Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Opinionated Blogger Friday: To Helmet or Not To Helmet

Democrat vs Republican
Montague vs Capulet
Star Wars vs Star Trek
Madonna vs Gaga
Tastes Great vs Less Filling

For some reason, people like to get into pointless, drawn-out arguments that benefit nobody, and often wrap their self-image up in whatever side of the conflict they identify with, to the point that any argument for the other position seems a direct personal challenge. 

Cyclists, with a few exceptions, are people, and in spite of our obviously enlightened judgement in transportation choice, can be prone to the same pointless squabbling as other sectors of society. In particular, among those who ride for utility there has been a long-running and unnecessarily heated debate about whether or not to wear helmets while riding. 

On the pro-helmet side, the argument runs that helmets reduce the severity of head injury in the event of a crash, and lower the risk of death or permanent brain damage. The anti-helmet side often argues that helmets don't actually do all that much good and may actually increase the risk of crash or injury. 

Probably where this argument gets the fiercest is in the debate about laws that would require adults to wear helmets any time they ride a bicycle on the road. People on the strongly Pro-Helmet side argue that it would lower fatalities and reduce the burden on society caused by hospitals full of brain-damaged cyclists. Those on the strongly Anti-Helmet side argue that forcing people to wear helmets will make people quit cycling in vast numbers and establish in the public eye that riding a bicycle is inherently dangerous activity like BASE jumping or juggling chainsaws.

 I think the degree of vehemence on either side of the debate is often a little bit silly. I've read numerous articles, reports and studies, which were then followed up by studies that claimed to contradict whatever the previous study had shown. Based on all this reading, and about a dozen years in the bike industry, I've formed my own opinion on the subject (and no, I'm not going to link to ANY of the bazillion articles or studies I'm talking about. With my luck this would be the one thing I ever write that gets read by more than six people, and someone would have to post a link to a study that contradicts what I linked. Then someone would feel compelled to link to something else to argue with that, and so on into full on Link Battle. If growing up in the 80s taught me nothing else, it's that link fights, like Tic-Tac-Toe and Global Thermonuclear War are games that nobody wins). 

I have written about my opinion on helmet use before, and I'll sum it up again here. 

 Helmets do seem to help in some cases, and may save you from serious head injury or death in some crashes. And it does seem that in a large number of fatal bicycle crashes, head injury is the cause of death, so if you're going to protect anything, the noggin it should be. 

On the other hand, life-threatening bicycle crashes aren't that common, and in a lot of cases (especially ones involving cars), a the forces at work may be beyond what a helmet can protect against. 

From what I've seen, both through firsthand experience and through my reading, is that the situations where a helmet is most likely to be useful are 
  • Racing
  • Off-Road riding
  • Stunt riding
  • "Sporty" riding (high speed road riding for example)
  • Riding in icy or in slippery conditions
  • Young children or inexperienced riders
  • Riding WITH young children or inexperienced riders
(that last is because when you're riding with a kid, first you're setting an example, but you're also dividing your attention between where you're going and the wobbly, swerve-prone kid riding right next to you). 

Some situations where a helmet seems LEAST likely to be needed are
  • Rides on dedicated bike paths
  • Commuting on roads with bike lanes or relatively light traffic
  • Leisurely pleasure rides
You may be completely safe riding trails without ever wearing a helmet (although I've managed to hit myself in the head any number of times with low branches, rocks kicked up by tires and on one occasion my own bicycle, so that's the LAST place I'd ride helmetless), and you may get yourself into serious trouble riding through the park (especially if you run into unruly dogs or the aforementioned wobbly kids), but generally, the more aggressive the riding, the more likely you are to crash, simple as that. 

Personally, I wear my helmet MOST of the time when I ride, especially if I'm out mixing with car traffic. I may ride helmetless for short jaunts around town or on hot days when I'm more worried about heat that crashing, but at this point it's a habit for me. 

There are other reasons I wear a helmet, which are not directly related to impact protection. First of all, I usually put some reflective tape on my helmet, so when I ride after dark it makes me a bit more visible. Secondly, in my mind at least, wearing a helmet and riding a well-maintained bike marks me as someone who WANTS to ride a bike to get around, as opposed to someone forced to ride because my driver's license was taken away. There's a very common perception, at least where I live, that the only reason you'd be riding a bike to work is because you'd been busted for drunk driving. 

The final, and perhaps saddest reason I normally wear a helmet has to do with perceptions of responsibility. Regardless of the truth of the matter, one of the signs of a "responsible cyclist" is thought to be regular helmet use. If, God-forbid, I should get knocked over by a car, and end up in court over insurance money or whatnot, one of the inevitable questions that comes up will be "were you wearing a helmet?" You an argue (correctly) that this is dumb, but that doesn't mean it's not often true. 

Personally, I'm opposed to mandatory bicycle helmet laws for adults. I think educating more cyclists about safer riding techniques (stay off the sidewalk, ride with traffic, etc), make much more difference. Educating drivers about how to behave around cyclists and putting a bit of money into infrastructure to make streets more bike-friendly will also go a long way to reducing cycling injuries, but those kinds of things cost money, as opposed to just yelling at cyclists for not wearing helmets.

But if you ask me outright, "do you think I should wear one?" I'll tell you yes.  I figure if you're on the fence about it, helmets are cheap and relatively comfortable these days, might help and won't do you any harm, so you're better off with than without.

But whether you wear one or not, just don't get all preachy about it.

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