Friday Group Ride #82

Until I was about 25, I had never worn a bike helmet. I went through my entire childhood, riding BMX, my soft melon of a head exposed to the predations of pavement and dirt. I hurled myself, full speed, at ramps made of plywood scrap, propped up on loose brick or, on a good day, a couple of cinder blocks. I tore through the woods, whizzing past pine trees and flying off red clay dirt jumps with nary a care in the world. I was oblivious to the very concept of ‘concussion,’ and my parents were equally unconcerned.

Parenting in the ’70s was a much more laissez faire affair.

So yesterday, in the office, we were talking about helmets. None of us wanted to have the great helmet debate, but there we were. And then Neil said, “Here’s the thing. If someone told you, you could never wear a helmet ever again, would it change the way you ride? Would you stop riding altogether? Would you ride different bikes?”

And Joe said, “I would never ride a mountain bike in the woods again. I would probably get rid of my road bikes. I would get a single-speed cruiser, with coaster brakes, and a large basket, and that would be it.”

For all the times I’ve said, “I don’t know for certain that a helmet makes me more safe, but I’m willing to err on the side of caution given the possible consequences,” I’ve never taken the time to consider the question in the absolute terms Neil proposed.

So now I put it to you. Forget the helmet debate. Are they good? Are they bad? Do they make you more safe, less safe? That is not what we’re doing here. All we’re doing is answering the question: If you could never wear a helmet, how would it change your riding?


Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International



  1. steele

    I ride equally on and off road. It wouldn’t change my on road riding, but it would cause me to think a lot more about my mountain biking, and probably result in less fun in the woods. Its kind of a stupid question, because the modern helmets are so light and well vented, why would you ever go without one??

  2. JayLo

    I took mine off during the heat of the day on a long climb last week. It was my first time riding without a helmet in a LOOOOOOONG time. I felt completely naked and unprotected.

    It would definitely change my riding here in the foothills of CA, where we often have very little in the way of shoulder on the roads and I routinely break 50mph on the descents.

    Off-road, no helmet is a non-starter. For me, at least.

  3. gsoroos

    I think it would change the way I ride, but not by much. I think I would be a little more cautious in traffic, and possibly do even less group rides with people I don’t know. I don’t do extreme mountain biking, so no worries there. Possibly be a little more cautious in singletrack.

    The way I look at it, life is risky. I wear a helmet for just a little more protection. It could be the difference between life and death, but it’s no guarantee.

  4. Doug P

    It wouldn’t change much for me. Maybe I would be a little more cautious off-road, but I’m already pretty cautious. Helmets make sense, but on the other hand, the recent trend towards life resembling the proverbial “rubber room” kinda brings out the reactionary in me. And as for the “your disregard for safety affects me ’cause I might pay for your medical care” statement, that makes no more sense than the “your big car makes me choke” statement. The path of lifestyle judgement leads to unmitigated self-righteousness.

    1. Padraig

      Thanks for your comments everyone.

      I hope you’ll bear in mind that Robot’s question isn’t, “Should you/do you wear a helmet?” But, “What if, suddenly, there were no helmets?” We’re assuming that those who don’t wear helmets now would change nothing, so they’re not a part of this conversation. This is meant for all who believe a helmet is a meaningful and helpful device.

      Suppose for an instant some administration decrying the nanny state takes over and passes a law that makes it impossible for a company like Easton Bell to sell helmets. I know, impossible, but just suppose. If someone took away your helmet, how would you ride?

  5. grolby

    To be honest, I usually go without a helmet when I do short rides around town, to commute (2 miles each way, mind you) or go to the post office. Whenever I’m going to be out for a while, I put the helmet on. The point is that I’m used to the sensation of riding bareheaded, and it does not bother me. So would it change the way I ride if I could never wear one again? I would be more nervous in group rides or races, where the proportion of variables under my control is smaller, but I wouldn’t stop doing these things. Off-road, I think I would be even less concerned – I have no data to support this supposition, but I think the risk of head injury is actually lower. Keeping in mind that I don’t huck big air or race downhill.

    Not to bring the helmet debate into this, but it bears mentioning – helmets undoubtedly are beneficial. The question is, compared to what? Cycling compares pretty well to everyday life when it comes to the general risk of suffering a head injury. The benefit of helmets lies mostly in the prognosis if you do suffer an injury. The point is only that the feeling of vulnerability is a reflection of our learned associations of “helmet” and “safe.” We don’t have nerves that are capable of telling us what our statistical risk of injury or death is. And you can come to grief with a helmet on as surely as you can avoid death without one. Remember, Casartelli died bareheaded, and Weylandt died with a helmet. The lesson is not that helmets are useless, but that you should ALWAYS approach fast descents with the knowledge that a high-speed crash is very, very dangerous to your health.

    If you feel much safer descending at high speeds with a helmet than you would without, my view is that you need to SERIOUSLY RE-EVALUATE YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF RISK. Feeling that you need to slow down on a high-speed descent without a helmet on is logically identical to feeling that you can safely go faster when you are wearing a helmet. This is a completely normal cognitive fallacy, but it is still a fallacy! My view is, if taking your helmet off would make you descend slower, you should probably be descending more slowly anyway. You are very unlikely to escape a 50mph crash without serious injury, no matter what is on your head.

    In short, no, I don’t think I would ride very differently. The aspects of cycling that are risky without a helmet are still risky with one. I wear one, of course – it definitely gives you better odds – but I try not to let it affect my behavior.

  6. grolby

    Doug P – is concern for the impact of individual choice on the well-being of a larger community inherently self-righteous? I don’t think so, but I don’t bring it up to argue the point, I just bring it up to point out that your point seems ideological, and a bit of non sequitur with with respect to the question of WHY you would not change your riding.

  7. Rhys

    OK, so if the question is “What if, suddenly, there were no helmets?”, I guess the following question would be: “What’s worse: riding my bike without a helmet, or not riding my bike?”

    However, that is setting up a false dichotomy. Because it’s not an either/or situation. Because I don’t think many of us would want to completely stop riding bikes. So the answer is: I would ride more cautiously.

  8. Author

    @RHys – Let me reveal a bit more of my hand. You say you would be more careful, but I would argue that would be a temporary state of affairs. Risky behaviors get normalized pretty quickly, assuming they don’t result in injury. I think this explains the death of so many free solo rock climbers. I’m not trying to equate the risk of that behavior to that of riding without a helmet. I’m simply saying, normal in the ’70s, before the helmet boom, would become normal again, in the absence of helmets.

  9. Author

    @James – I almost always wear an RKP hat under my helmet, if only to hold all the brains in when I, inevitably, scramble them.

  10. Ransom

    Not much, and taking advantage of posting after Robot’s clarification, I do think it would mostly be temporary.

    Of course, the mode in which one rides is always changing. With or without helmet my mindset gets little adjustments depending on mood, weather, how recently I’ve seen someone do something dumb in a car or whether anybody I know’s crashed recently.

  11. Charles Arndt

    Helmet saved my life once in a crash during a finishing sprint. If I couldn’t wear a helmet, I’d probably give up road racing.

  12. James

    My response echoes Jonathon above. My wife would leave me if I didn’t wear a helmet. She means too much to me and I respect her opinion.

  13. Paul

    In Europe, far more people ride bikes than in the USA, and hardly anyone wears a helmet, at least not for casual, urban riding, commuting or the like. I also grew up (in England) never wearing helmets, and never thinking twice about it. Nowadays I would not go out without one, partly because it is instinctive to wear it, but also because I don’t trust the traffic on roads that are far more crowded than they were in the 60s and 70s. However, in your scenario, I would not stop riding, and I am sure that after a while it would seem normal to ride without a helmet again.

  14. Author

    @All – Further clarification: I always wear a helmet. My wife wouldn’t appreciate me riding without one (she loves me), and I also respect her too much to be blasé about it.

    I just thought it was a neat flipping of the discussion to think about how helmet use has affected our thinking about safe riding.

    And as Ransom says, the way I ride is constantly evolving. I’m getting better at it. I’m getting safer. But, I’m also better at calculating my risks to maximize fun. I’ll bomb a descent when I think I can do it safely, but I don’t ALWAYS bomb it, thinking I can figure it out as I go.

  15. Ben

    I wouldn’t race or do group rides beyond my close/trusted friends. Cyclocross seems somewhat reasonable to me though…. As long as ther’a not too much in the way of trees and the like for me to hit. Can I wear one of those cool ’70s leather hairnets instead? If not I’m sure a RKP hat could protect me as well as any helmet right.

  16. Simon

    I seem to recall that when reading the standards sheet which most bike hats meet I was – to put it mildly – more than a little surprised that we cyclists cough up so much dough for something which provides such poor protection. I wear one – it’s the law here – but I don’t labour under the misapprehension that it’ll do too much other than make it easier for the emergency services to collect the bits afterwards.

  17. Pascal

    I don’t know how it would change my riding. Maybe it would change at first and then I’d be back up to my old ways again after some time passed. It really is just a perception thing. You perception is malleable and can change whether you mean it to or not. Some folks are likely more sensitive to a change like this (one that changes your sense of self-preservation) than others. Just like some people are more comfortable bombing a descent than others, all other variables (bike, helmet, gloves, glasses etc) being equal.

    My bet though, is that I would be more cautious and slow down a bit.


  18. Dan O

    I’m also a child of the ’70s. We jumped homemade BMX bikes, rode skateboards, bicycles were also transportation, rode everywhere – sans helmet. Never hit my head once. Pure luck? Maybe.

    Out of the hundreds of hours (thousands?) of exposure, remember two friends getting hitting their heads hard riding bikes. One a concussion for sure, along with a broken knee cap and wrist (impressive crash). Another probable concussion (thinking back on it), but bike ridden home.

    I worked in a bike shop during the early ’80s. Selling helmets was barely thought of, 99% of folks rode bare headed – me included. The only reason why I purchased one in 1986 was to enter mountain bike races, since it was required. I still never wore it riding or training – races only.

    I didn’t start wearing a helmet full time until 1990 or so, when the lighter versions came out. I still occasionally cruise the neighborhood without one. Even so, there’s a helmet on my head 99% of riding time. Modern helmets are so comfortable, no excuse not wearing it. It’s a like a seat belt – good insurance. Riding for years with a helmet, recall hitting my head pretty good twice. Not hard enough to break the helmet, but sure glad I was wearing one.

    With that long winded intro, if helmets suddenly vanished – if wouldn’t change my riding at all. I ride off road: old school XC, no real jumping. On the road: commuting and fun rides. With a few decades and zillion miles of riding without a helmet, before they became common place, it would feel normal again after a short time riding without it.

    The idea of “riding slower” without a helmet doesn’t allows pan out. I know someone who fractured their skull riding across a parking lot at walking speed. Then I’ve witnessed high speed crashes with no injury at all. Spin the wheel and take your chances, speed isn’t always a factor – but certainly can be.

    Fun discussion/argument. In any event, I’ll be wearing my helmet – most of the time…

  19. sophrosune

    If I could never wear a helmet again, the first thing I would do would be to detonate a series of neutron bombs around the world so I could ride my bike without fear of other humans. The only problem that would remain would be the final human: me. And the majority of accidents I have been in were caused primarily by me. It’s a problem.

  20. Jmal

    I would continue to ride, and I would ride in exactly the same way I ride with a helmet. Riding is part of my life and I think it is more important to get joy out of life than live in fear of possible risks. I am also well aware that there is a large portion of my body exposed to the dangers of speeding cars, etc. even with a helmet. It in no way makes me feel entirely safe from or immune to injury.

  21. randomactsofcycling

    As a kid I did a lot of things, including jumping my BMX off ramps that were taller than I was, that are now considered stupid. It seems Kids can’t build tree houses anymore without building certification!
    I would continue to ride without a helmet. I would definitely be more choosy about who I rode with and I would be less likely to hammer the descents when riding in a bunch.

  22. atwelchs

    I would have to admit that I am biased due to a recent event that occured to me two weeks ago. I was finishing up a 50 mile road ride before heading to work and was traveling back through a higher populated section of city when from oncoming traffic a pickup turned right into the side of me, launching me forward and ultimately to the ground, hard. I ultimately suffered from a broken clavicle, scapula, and two cracked ribs, but looking down at my helmet that was cracked in three places, I realized it could have been far worse. This accident was no fault of my own and if the driver had been paying attention I never would have hit the tarmac, however, I feel the busier we all become compounded by the lack of time we have mixed with more and more people in the world adds up to more and more chances of these type of collisions. There are simply too many variables. So that being said, if I could not wear a helmet, I would probably take up running… which I hate!

  23. armybikerider

    I remember fondly, riding in the early 80’s sans brain bucket both on and off road. Now, the Army mandates that I wear a helmet, always – so wearing one is a non-question for me.

    But, to answer the question, nothing would change for me if there were no helmets. I take as many precautions as possible now and would ride the same regardless of what was on my head.

  24. Carl

    I’d only ride where people were not going to throw bottles at my head, and where trees and rocks couldn’t hit it. I’m not sure where that is . . . there’s no place like that around here.

  25. lawhaas

    I would like to begin by saying that I had on of my worst crashes on a singlespeed cruiser with big wide bars….
    -It would not change my riding at all….I remember my Mom freking out that I wanted an $80- Giro foam helmet with that sweet stretchy cover.
    Now $80 is nothing for a good racing helmet. I now wear one and make sure my Kids do the same. I am not one of those parents that makes their kids wear one and the adult doesn’t….drives me crazy..

  26. mack

    Tough question considering I fell on the way in from a hard ride 4 weeks ago. We were in the cool down and tell stories part of the ride. The front tire went flat in a slow turn and slid out from under me. Cracked the helmet. Just cruising in and then on the road. My friend who preferred no helmet is now on a helmet kick. If helmets did not exist I would ride without one, but since they exist I will wear my new one.

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