Run for Your Life! The Case Against Bike Helmets

By Dom Nozzi

We are living in a world that is safer than ever, yet we are paralyzed by fear and take extreme, counterproductive measures to be safer. We live, therefore, in an age of hysteria.

Fear is very big business, indeed. A great many people in our society make quite a bit of money when they can induce fear, which helps explain why Americans are led to become so afraid of so many things so often.

Who profits when a lot of people are worried? The media. The medical profession. The military. The police. Pharmaceutical companies. Firefighters. Car makers. Financial advisors. Environmental organizations. The home security industry. The prison industry. The vitamin industry. Even politicians, who have found that fear can effectively be leveraged to garner large numbers of votes.

The list of things we, as a society, are scared to death of seems to grow each day. The media certainly has a vested interest in stoking the flames of fear, since the more terrorized we are, the more newspapers are sold and the more news programs are watched on TV.

The list of irrationally frightful, deadly factors so many of us lose sleep over is seemingly endless. Killer shark epidemics keep us from beaches. Illegal drugs tempting our kids. Snow skiing without a helmet. Cholesterol or carbohydrates in our food. Terrorists – particularly those who might blow up a plane we are on. Genetically-modified or irradiated food. Our kids being kidnapped if they walk or bicycle to school. “Dirty” language or sexuality in our media. Cell phone radiation.  And finally, a long-standing pet peeve of mine, the aggressive campaign to get bicyclists to wear helmets.

How many other things do we do in our lives that are significantly more risky than the above? Things we don’t give a second thought to, yet are profoundly more risky. Driving a car. Eating too much and exercising too little. Drinking and driving. Smoking.  Lax gun laws. Bicyclists who ride through red signal lights (who, BTW, I am often amused to see are wearing a helmet).

Some facts:

  • In traffic accident statistics from the US and Europe, both pedestrians and car drivers in urban settings are consistently shown to be at higher risk than cyclists. The stock road bike is actually the safest as well as the most efficient way to get around a city.
  • Deaths in bike accidents in the US average about 900 per year. For a sense of risk scale: mortality from cigarette smoking is about 400,000 per year; from automobile accidents about 40,000 per year; from skin cancer about 10,000 per year. If we add the collateral damage from automobile driving (about 30,000 dead per year from smog-related diseases), cars kill something like 70 times more people than bikes.
  • The British Medical Association maintains that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.
  • The maximum risk to a cyclist is being struck by a car in traffic. But bike helmets are rated for forces equivalent to falling from bikes, not for the forces involved in being struck by a car at road speed.
  • Most helmets are rated very honestly by their manufacturers as single-impact devices. On the first major impact, the helmet absorbs the shock; in doing so, the foam protective layer shatters. You are advised to replace it after any serious impact, for this reason. The bad news is that serious encounters with automobiles (the biggest danger for adult cyclists) often involve two impacts: one when the car hits you, and a second one as you are thrown, or fall, to the ground. Bike helmets are not engineered for two major impacts in a row, even though this is the type of collision (at speed) most likely to cause fatality or major injury.
  • “A Bell Sport 2000 motorcycle helmet weighs 1700 grams and a Giro Ventoux bicycle helmet weighs 200 grams. Yet the motorcycle helmet only protects against a 12mph impact.” If helmets significantly reduced trauma and fatality rates, one would think that motorcycle helmets in particular (being large, solid, and much more strongly built than bike helmets) would have a consistent net positive influence in US states with “lid laws”. Such is not the case: “Relative to the number of registered motorcycles, states with mandatory helmet laws had 12.5% more accidents and 2.3% more fatalities than free choice states for the 14 year period 1977-90. (Accident and Fatality Statistics, analyzed by A.R. Mackenzie, M.D.)
  • Despite the adoption of bike helmets due to trendiness and advertising in some areas, and the forcible marketing of helmets by state decree in others, there is no statistically meaningful connection between adult cyclist fatality and trauma rates and the wearing or not wearing of helmets.
  • Great claims have been made for the reduction of juvenile cyclist traffic fatalities in the US since helmets became popular, but these proponents conveniently ignore the fact that juvenile pedestrian fatalities declined similarly over the same period: and in each case the simple explanation is that after the scare campaigns about traffic “safety,” many parents started forbidding their kids to walk or bike anywhere. Oddly enough, during the same years US health officials have been appalled by a new trend in reduced fitness among children.
  • The primary effect of the unremitting campaign to “dangerize” cycling (besides increasing helmet sales and plastics industry revenues) is to make more and more people afraid to ride a bike, so that they choose to drive instead — exposing themselves to at least as much real danger. But there is also a feedback loop: their fear-driven preference for automotive transport then increases traffic congestion, thus raising the risk to pedestrians, other drivers, and cyclists. The fewer cyclists there are on the roads, the more dangerous it is for those who continue to ride.
  • Children who are forcibly helmetized can develop a distaste for cycling and a longing to “grow up and get a car” so they don’t have to wear a helmet all the time. Teaching the next generation that bikes are dangerous and cars are safe (and cool) strikes me as a form of harm. Certainly, teaching children that a helmet is all they need to be safe does considerable harm, encouraging reckless riding and contempt for traffic law. And I mentioned above that kids who never walk or bike anywhere do not grow up as strong and fit as kids who have more individual, active mobility. Civic and regional agencies often feel that by enforcing helmet use they have done all that is necessary; they then feel free to neglect other, far more important bike safety issues and continue to prioritize and facilitate auto use. As one gentleman from Austin put it, they want to make it safer for cyclists to crash, not safer for cyclists to ride.
  • As Wardlaw put it in his Dec 2000 paper in the British Medical Journal: “Cyclists don’t need helmets — they need priority.” Instead of getting priority (as a safe, non-polluting, congestion-easing, socially responsible form of daily transportation), cyclists are stigmatized as a bunch of daredevils indulging in a dangerous and impractical “sport”. The helmet hysteria that has been stirred up over the last quarter century has contributed greatly to this stigmatization and false characterization of cycling, and this in turn has caused harm by discouraging cycling and promoting the automobile.
  • In the Netherlands and Denmark, commonly considered the most advanced and liberal countries in Europe, the solution to bicycle safety has been to tame traffic by restricting auto access to residential and shopping districts, reducing traffic speeds, strongly supporting public transit, and encouraging and subsidizing bike riding. In the Netherlands, bike helmets are not only not mandated, but US cyclists who visit there and ride helmeted cause considerable public amusement. In the Netherlands, from 40 to 50 percent of the population commutes to work on bicycles. The notion that Americans think cycling is dangerous is quite funny to Dutch cyclists, who are well aware of America’s pathetic record on gun control! Despite all this “dangerous” unhelmeted riding, the bike safety record of the Netherlands is exemplary, with the lowest mortality rate of any industrialized bike-riding nation. This is because they have addressed the real problem: the cars.
  • Forcing helmets on cyclists is not a progressive move, but a reactionary move that perpetuates the special privileges accorded to the automobile industry and to automobile users. “Dangerizing” bikes distracts public attention from the many dangers of automobile travel. This privileging of the automobile is maintained at tremendous environmental and social cost.
  • There are three groups of people who really benefit from bike helmet laws and the helmet scare campaigns. The auto industry sells more cars to people who are afraid of cycling, and the oil companies sell more petrol. The auto/oil lobby wins. The insurance industry gets to deny more compensation claims: in a helmet-crazed society, any cyclist who has the bad luck to be struck by a careless driver while not helmeted can pretty much count on being blamed for his/her own injuries by police, media, and courts … even if the driver was in violation of the vehicle code at the time of the accident. So the insurance company wins. And of course, the plastics industry and the helmet manufacturers win — they get to sell millions of units to a captive market, in countries with MHLs, and to a scared, insecure consumer base even in countries without MHLs.
  • There’s nothing progressive about an aggressive marketing campaign that plays on public fear, spreads disinformation, perpetuates car-dependency, promotes injustice, and lines the already plush pockets of the petroplastic, insurance, and auto industries.
  • One of the leading health problems in the US (second to tobacco addiction) is poor cardiovascular fitness. One of the root causes of poor fitness is a life with no regular exercise, largely created or even enforced by total automobile dependence. Daily bike riding has been estimated to add as much as 10 years to a person’s life span.
  • Contrary to the anti-bicycle propaganda produced by the helmet law faction, riding a bicycle has a lifetime health impact that is far more positive than negative. A far-seeing public health policy would encourage Americans to ride their bikes every day, and would start to work on dismantling our automotive prison society in which people are literally coerced into owning and driving cars.
  • When all-ages helmet laws were enforced in Western Australia, bike ridership declined considerably and has not yet recovered. If we consider that daily cycling may add years to an individual’s life, then we should conclude that this discouragement of cycling constitutes a negative public health policy.
  • The cyclist who is likely to resist helmetization is much like the ordinary pedestrian who sees no need to wear a full hockey goalkeeper outfit just to walk to the corner store. People who ride at moderate speeds, on even, paved surfaces — not for thrills but for daily utility like grocery shopping and commuting to work — are not at high risk and consider biking a simple, low-impact, normal way to get about. Just like our cyclist friends in the Netherlands, except that in the US the quotidian cyclist is a tiny minority.
  • Cycle helmets provide best protection in situations involving simple, low-speed falls with no other party involved.
  • The average person doesn’t put on special shoes, clothes, or a special attitude to walk to the corner store, and they tend, reasonably enough, to resist having such ordinary activities redefined as abnormal and requiring specialized sporting gear.
  • The helmet manufacturers and marketers seem now to be dazzled by the prospect of unlimited sales opportunities if they enlist national and local governments to force the citizenry to buy helmets for any ordinary use of a bicycle. It’s a pity that so many governments, and so many ordinary people, are buying the hard sell. The net effect is to convince people that cycling is hazardous, encourage them back into their cars, and make the streets more dangerous for the remaining riders. It really is a big deal.
  • Mandatory helmetizing has discouraged cycling, and this at a time in human history when we desperately need to encourage cycling and reduce the use of automobiles. We need a little less attention to common sense; a little less wishful thinking and superstition; and a little more attention to actuarial statistics.

[Source for the above bullets: http://www.daclarke.org/AltTrans/helmyths.html%5D

The Danish, world famous for the enormous levels of bicycling, recently engaged in the hysterical measure of aggressively pushing bike helmets in that nation. One result? Bicycling has DROPPED significantly in that country. That is no coincidence, in my opinion and that of the speaker in the video link below.

It is common for strong bike helmet advocates to conjure up emotionally-charged images such as your “head will be crushed like an egg – it is simple laws of physics,” when arguing that all bicyclists should wear helmets. Of course, these images perpetuate the common mis-perception that bicycling is extremely dangerous and only reckless, crazed people (and “macho men”) would consider it.

The crushed egg metaphor induces hysteria and a call for action to do ANYTHING to increase safety. As I write this in November 2010, we can see how most Americans have become so hysterically terrorized by the thought of terrorists blowing up planes that they willingly accept quite invasive searches they would never otherwise submit to.

Ironically, no one notices the slow-motion deaths of people over the course of several years. The deaths of people who are sitting behind the wheel of a car and dying from the resulting inactivity and resulting obesity. People who are driving because it is “safer.” People who don’t realize that driving instead of bicycling is significantly more likely to result in premature death. People who don’t ever wear a helmet while driving a car, even though head injuries are more likely while in a car than on a bike (on a per-trip basis).

No one gets terrified of dangers, in other words, when an overweight person dies of diabetes in a hospital bed after living a life driving a car. The image is much less compelling – much less likely to suggest danger and evoke a call for safety measures – than an image on the TV news showing a bicyclist killed by a car.

How often do Americans talk about the dead guy lying on the pavement and his head crushed like an egg WHO WAS DRIVING A CAR?

It is not just the Danes who bicycled less when hysterical efforts to get bicyclists to wear helmets was started there. A number of people in nations such as America – myself included – would bicycle less (or not at all) if helmets were required by law. Would I be more healthy or live longer if I drove more and bicycled less? Clearly not.

How many Americans (and others) don’t bicycle because bicycle helmet campaigns create an exaggerated impression that bicycling is dangerous? Apparently, quite a few, given what happened with the bicycle-friendly Danes.

The video below is especially important for those who cannot understand why I don’t wear a helmet while bicycle commuting. Who think I’m being reckless and risking my life. People who need to look at the data (and maybe try riding a bike on a regular basis) before making “common sense,” patronizing comments to me about how I am being stupid for not wearing a helmet.

I agree with the speaker: Why are MOTORISTS not wearing a helmet??

As an aside to all of this, I want to be clear about something: I am NOT suggesting that people not wear helmets. If a person feels more comfortable wearing one, by all means please wear one. What I AM suggesting is that campaigns to aggressively urge all bicyclists to wear a helmet – particularly mandatory helmet laws – are counterproductive when it comes to safety, public health and encouraging more people to ride bicycles.

As I have noted in my blog link below, aggressive or required helmet campaigns “dangerize” or inconvenience bicycling. It is clear to me that to the extent that dangerizing (sending non-bicyclists the message that bicycling is very dangerous) discourages some (perhaps large numbers) from bicycling.

To the extent that bicycling is discouraged, public health declines as more citizens are sitting behind the wheel of a car more often (and are more at risk by driving a car).

In addition, I am firmly convinced that the most effective way to improve bicyclist safety is through safety in numbers. Because helmets discourage bicycling, bicycle safety for myself and other bicyclists declines.

What can be worse, in this time of troubled economics, environmental and public health, and energy scarcity, than discouraging bicycling?

This is a must-see video about promoting bicycling, particularly for those who support the use of bike helmets.

http://video.tedxcopenhagen.dk/video/911034/mikael-colville-andersen

My blog on the topic, for those of you have not yet seen it:

https://domz60.wordpress.com/2010/01/15/bicyclist-safety-and-recruiting-new-bicyclists-are-bicycle-helmets-counterproductive/

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9 Comments

Filed under Bicycling, Politics

9 responses to “Run for Your Life! The Case Against Bike Helmets

  1. Kim

    Great post! We really do have to stop blaming the victims.

  2. I think “safety in numbers” can be outweighed by other factors. If most of the cyclists are riding like idiots (which is the case in much of Florida), having more of them around does me no good as a solo, law-abiding cyclist. Nor does it matter for those many numbskull cyclists if there are more of them; they get into crashes because of their own behavior, not the motorists’ behavior. Indeed, having more of them likely makes things worse for me, since some motorists treat me like crap because I’m “one of those damn cyclists.” (Every so often I get some sort of “you bicyclists” line.)

    On the other hand, if the number of cyclists does not increase, but the behaviors of all the existing cyclists improve, crashes go down for all cyclists, and motorists treat me better, too.

  3. Kim

    @Mighk Wilson
    Odd how all of the research studies (world wide) into the cause of crashes on the roads say that 90%+ are caused by driver error, and yet it is always the cyclist and pedestrians who are blamed.

  4. wreckfish

    OK but I’m still going to wear a helmet. My wheels got stuck in some steel tracks on 9th St. in DC the other night and I went down. I had a fraction of a second to orchestrate my fall so I landed the least damaging way – flat on my side, spreading the impact out as much as possible. Still, my head snapped sideways and my helmet hit the pavement. Other than a couple of scratches, I was fine. Had I not had a helmet on, my head would have hit the pavement. In that one moment, all those years of wearing a helmet and buying into all that dangerizing propaganda paid off.

  5. jimgood

    I ride full-time, year-round, and haven’t had a car since the 80’s.

    My helmet saved my life. Once. In 30 years. I’m sure glad I was wearing it, and I always do. I think it’s foolish, generally, to cycle without wearing a helmet. I also think it’s foolish to ride without protective cycling gloves. Generally. But I could go on to include knee pads, elbow pads, spine protector, etc.

    It’s your choice. Maybe you don’t go as fast as I do, or ride as much in gravel, or on ice. Maybe you’re just going a few blocks to the store.

    Or maybe you, or I, ride differently when we aren’t wearing a helmet. Etc.

    Mandatory helmet laws are at best ineffective, and at worst, they discourage people from cycling, and make cycling less safe. They are about appearing to help, not about really making a difference.

  6. Thanks for your thoughts. I’m glad we agree on helmet laws. It is best to leave the decision on what to wear when bicycling up to the individual. As I’ve said before, I suspect motorists would understand that point better if we passed laws that require motorists to wear a helmet while driving a car. About 95% of my bicycling is on low-speed, well-maintained asphalt streets. And only for a few miles at most.

  7. Dan

    The foam inside the helmet should compress, not break.

    People forget that helmets introduce new dangers – rotation of the head being the primary issue, due both to binding against the road and the elongated shape. It’s just physics folks.

    Bicycle helmets are particularly dangerous for children because the foam is not designed to collapse on a child’s head, thus transferring the full impact to the skull. They also add weight and size, both increasing the stress on the child’s neck and increasing the chance that the head will make contact.

    It’s actually odd that people who ride fast advocate helmets because they’re very people for whom helmets definitely provide no protection.

    If your helmet hit the pavement how do you know your head would have if your head’s size hadn’t been extended by a helmet?

    I’ve been riding for 35 years. I’ve hit my head once and considering where I hit it a bicycle helmet would have been nothing other than a liability. I don’t wear one, and I will not allow my child to wear one.

  8. THANK GOODNESS, finally I have found someone who understands how I feel about this issue. Four months ago, I came off my bike. The simple truth is, I wasn’t looking where I was going because I was talking to my friend. A dog ran across the road (real rural area – it could have been a groundhog or any such wild creature) and I flipped off the bike. No, (shock horror) I wasn’t wearing a helmet! I never do, and in my at least 15,000 miles on the bike, this was my first fall of any significance. I broke 6 ribs, fractured my scapula and had a partially collapsed lung. I had a small superficial lesion on my head. This injury was listed as the least serious. I was chastised at the hospital by the doctors for not wearing a helmet. I was continuously asked by friends and acquaintances “well, are you going to wear a helmet NOW?” right after the fall. A lot of pressure was put on my by such people that I ‘should’ wear a helmet.
    However, my points are that first of all, this is the first fall I have had in 11 years involving at least 1500 rides. Pretty low fall rate. Plus, I had this bad of a fall, and STILL my head was just fine. Not nearly as injured as the rest of me. No one suggested I wear body armour!! The whole control thing in the name of safety drives me nuts.
    Am I wearing a helmet when I ride now – Like hell I’m not!!

    Keep up the good work – I LOVE your article with brilliant references to actual information regarding the wearing of helmets.

  9. Pingback: America Has the Lowest Level of Bicycling on Earth: What We Can Do to End the Shame | Dom’s Plan B Blog

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