearing, bicycle-style athletic and racing enthusiasts wear ourselves out with the copious back patting, I think there could stand to be a bit of reality check. We say we wear the helmets for safety (and we even think we mean it), but do we not often times spend enormous amounts of money on our racing helmets, striving to get the lightest, fanciest, most ventilated piece of plastic that met the minimum testing standards? I will not deny that even the lightest lid is likely better than nothing, but if cranial safety, long term health, our friends, and our loved ones were really our number one concern, we’d probably look for something a little more substantial. A giro prolight is a far cry from the kind of headgear that other sports require when they really want to protect a noggin. Heck, i’ve cracked and dented racing helmets just from dropping them, and that’s with no noodle inside. Now I’ll tell anybody that i strap on a helmet before a ride for safety, but I think if I’m being totally honest with myself, it’s largely just habit left-over from race day, and because it matches the kit, because otherwise I’d probably be wearing something that I couldn’t destroy just by sitting on it. I imagine lots of us are in that same boat here.

  25. kcr

    Robot, I crashed on my commute to law school without a helmet on a few months ago. My front tire washed out on some wet concrete. I hit my head – not hard enough to get a concussion, but hard enough to have me worried about it all day. I was under the impression that since I was commuting at slow(er) speeds, on a bike path, away from cars, I didn’t need a helmet because the probability of crashing was so low. I was, however, reminded of the huge potential injury when my brother asked: “Can you imagine getting a head injury? It could ruin your semester, your law school experience, even your career.” So I wear a helmet all the time now, because one crash can be devastating, and that crash isn’t necessarily going to come when I’m kitted up for a real ride.

  26. Marco Placero

    I’ve decided to stop riding helmetless. This discussion has gelled previously viscous grey matter.
    Although I rode senza casco maybe 4 times a year, my rule has always been solo base-level training only. I’ve ridden road bikes for many years. I have no dependents. I have health insurance. I ride on sparsely traveled rural roads in hilly Northern California. I’d like to think my bike is safe. When I rode helmetless I took extra precautions with bike handling. I see pros here and in Italy training helmetless frequently.
    But, I’ve witnessed firsthand the effects of a serious head injury to a loved one who suffered a fall at home several years ago. She recovered miraculously after brain surgery and a lot of loving care. But according to the doctors she could have easily remained permanently at or near her conditional status just after falling. Her brain was deformed by the injury, but due to treatment, love, her general resilience, and maybe some divine assistance, somehow her brain regained its shape and she recovered fully.
    Before she recovered, she was not the person I knew. If a helmet will contribute one iota to sparing my loved ones from the agony of seeing the effects of a severe head injury, I’m wearing it going forward. This discussion cemented my decision. Thanks Padraig and everyone.

  27. MCH

    Padraig: You got me thinking about my Libertarian stance relative to riding in a group without a helmet. I think you make a good point. Perhaps there’s a broader topic to be explored here: group ride etiquette and personal responsibility. For example showing up to rides with all the stuff needed to fix your own flats, replacing water bottle cages that eject your bottle after hitting the first bump in the road, bringing a couple of bucks so you can buy your own coffeee – hell, maybe even buy your buddy’s coffee once in a while, etc. etc.

  28. Chromatic Dramatic

    Geeze you’re game… any discussion on helmets, how reasonable or otherwise, is ALWAYS like to cause flame wars.

    Personally, I totally agree with you.

    Yes, a helmet might not do much in the sad event of being run over by a Range Rover. But I know I’ve had many “user error” accidents, ie my own fault where I’ve been personally glad to have been wearing a helmet. The most notable being the time I got my wheels caught in tram tracks, and over the side I went.

    A helmet saved a world of pain that day.

  29. resty

    If I was living in Copenhagen, I wouldn’t be wearing a helmet. But in the mountainous, 3rd world place I live, I certainly wouldn’t want to ride without my helmet.

  30. Bikelink

    “I have good health insurance.” 1) health insurance doesn’t always cover all hospital costs. 2) if you get injured you’re adding to everyone’s costs when health insurance does pay…so take precautions…it’s not actually all your own money (unless you pay completely out of pocket). 3) brain damage is bad…death is bad…data shows likely benefit…isn’t that enough?

  31. Pingback: Civil : Red Kite Prayer

  32. K

    Oh helmet debate, are there any of my favourite web sites you will not infect?

    I mostly steer clear of the debate but since I consider rkp to have a more esteemed writer/readership, here goes…

    Andersen doesn’t differentiate between types of cyclists because racers/sports riders aren’t even on his radar. There is the utilitarian urban cycists and nothing else. Padriag, I wouldn’t take it personal. Part of his drive to discourage helmets no doubt came from the time he spent living here in Melbourne, the most intense crucible of the helmet debate. I could imagine to a European from Denmark or the Netherlands, we must look quite outandish.

    If you are going to partake in an activity that involves racing at speeds with little more than 25mm of rubber to grip the road, a helmet is a no brainer. I’ve grown up in a city with mandatory helmet laws, I’d like to hear some insights from older U.S. riders about their perception of helmet use before and after it was made mandatory by the UCI. I suspect making the peers wear them settled most doubts in sports riders minds.

    Given the ridiculous things we do when riding our bikes-the crazy costumes, the footwear, embrocation(!) putting on a helmet doesn’t even register on the weird scale. The logic of “better off with it” is rock solid.

    But try fitting helmets into the civilian, everyday, bicycle-as-part-of-our-urban-landscape and it gets murky. It’s not clear that they make any difference to our safety. Seatbelts in cars were a no-brainer, it was clear they made a difference so they were mandated.

    Now we’re stuck with the helmet law. Should we get rid of it? We’d like to encourage cycling. The Euro’s who have no helmet laws have higher rates of cycling and lower injury rates. The thing is most people would say “better off with it”, so the law stays. So how about this…

    In Australia a study was undertaken that showed that even with seatbelts and airbags, helmet use in cars would significantly reduce the severity of brain injury in 25-40% of cases (I think that’s what the conclusion was, the trick in statistics is often in the wording). I think if you went back and ran those numbers through your local road safety stats, you’d get a number that was much higher than the amount of brain injuries cycling generates with or without helmets.

    So, do you support the wearing of helmets in cars? After all, you’re better off with it. I think most people would say no. But they’d say yes to cyclists wearing helmets because…they have no intention of ever being a cyclist. Andersen does himself few favours by painting it as a conspiracy theory, but he’s right. People are often too afraid to cycle, despite driving being arguably more dangerous. And instead of making a world where people are encouraged to ride, we ask them to put on a helmet and wish them the best of luck. Because we earnestly think they’ll need it.

  33. Katherine

    I’m with todd k and surely others (I’m at work … I had to stop reading all the comments). I just flatly don’t understand the vehemence with which many object to wearing helmets at all. If it’s socially acceptable, not wildly uncomfortable and safer than going bare-headed, why not?

    I live in a small, bike-friendly town and still don’t trust the drivers around me (and, frankly, I don’t trust myself to ride perfectly), so I’ll take the minor annoyance of having to deal with a helmet inside a store (clip it to my backpack) or restaurant (put it under the table with my purse or on the back of the chair with my bulky winter coat – same types of annoyances) or just keep it on my head for quick errands (am comfortable enough with myself so as not to be concerned with my public image).

    That is all. I really have nothing to offer to this debate other than, really, “why not?”

  34. Elle

    Colville-Andersen doesn’t call it The culture of fear as you suggest. As he himself says in the talk, there are many books and essays written on the subject.

    How can you prove that your helmet “saved your life”? Did you reenact the crash without wearing a helmet and then compare notes? Or are you relying on ‘belief’?

    A helmet is designed to protect the head from non-life threatening injuries in solo accidents under 20 km/h. sounds like you exceeded that. which makes it likely, from an industrial design point of view, that the helmet saved you from a big ouch on the noggin but not much else.

    I’m pleased you’re alright! But rationality really should be the new black because this kind of emotional pornography is getting tiring.

    1. Author

      Everyone: Please welcome Elle from to the conversation. For those not familiar with the organization, from what I’ve learned in the past, takes a very skeptical view of the value of bicycle helmets and spends much of its time attempting to debunk studies that purport to show any benefit to cyclists wearing helmets.

      Elle: Would you say that’s a fair assessment?

      When I watched Colville-Andersen’s presentation, after referencing a book with the title, he went on to use the phrase twice before the four-minute mark, and he used the phrase in a way that I took to mean he endorsed the phrase and believed the mindset to exist. Certainly, he used many examples of products manufactured based on that mindset. In short, he did use the phrase.

      I never wrote that the helmet “saved my life.” I saw the question as meaningless. I don’t think my accident would absolutely have resulted in my death had I not been wearing a helmet. A thorough reading of the piece shows that what I believe is that my injury would certainly have been more severe. I do think that the way I hit could have resulted in my death, but I’m anything but sure on that point. It was one of several possibilities given the circumstance.

      Colville-Andersen is obviously a bright guy and his quest to get more people using bicycles for transportation in urban centers is a quest I fully support. Based on his demeanor in his presentation, I think I’d enjoy his company; he seems immensely likable. However, it is my personal belief that discouraging people from wearing helmets without distinguishing at all between user groups is not only irresponsible, but reprehensible as well.

      You seem to be skeptical about the value of helmet use. Given that trying to replicate an accident such as mine without any safety equipment is so ludicrous as to border on sociopathy, let’s ask a different question: Tell us, what’s wrong with using a helmet? How can wearing a helmet hurt? I honestly can’t come up with an argument against helmet use except for the impinging on the appearance of someone with elaborately coiffed hair, and as I don’t benefit from looks as good as Mr. Colville-Andersen’s, I have little to worry about.

      As to your charge that what we have engaged in is “emotional pornography,” I utterly dismiss it. To say something is “emotional pornography” is to suggest the writer has created a work meant to titillate or agitate the reader out of context, rather than engage them in a larger, rational discussion. I have done nothing to try to agitate the reader. I would say a better example of “emotional pornography” is Sarah Palin’s “Don’t retreat—RELOAD!”

      The readers before you who have commented on this post have agreed, disagreed and in at least one instance changed his mind on the subject. I think that’s a fair rebuttal to the idea that this has been an irrational and emotional polemic.

      Thanks for taking part.

  35. Bikelink

    @K: all good points, but I think they are separate issues. Overall, I’d say it’s not a zero sum game…if society wanted, we could have multiple good things happen, not just have to choose from one (e.g, more helmet use but no cycling riding training).

    -Yes we’d (everyone on this blog!) like to encourage cycling, but not unsafe cycling.

    -Bike riding training is great and offered to new riders (kids and adults) in various programs where I live (Philadelphia; though very small programs, I’m sure). Much more is needed, of course.

    -Helmets may help in cars you are saying…perhaps we should wear them then. I understand that the idea that seatbelts would be widely used seemed ridiculous at one point in time, too.

    -Anecdotally we all know or have heard stories of people who fell over going slowly (not racing/training), hit their head, no helmet, and died or had severe head injury. I’m a data man by trade, but it also strikes me as a “do we really need a study to show that if you fall on your head a helmet helps” kind of question (e.g., not as bad a jokey kind of way… like doing a study to see if parachutes help with skydiving).

    Anyway, thought I’d share my further thoughts. If I HAD to choose, I’d wave my magic wand and say #1 everyone gets cycling riding training, then #2 everyone wear a helmet, then #3 more people get out and ride…but again I don’t think it’s multiple choice.

    Someone also commented on lots of riders in northern Europe, fewer helmets, and fewer injuries. Well, I think it’s safe to say that we all agree that helmets are one piece of the puzzle, and other factors may differ between Amsterdam and Philadelphia.

  36. K

    Padraig, I’ll try to summarise some of the arguments against helmets, but like I said, mine is the Melbourne perspective where we have helmet laws.

    There is some argument that a helmet can cause a different type of accident on contact with the ground, making the straps pull the head in an odd way and stretching the spine/neck. How true this is, how prevalent and how it measures up to the danger of skull impact trauma is as far as I’m aware, uncertain. I do think that when it comes down to research papers at 20 paces, nobody really wins, so I don’t much buy into this one.

    There is a measured effect on the overall safety of cyclists when cycling rates increase. That is, the more people cycling, the greater the relative safety of cycling. Motorists are more likely to look out for cyclists, etc. Cycling rates have dropped significantly after mandatory helmet laws are introduced. I don’t have figures but it is possible that drop in cycling rates after helmet laws came in lowered the relative safety of cycling. Helmet laws protecting our skulls were exposing every other part of our bodies by taking away our safety in numbers.

    When we convince ourselves that cycling is a dangerous activity (and every objective discussion on helmets inevitably starts with a preface about how dangerous it is) we are less likely to ride. Now RKP readers accept that danger because they want everything there cycling offers them – excercise, time with friends, embrocation, etc. But cycling as an urban transport mode when you have other options available truly suffers under this. There is an irony that by convincing ourselves that cycling is dangerous, it actually becomes more so.

    And finally, with the drop in cycling rates we all get a little fatter. This kicks in further down the road with an increase in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Good luck to anyone trying to effectively measure that one.

    So while an individual putting on a helmet is demonstrably safer, making society collectively do so may not. And thus the opposition to helmets.

    Cycling fatalities in Australia dropped after helmet laws came in but they’ve dropped at around the same rate as pedestrian, driver and passenger rates. It’s hard to prove conclusively that a massive increase in helmet use made much difference and it’s looking increasingly like getting cars into line was the real factor. Thus Andersens point about “taming the bull”. Which I tend to agree mostly with.

    I get a little despondent when people say “Europe’s different to us, just put on the helmet and shut up”. I believe we’re deferring our chance to make the world a better place. If it means spending money on infrastructure and calming traffic, then do it. The pay offs of this return in a multitude of ways, our safety is just one of them. In the meantime, wear your helmet if you so desire but especially if you intend on dropping the hammer. When I was in The Netherlands I saw one person wearing a helmet. It matched his full Rabobank team kit and Giant bike. I’d say helmets fit pretty comfortably with the racing crowd these days and that’s not a bad thing at all. But keep some perspective on the place of cycling in the world at large.

    1. Author

      K: It’s hard to respond to your comment because, as I see it, as soon as you define cycling as dangerous, cycling loses. I believe cycling carries risks, but it is not an inherently dangerous activity. Let’s take a different sport, one I used to participate in quite often: rock climbing. I believe rock climbing, when engaged with ropes, harnesses, securing protection and, yes, even helmets, carries some risk. Things can happen despite the best-laid plans. Rock climbing without the aid of any protection is dangerous. That is to say, danger generally connotes a situation in which no precautions have been taken to mitigate risk, and a poor outcome for the participant seems all but certain. Driving a car carries a much higher degree of risk than cycling does, based on accident statistics, yet no one defines car driving as dangerous.

      I’m not sure what your point was about only seeing one person in the Netherlands wearing a helmet. I spent two weeks in the Alps last summer and every rider I encountered (and I encountered French, German, Italian, Swiss and even Dutch cyclists) was wearing a helmet. Are you suggesting that helmet use should be mandated according to terrain?

      No protective device is perfect in all circumstances. People have burned to death in car accidents because their seat belts jammed in the course of an accident and they couldn’t get out of the car. Would you therefore argue that seat belts should be abolished? To do so is foolhardy. Helmet design has evolved to address the very issues you site, but the helmet remains an imperfect safety device. That does not, however, render it useless.

      Again, I’m not saying everyone needs to wear a helmet. My point is that to argue against all helmet use is irresponsible. A bicycle helmet is a valid and useful device. I suspect if you encountered someone who advocated the abolition of air bags and seat belts you’d call that person a sociopath. Imagine if every car accident carried with it the likelihood of driver and passengers being ejected from the vehicle. How would we feel about that carnage?

  37. TucsonMTB

    Please keep up the inspirational writing, Padraig. Thanks to you, I just found a helmet that matches the black, white and yellow color scheme of my Scott Addict R4, Team Columbia no less. Walter Mitty has nothing on me.

    So, for the first time in decades, I will probably start wearing a helmet on the road. Yeah, I have several fancy, fairly light, helmets that I often wear while mountain biking, ’cause I’m clumsy around rocky descents but, usually not on the road. We will see. If this works out, my wife will be ecstatic.

    And if I continue to ride unscathed past my 66th birthday, it may be partly your fault, Padraig. Here’s hoping the responsibility for keeping an old curmudgeon on the road is not too great a weight on your soul.

    1. Author

      TucsonMTB: Your long life is nothing I will ever deserve credit for. I’m sure you’ll be here for years to come, and if RKP has added to your enjoyment, then I get to sleep a little easier, that’s all. Thanks!

  38. blacksocks

    There’s an old saying in the cycling helmet business: “Show me exactly how you’re going to crash and I can build a helmet for it”. Since it’s generally believed that it is impossible to accurately predict the future, cycling helmets are designed around considerations for what we’ve learned from the past.

    That said, a few things I think are worth mentioning:

    #1 – Every helmet has limits to what it can and can’t do. The bottom line is that no helmet can offer a guarantee that it will save your life (see statement above for reason why).

    #2 – Generalized statements about what a helmet is, or is designed to do, (such as the statement made in this thread that “A helmet is designed to protect the head from non-life threatening injuries in solo accidents under 20 km/h”) are misleading and based on assumption of the facts, not specifics. For instance, that statement completely ignores the multitude of specific types of helmets, and the applications they were designed for (car racing, fire fighting, deep sea diving, rock climbing, etc). The person making that statement assumes that we’re all talking about a specific helmet, without confirming that assumption. This level of detail and this type of casual logic have to be considered when addressing this topic.

    #3 – It might be worth mentioning that a common misconception about cycling helmets is that they’re designed to “keep you from cracking your head open”. That’s not necessarily the case. The primary consideration is to reduce brain injury by absorbing impact energy that causes injury to the brain. But they can also reduce the chances or severity of other injuries, like abrasions, skull fractures, etc.

    We all have choices, abilities and responsibilities. Ride accordingly is my motto.

  39. ball of foot

    I guess I fall into the “make your own decision” camp; like many here, I always wear it on long rides but often don’t for short rides around town. But I don’t go bare-headed because I think a helmet is useless; rather, I consciously accept some higher degree of potential consequence because the chance of incident is in my judgement lower and I feel the added convenience to be a worthwhile trade-off.

    Ellie wrote: “A helmet is designed to protect the head from non-life threatening injuries in solo accidents under 20 km/h. sounds like you exceeded that. which makes it likely, from an industrial design point of view, that the helmet saved you from a big ouch on the noggin but not much else.”

    Some form of this argument always pops up in helmet debates, and it always strikes me as a basic failure of logic. It just doesn’t follow that if an accident exceeds the design parameters, the usefulness of protective gear automatically falls to zero. It seems far more likely that even when pushed well beyond its design limits, a helmet should reduce the probability of serious injury, even if that probability remains high relative to a less-severe accident.

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