What's wrong with bicycle helmets?

by Michael Bluejay

Many readers are surprised that I don't make a big deal on this site of insisting that cyclists wear helmets, especially since wearing helmets is what most people equate with bike safety.
And in fact that's one reason I avoid promoting helmets in the first place. The idea that cyclists should wear helmets is already so much a part of the collective consciousness that it doesn't make any difference whether I encourage helmet use or not. So instead I focus on what people haven't heard elsewhere: How to ride safely. Let's face it: nobody is going to wear a helmet just because I say they should. People will not be motivated to action hearing something from me that they've already heard a thousand times before.

But it goes further than that: Focusing on helmets distracts people from what's more likely to actually save their lives: Learning how to ride safely. It's not that I'm against helmets, I'm against all the attention placed on helmets at the expense of safe riding skills. Helmets are not the most important aspect of bike safety. Not by a long shot.

Unfortuntely, helmets have become a panacea: Many parents and city & state governments think they can slap a flimsy piece of styrofoam on a kid's head and they've done their part to make sure that kids are safe. But it's actually the opposite. This approach is akin to outfitting somebody with a flak jacket and then having them run through a firing range. If you had to choose between giving a child a helmet or the education about how to ride safely, you should choose the education and ditch the helmet every time.

Of course you don't have to choose, but the point is that most people are choosing, and they're choosing the helmet only. Helmet laws are popping up all over the country, but how many of those same jurisdictions are mandating classes in how to ride safely? Almost none. That's what the problem is: A misguided focus.

 

Two big problems with helmets?

Again, there's nothing wrong with helmets per se, what's wrong is the attitude towards them, thinking that they're the first and last word in bike safety. If that's the definition (and that's pretty much how people view helmets) then there are two big problems with that:

  • A helmet does nothing to prevent a cyclist from getting hit by a car.
  • The effectiveness of helmets in preventing injury is severely exaggerated.

At this point helmet supporters are jumping up and down with rage and reaching for their email (believe me, I hear from them), so let me be clear about this: Saying that helmet effectiveness is exaggerated is not the same thing as saying that helmets are useless. I don't believe that helmets are useless. I think if you want the maximum protection possible you ought to wear one. But I also believe that if you think a helmet will do as much to protect you as you probably think it does then you're kidding yourself.

Helmet use among U.S. cyclists was nearly non-existent before the 1990's. Nobody wore helmets in the 80's and before. So what happened when helmet use skyrocketed in the 1990's? Head injuries went down, right?

No, head injuries went up. Let me repeat that: When cyclists started wearing helmets in larger numbers, more of them suffered head injuries. There's a big article about this in the New York Times, showing that head injuries among cyclists went up 51% in the 1990's.

I'm not suggesting that helmets caused the head injuries; there are other plausible explanations for why head injuries increased (more attention to helmets and less attention to safe riding skills being one of them). But what I am saying is that the protective value of helmets is so small it's hard to measure.

Most of us have heard that "bicycle helmets can prevent up to 85% of head injuries". It's worth noting that if helmets actually prevent only 1% of head injuries then that statement is still correct, because of the "up to" bit. A 1% effectiveness rate is still "up to 85%".

But many times the phrase is printed without the "up to", stating flatly that bike helmets "prevent 85% of head injuries". Typically, no source is ever cited for this 85% figure. Everyone believes it anyway, so who needs a source, right? But where did this 85% figure come from, and is it accurate? The answer is that it came from a flawed 1989 study, and it's probably wildly inaccurate. The study was roundly criticized in the Helmet FAQ by the Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling and by CycleHelmets.org, which states:

This paper is by far the most frequently cited research paper in support of the promotion of cycle helmets. It is referred to by most other papers on helmets, to the extent that some other papers, and most helmet promotion policies, rely fundamentally upon the validity of its conclusions.

The claims that helmets reduce head injuries by 85% and brain injuries by 88% come only from this source, yet are quoted widely as gospel by people who know nothing more about cycle helmets. The prospect of achieving such massive reductions in injuries to cyclists lies at the root of helmet promotion and mandatory helmet laws around the world.

Those who have taken the trouble to analyse the paper in detail, however, have found it to be seriously flawed and its conclusions untenable. (more...)

They also note that not a single case examined in the study involved a collision with a motor vehicle.

CycleHelmets has other good information, such as a chart on their front page showing that countries with the most helmet use also have the most head injuries. This is important enough that it bears repeating: countries with the most helmeted cyclists also have the highest rate of cycling head injuries. And of course the converse is true: cycling head injuries are much lower in countries where cyclists don't wear helmets very much.

Some believe that helmets can actually promote injuries in various ways. One way is that they effectively make the cyclist's "head" much larger, so with a bigger head a falling cyclist is much more likely to slam it against the road or a car (causing traumatic brain injury because the brain is still slammed against the skull), or possibly even breaking the cyclist's neck. Patrick Goetz points out another possible problem with helmets:

With some trepidations, I've actually been wearing a bicycle helmet for recreational road biking, However, [a recent car-bike] accident points clearly to one of the problems with helmet usage: I can no longer hear cars coming up behind me since I've started wearing a helmet It's quite unsettling to be biking down a quiet rural road and suddenly have a giant, noisy pickup blast by completely unanticipated. There's something about how the wind passes through the air vents that greatly attenuates sounds from the rear (and perhaps otherwise).

 

Putting things in perspective

It's funny how dramatically perceptions have changed in recent times. As recently as the 80's virtually nobody wore helmets, and no one thought anything of it. But today cyclists are considered stupid and irresponsible if they don't do something that nobody did the first 80 years that cycling was around. Today some motorists feel it's their obligation to scowl and yell "Get a helmet!" at unhelmeted cyclists.

And this brings up another point: The motorists who are so insistent that cyclists wear helmets aren't wearing helmets themselves. This isn't silly: crash helmets could potentially save more lives for motorists than cyclists. About 38,000 motorists die on U.S. roads every year compared to fewer than 700 cyclists. If helmets are good for cyclists, they ought to be great for drivers and passengers. Why is nobody banging the drum about this? After all, helmets save lives, right?

 

Helmet laws

Another problem with the focus on helmets is that they encourage state and local governments to enact helmet laws. Unfortunately many people don't understand that just because something is a good idea that doesn't mean it should against the law if you don't do it. It's a good idea to brush your teeth. Should you have to risk arrest if you don't?

A similar concept is that just because an activity involves risk doesn't mean you should be prohibited from taking that risk. Skydiving is 495 times more dangerous than bicycling. It makes no sense for the government to allow skydiving on the one hand and to outlaw helmetless cycling on the other.

There are yet other problems with helmet laws. In some communities police have used helmet laws as an excuse to target minority kids. In Austin the last time anyone checked, over 90% of the no-helmet tickets given to kids went to black and Hispanic kids.

Once something normal suddenly becomes against the law these kinds of excesses can occur. In Palm Beach County, Florida a sheriff's deputy handcuffed a nine-year-old boy for not wearing the obligatory helmet.

Another downside of helmet laws is that they discourage cycling. In every community that has instituted a mandatory helmet law, the popularity of bicycling plummeted. In an age of increasing concerns about pollution, global warming, and energy waste, it is irresponsible for governments to take actions that discourage cycling and result in more people driving.

But one of the biggest problems with helmet laws is that the shift the blame onto the cyclist in car-bike collisions, even if the motorist was clearly at fault. The idea is that if a cyclist gets hit by an at-fault motorist, it was the stupid cyclist's fault for not wearing a helmet. This is no exaggeration; this exact opinion has been promulgated by the defense in countless court cases, effectively denying cyclists and their families justice against at-fault motorists. When Ben Clough was killed while bicycling in Austin both the police press release and the article in the local paper made sure to point out that Ben hadn't been wearing a helmet. What they didn't point out at all was that the driver who killed him ran a red light to do so.

Wait, it gets richer. The driver in question was not arrested, paid no fine, served no jail time, and did not even receive a traffic ticket for running the red light. This prompted one local cyclist to comment that the best way to avoid a ticket for running a red light is to run over a bicyclist while you do so. (more on cycling justice issues)

 

Summary

  • Bicycle helmets probably have some protective value, but not nearly as much as has been claimed, or most people seem to think.
  • Wearing a helmet does nothing to prevent you from being hit by a car.
  • Real bicycle safety involves learning how to ride properly.
  • Crash helmets could easily save more lives for motorists than bicyclists.
  • Helmet laws restrict personal choice, may result in the targeting of minorities, discourage cycling, and shift the blame in car-bike collisions to helmetless cyclists even if it was the motorist who was at fault.

 

Pages referenced in this article, and other resources

Book:
The Art of Urban Cycling

The Urban Cycling Manual dismantles the urban cycling experience and slides it under the microscope, piece by piece. Author Robert Hurst discusses how, in America, bicyclists were an afterthought at best when our cities were planned and built, and today are left to navigate through a hard and unsympathetic world that was not made for them--like rats in a sewer. Yet, with the proper attitude and a bit of knowledge, urban cyclists will thrive in this hostile environment. The primary concern is safety, but this book goes well beyond the usual tips and how-to, diving in to the realms of history, psychology, sociology, and economics. It empowers readers with the Big Picture of urban cycling--and gives urban cyclists many useful insights to consider while pedaling the next commute or grocery run. Riding a bike in the city will never be the same. -- by the publisher

$14.95 - Buy Now

How to Not Get Hit by Cars

Read our guide about how to bicycle safely.

 

Fan Mail

Splendid! I have been commuting to work year round for several years, and have come to many of the same conclusions you have. You put things very clearly, and there are a few points I hadn't thought of--thank you! I'm going to pass this info around. --Ron Grosslein, Amherst, MA

I would like to say that your site is absolutely terrific. From the title to the last word, it is logical, sensible, and utterly devoted to what should be every cyclist's number-one priority: avoiding death and injury. Way to go! -- Phil Hickey, Boulder, CO

I'm saved! I have got to tell all my friends about this site! (Both biking and non-biking.) Seriously, great advice and great graphics. I am going to try to get our club webmaster to link to you. -- Gerry Maron Carolina Cyclers; Palmetto Cycling Coalition

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Safe Road Riding Game/Quiz

The Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation has an excellent Safe Road Riding Game/Quiz. Most bike safety stuff I see tells you little more than to wear your helmet and follow the law -- as though it were that easy to be safe. But PennDOT's quiz presents real-world scenarios: How do you avoid that car door opening in front of you? What do you do when you're approaching a sewer grate? Good stuff.


Links

See the other sites which link to us.


Note to "Effective Cycling" fans

If you're about to send me an email telling me how stupid the advice on this site is, please save yourself the trouble. Trust me, I've heard all the arguments before (ad nauseum) and I simply disagree. I never write to EC websites to complain that I don't like their advice, so there's no need for you to complain about mine. (Here's more about the the difference of opinion for those wondering what the fuss is about.)


Disclaimer

I have developed this site to provide what I believe is very good advice to help you avoid getting hit by cars. But of course, bicycling will never be 100% safe, and I can't guarantee you won't get hit by a car, even if you follow all the advice on this page. (Naturally, I believe if you follow this advice you will be much less likely to suffer a collision than if you ignore it.) Ultimately, you are responsible for your own safety.